Optimizing educational outcomes for students with ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, has long been a top concern for educators as they aim to give all students a high-quality education. The challenge may be even more significant today in the wake of the pandemic, which increased referrals for ADHD.
Yet even before the pandemic, one study found over half of children with ADHD experienced problems with school overall. In the same study, parents reported that approximately one in five students with significant ADHD symptoms receives no support.
Fortunately, educators can consider several interventions to optimize the academic experience and outcomes for students with ADHD.
Shining a spotlight on renewed needs for students with ADHD
Nearly 10% of children and teens ages 3 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That share could be growing, as the shift to remote learning and unstructured environments during the pandemic led some students to display symptoms of ADHD that had previously gone undetected.
Research so far is limited, but the nonprofit CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) reported that calls to its helpline increased by 62% during the pandemic, while website traffic grew by 77% from 2019 to 2020. And ADDitude magazine, which reaches those with ADHD, surveyed its readers and found that among that group, 17% of children started taking ADHD medication for the first time during the pandemic.
These elevated numbers likely come as no surprise to educators, says Kathleen Woodward, a nationally certified school psychologist and a senior assessment consultant for Pearson. Educators’ goal now is to find ways to address educational concerns for students with ADHD.
“The education community is now grappling with a whole host of newly identified issues in students who had previously performed well or adequately in school,” Woodward says. “All of a sudden, they were struggling with academics and exhibiting symptoms we hadn't seen before, even to the point of failing.”
Pinpointing the best diagnosis
Managing the symptoms of ADHD can be a challenge for students and their families. Students diagnosed with ADHD can also experience symptoms related to other disorders that can impact learning, such as anxiety, depression and behavior disorders. That can make ADHD complex to diagnose.
“Practitioners both in and outside of schools continue to have concerns about being able to differentiate ADHD from other disorders that have high comorbidity with ADHD,” Woodward says.
In addition, it’s essential to determine whether students exhibit symptoms of ADHD in multiple environments (such as at home and in school) or if the symptoms happen mostly at home. One factor in an ADHD diagnosis is that symptoms happen in two or more places. Understanding what symptoms students have and where they present the strongest can help ensure a correct diagnosis.
5 ways to help students with ADHD thrive
Educators can take several steps to identify the symptoms of ADHD in their students and connect them with the appropriate learning and behavioral supports when needed. Here are five tactics educators can implement today.
1. Enhance your understanding of ADHD.
Woodward says her team continues to encounter many misconceptions about ADHD. A top one, she says, is the mistaken belief that ADHD should be classified as a learning disability. “ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, although it certainly can co-occur with learning disabilities and can impact the trajectory of a student's academic career if the symptoms are not addressed early,” Woodward says.
Knowing what symptoms to look for is key. The CDC offers a list of common (and potentially overlooked) ADHD symptoms to help educators to spot them more consistently.
2. Focus on routines.
Students with ADHD benefit from consistent routines and classroom expectations. “Educators will see success when they provide explicit instructions and reminders regarding expectations for behavior,” Woodward says.
3. Offer multisensory directions.
Students learn in different ways, so it’s helpful to present information in a variety of methods. For example, instructors can verbally share the instructions for an assignment and then write those instructions on the board. Having students repeat the instructions and copy them down can further imprint the information.
4. Provide ample opportunities for physical movement.
Most students struggle to sit still at their desks for extended periods. That can be particularly true for students with ADHD. “Activities that allow for movement give them a necessary motor break, which can help them focus,” Woodward says, adding that hands-on and other movement-related projects benefit all students.
5. Advocate for robust screening.
Universal screening is often embraced as an inclusive way to identify students who would benefit from academic or behavioral interventions and to connect them with the support they need to thrive as early as possible. It can also help educators determine which students would benefit from further screening for ADHD.
School psychologists can leverage digital tools to help differentiate ADHD from other disorders. When doing so, they should consider implementing tools tailored to screen for ADHD. Pearson’s Behavior Assessment System for Children (BASC-3) has a built-in ADHD screener and can be augmented with the Brown EF/A scales, a tool designed to screen for ADHD.
For more tools, resources and other information to help you help your students perform at their best in the classroom and beyond, visit Pearson’s Mental Health And Anxiety Resource Center.