13 Powerful Classroom Management Strategies for Redirecting ADHD Learners
“During class this morning, I just blurted out, and then I was so frustrated with myself. I wish I hadn’t said that. I’m just so impulsive.” My daughter who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) said this to me one afternoon as she recounted the day’s events. She never exhibited ADHD issues until the summer when she developed Tourette’s Syndrome (TS). Her blurting out, in this situation, was not a tic. It was her ADHD manifesting itself in impulsivity. Imagine having been neurotypical for twelve years, and then in a matter of weeks, developing significant brain abnormalities. It’s very interesting to talk to her because she remembers what it is like to NOT have the brain differences associated with TS and ADHD, and yet now she battles them on a daily basis.
It’s easy to feel like the ADHD child is intentionally choosing their disruptive behaviors and unphased by the classroom management plan. Often, they are as frustrated by their behaviors as their teachers, peers, and parents. Students do not want to be unable to find their work or remember to bring their assignments to class, powerless to control the verbalizations, at a loss to stay on topic, and ineffectual at restraining their impulsivities.
ADHD is an overarching term that includes three subcategories:
HOW COMMON IS ADHD?
A bit of a misnomer, ADHD is really a disorder in executive function—the skills that manage the brain. It usually shows up in boys at an earlier age than girls, and symptoms are usually demonstrated by the age of twelve. Research has shown a notable increase in diagnoses between 1997 and 2016. According to the Jamanetwork, in 1997-1998, 6% of children and adolescents in the U.S. were diagnosed with ADHD. By 2015-2016, 10% held that diagnosis. In addition, the Center for Disease Control confirms that 10% of children in the United States ages two to seventeen are diagnosed ADHD while the National Institute for Mental Health puts that number at 11%. Subsequently, a teacher can easily expect to have two children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in a typical mainstream class of twenty students.
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THE ADHD BRAIN?
ADHD is a true medical condition that roots in differences in brain development. There are four areas in the ADHD brain that differ from the neurotypical brain:
- The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for organization and self control. It helps students to focus their thoughts and regulate their behavior. ADHD students may struggle with impulse control and often can be identified by how messy their desk is and how many items they have forgotten, misplaced, and have strewn about.
- The Reticular Activating System in the brain is a relay system among pathways entering and leaving the brain. A difference in the reticular activating system causes ADHD children to struggle with inattention as well as impulsivity and hyperactivity.
- You might see ADHD show up in students’ inability to regulate emotion due to limbic system differences.
- Students with ADHD have differences in the basal ganglia of the brain which regulates brain communication. Deficiency in this area can become evident in inattention and impulsivity.
Children with brain differences are not intentionally seeking to disrupt the classroom, but it often feels that way. It can seem as if you call their name a hundred times a day! Calling the ADHD child’s name to stop a behavior or get their attention is a natural response, but unfortunately, using their name to get their attention and correct them often riles them up. It stimulates their brain and reinforces the negative behavior that you are calling on them to stop. Fortunately, there are a variety of strategies for classroom management that can help you redirect ADHD and other distracted learners in your classroom.
The www.additudemag.com website is a valuable resource for teachers and parents of ADHD children as well as ADHD adults. I have addressed some of their ideas below as well as some of my own strategies developed over years of teaching.
CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES FOR REDIRECTING DISTRACTED LEARNERS
- Use the student’s name in your lesson. Calling the student’s name to redirect them is not helpful because it rewards the brain for the negative behavior. However, calling their name in the context of the lesson is an appropriate, purposeful strategy for redirecting without specifically calling them down! This natural use of their name within the context of the lesson draws their attention to the lesson, but does not reward the brain for a negative behavior.
- Circulate around the room while teaching. The closer you are in proximity to the ADHD student, the more likely you are to have their attention. By moving while you teach, you are in physical proximity to engage, instruct, and redirect your students. Pausing at their desk reminds them to focus or reengage without a word having been spoken or attention being drawn to them.
- Provide or allow the child to use a fidget. Fidget spinners were all the rage a few years ago. But do they really help? It depends on the child and the teacher’s implementation in the classroom. Many children genuinely benefit from a tactile stimulant in their hands. There are a variety of fidget objects that are worth exploring. I have noticed with my older students that play dough and putty help many of them to have busy hands and focused minds. Squishy balls, flipping bike chain toy, sensory rings, mini gear shifters, pencil end fidgeter, and other kinesthetic objects are options for keeping busy hands active so that their brains can be engaged.
- Gently touch the student’s shoulder. This strategy draws no attention to the child and doesn’t interfere with the lesson; yet it provides a quick reminder to resume the desired behavior.
- Send the student on an errand. Sometimes you have real errands on which you can send the student. However, sometimes there’s not a legitimate need for an errand runner at the same time that an ADHD student needs to move. Make arrangements outside of class with another teacher to receive your “messages”. These “messages” may be nothing more than an envelope holding a blank piece of paper, but the student doesn’t have to know this. They just know that they get a legitimate excuse to leave the classroom and move their body!
- Start a discussion about a lesson to make it more interactive. Sometimes they really need to talk rather than listen! If you are teaching and they are getting distracted, engage them with some questions and let them answer on scratch paper or with a partner.
- Establish eye contact and speak while looking at them. This nonverbal approach to communication tells the other person that you think they are important. When you look at students, you engage them without having to speak their name. It’s so much easier to focus on someone who is focusing on you.
- Ask your entire class to stand up. What? Stand up! Sometimes students need to move and increase the oxygen to their brain. Even if you don’t want to segue off of your line of thought, you can continue teaching while students stand. I do this all the time when teaching college students. Having them stand reengages them in the learning.
- Use a secret signal with the ADHD child. If a child has to be redirected constantly, they will eventually get embarrassed and try to save face by intentionally drawing attention to themselves. By creating a secret signal with them, you build relationship, but you also accomplish redirecting them without drawing attention to them. The secret signal could be a certain phrase, or a movement.
- Build a relationship with the child. You have heard it said that students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Building a relationship with a student gives you voice with them. If you have a relationship, you can say hard things to them when necessary and they are better able to receive it because they know it comes from a place of care and concern rather than criticism and frustration.
- Put a red and green sticker on children’s desk. Red means “stop”. Green means, “good job”! As the teacher circulates around the room, s/he stops at the student’s desk briefly, only to point to the sticker and give the student eye contact. This allows the teacher to redirect without even using the student’s name or breaking the flow of the lesson.
- Provide frequent movement breaks. Go Noodle https://www.gonoodle.com/ provides a variety of movement breaks at no cost for elementary aged students. Stretching, cross-laterals, and yoga are great brain breaks for younger and older students alike.
- Offer a different form of alternative seating. Offering a substitution in their seating can redirect an off task learner. The goal is to redirect instead of directly confront. If you have a variety of seating options in the classroom and the child is off task, you can refocus them by moving them from a Hokki stool to a stability ball, or some such change. I highly recommend www.wittfitt.com for support in classroom design and high quality seating alternatives. I address alternative seating further in the article “Favorite Tools for an Effective Learning Environment” as I focus on specific tools that can help your ADHD learners.
The bottom line: Redirecting ADHD learners is a powerful key to classroom management because it avoids head-on conflicts and student meltdowns. Through implementation of these redirection strategies, great educators create a environment that is effective and enjoyable. Furthermore, learning improves because we are more effective in keeping children on task and out of the principal’s office. When we redirect we distract students from the problematic behavior and replace it with a better alternative. By using redirecting strategies, the 6.1 million ADHD students in the United States and their teachers, both have less frustration and more success in the classroom!