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Attention Deficit Disorder and School Children: Strategies for a Successful School Year

by Marie-Elena Meagher

Philosophy of Education


Attention Deficit Disorder, or A.D.D., is a neurobiological disability that affects up to five percent of all American children. A.D.D. is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Children with A.D.D. utilize glucose, the main energy source of the brain, at a slower rate than people without A.D.D. The imbalance affects the frontal part of the brain, the area that controls attention, concentration, handwriting, inhibition of responses, and depression. This disorder interferes with a person's ability to sustain attention, focus on a task, and delay impulsive behavior. Common symptons include: often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly; often fails to follow instructions carefully and completely; often blurts out answers before hearing the whole question; often has difficulty awaiting turn; often fidgets with hands or feet, restlessness, or squirming.

infrared image of the brain

Teachers cannot diagnose A.D.D. The disorder is a medical problem, not a learning problem. Only a doctor can say with certainty that a child has A.D.D., and only a doctor can prescribe a form of treatment for each individual child. In the past, researchers thought that when a child reached puberty, his or her A.D.D. would go away. The neurotransmitters in the brain would connect, and after age 12, there would be no more problems. Today we know that in 50 percent of the cases, the neurons do not connect, and thus the adolescent continues to have A.D.D. for a lifetime.

Attention Deficit Disorder has been a known disorder for more than 40 years. Yet in most college education textbooks there is only one paragraph about teaching students with A.D.D. This is unfortunate, for most teachers will encounter at least five students with Attention Deficit Disorder during an average school day. The hardest part for teachers is that while the child with A.D.D. looks like any other child in the classroom, this student is really having a difficult time learning and needs help to succeed.

If there is no hyperactivity present, Attention Deficit Disorder is known as A.D.D. If a child is hyperactive, the order is labeled Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or A.D.H.D. For the rest of this article, I will use the term A.D.D. The various strategies I will mention will work with the student who has A.D.D. or A.D.H.D.


My philosophy of education is based on a Chinese proverb:

Tell me, I will listen. Show me, I will remember. But involve me, and I will understand.

Working with children with A.D.D. for the past 15 years, I have found that the best strategies are those that involve the children in filling in the "gaps" in their learning. Many times, when a lesson was being taught, the A.D.D. child was looking out the window or staring into space, and they never learned the concept. Thus, the child enters seventh grade and asks a teacher if the moon and the sun are the same. The reaction of the teacher is usually to say, "Stop being silly." In reality, the child does not know the answer, and so our job is to answer the questions and keep the child involved in learning.


Many students diagnosed with A.D.D. take medications to help them. However, each child is affected in different ways, and therefore they may react differently to teaching styles even with the medicine. There is no one right way to teach an A.D.D. child.

Many of the ideas and strategies that follow are not new, but we are revisiting them in a new way. All of these ideas can be used with all children in your classroom, not just those with A.D.D.

  1. Use of Color

    A.D.D. children are often right-brained and therefore often think in color. A successful strategy that I use is to always give an assignment that has both left-brained and right-brained tasks. For example, when the students make an ad about the Olympics in Australia, they write the ad and then draw an illustration to go with the ad. Each assignment receives two grades: one for the coloring (right brain) and one for the writing (left brain). I use the same idea when we write about the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Trail of Tears, and American soldiers in Vietnam.

    rainbow of colorsTeach students to highlight their reading in color. I model for the students how I use a highlighter to remember information. I put a sample of my highlighted notes on an overhead projector. In my classroom, I have extra highlighters, pens, pencils, markers, crayons, and paper for the students to use. A.D.D. children often forget their materials. If they do not have materials, I supply them. I am in the business of success, not failure. I will never fail a child for forgetting to bring a marker or pencil to class. I am not enabling the child; I am giving them tools for success.

    To help students remember to study for a test, I photocopy the information on blue paper. Thus when the students see blue paper, they know this is important and that they need to save it to study for a future test.

    Color coding can help with organization. Disorganization is usually the main reason a child does not finish his or her homework. My history textbook is blue. I tell my students to get a blue notebook and a blue folder for my class. This helps students organize for each class in the same way.

  2. Study Skills

    Instruct students how to prepare for a homework assignment or study for a test. We model good writing strategies; we should model good study habits. Show children the difference between the types of tests, such as essay, true false, multiple choice, and remind them how to take each kind of test. Remember, just because they are in eighth grade does not mean the children know how to take a test. So review the various forms before you give a test.

    Check to make sure the A.D.D. child has the correct homework assignment before they leave your classroom. Never give verbal homework instructions. Write the homework on the chalkboard where everyone can see it. Assign the homework at the beginning of class. Too often teachers run out of time and rush through the homework assignment. Often, the A.D.D. child, who usually has poor handwriting, will only be able to write down part of the assignment before it is time to leave. They miss the rest of the assignment because it took them longer to write it down.

    teacher with a studentPhotocopy your notes. If you expect every child to know material for a test from your notes, help the A.D.D. child by giving them a copy of your notes. Another possibility (if you expect to give a lot of notes) is to assign a good note taker to help the A.D.D. child. Most children will help another child if the teacher presents the idea in a nice way. So, photocopy the notes of the best writer in the class!

    Have students read out loud at home when they study.

    Have students use a tape recorder when they study. For example, when they need to memorize vocabulary words, students may repeat them into the tape recorder and play them back. The tape player is now a study buddy!

    Let students complete their work on a tape recorder or a computer. Often, students with A.D.D. have poor handwriting, so providing answers on tape or by typing is easier.

    Use self-sticking notes to mark pages that are important. Show the child how to do the same thing.

  3. Teaching Methods

    Vary your teaching style. Be creative and share your creative ideas with others. Use all ways of learning. For example, when studying Great Expectations, read the book; let the student use the CliffsNotes; show the film. Do whatever it takes to help the children make connections to help them remember.

    Share ideas with fellow teachers. If you have an approach that works with an A.D.D. child, share it. Don't keep solutions secret.

    musical notesUse music. Most adolescents love music and can learn the words to songs easily. I have my students memorize the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. Then, for amendments 11–27, they can put the words of an amendment to any tune they want. They can sing in front of the class or put their song on a tape or video. I have the best two weeks of class when we share the amendments. Their test grades have also improved, for they have heard the amendments several times before the test and they hum their tunes during the test!

    Food is another way to help children remember a lesson. I use food when we study geography. We try to sample foods from various countries around the world. For China, a great hands-on activity is to eat popcorn with chopsticks. When we study archeology, we eat gummy snakes to remind us that a famous archeologist, the movie character Indiana Jones, hated snakes.

    When giving a test, have all of the work on one page. Sorting through pages to look for an answer or prompt on another page will distract the A.D.D. student.

    When giving verbal instructions, always maintain eye contact with the A.D.D. child. Avoid multiple commands and try to make complex directions simple.

    Have schedules ready for days when there will be schedule changes. Change is hard for an A.D.D. student. Let the student know when the school day will be different. If possible, let the child know when you will be absent. A day with a "sub" is hard for an A.D.D. student.

  4. Visual Learning

    A.D.D. students are often visual learners. Use film clips or pictures as often as possible to tap into all of the modalities of learning.

    Bring up their schema. These children have gaps in learning, so you need to see what they do know. For example, when we study the American Revolution, we have a Boston Tea Party. On the test, I put out a tea bag and ask what they remember. The tea bag brings up their schema and helps them to remember.

    Hands-on activities and visual presentations are great too. I have each student build a Native American teepee, and then we later build the 13 English colonies. We place all of this on the floor of my classroom. When we discuss, for example, Virginia, I actually stand in the colony of Virginia. I have had the students build Atlanta and then have it destroyed by General Sherman (in reality, Mr. Kelly, the math teacher next door). We have also built monuments from around the world and designed cities of the future.

    The students enjoy these hands-on activities and remember more about each topic because of the visual presentation. A bonus for the teacher is that these visual presentations look great for parent conferences.

  5. Environment

    teachers comparing notesListen to your classroom. A.D.D. students have a great sense of hearing. They often hear too much. If you have a loud heater in your room, get it fixed, for the A.D.D. student is listening to the heater and not you. That also applies to a loud frog pond or aquarium. Never sit an A.D.D. child next to a noisy area that will distract them from learning. This also applies to the chair near the door of your classroom. If there is too much noise in the hall, that will also distract this child from learning.

    If the child gets too distracted, sit next to them. In my classroom, I have a few extra desks. If an A.D.D. child is starting to blurt out answers, I sit next to them and that helps the child to stay on task.

    Let this child move around. This is not the child you want to keep in during recess or study hall. These children have a lot of energy. This is the student that should take the attendance to the office—for the whole school.

    If possible, get two sets of books for the A.D.D. child. Remember, we are in the business of success and not failure. A child cannot do the work without the books—sometimes two sets of books help. Or arrange to have all textbooks at the local library. If the child forgets a textbook, he or she can go to the library.

  6. Personal Interaction

    Never be sarcastic. Help the A.D.D. child feel comfortable seeking assistance; most A.D.D. students won't ask for it. They may be afraid to ask or, in the past, have asked a question and been ridiculed for asking. When a child asks a question, just give the answer. They would not have asked the question if he knew the answer.

    These children need more help for a longer period of time and may take longer to process information. Remember, they may not "get it" the first time. Never assume that if the child would only "try a little harder" the child would do better. Keep in mind this is a medical condition.

    Watch for drifting and daydreaming, especially with the A.D.D. child without hyperactivity. Bring the child back to focus on what you are doing but do not embarrass the child. This may have been done enough times in their life.

    Help the child, but always in a professional manner. Always keep the child's self-esteem and dignity in mind. Stress what the child can do. Try to catch them doing something good and praise the good. Success breeds success. Every child responds to praise.

    Many of these children have problems interacting with their peers. Some of them cannot read social cues; they can not focus on facial expressions long enough to read what a person's face is saying. Often, they are impulsive and make poor choices. They may blurt out personal information. Work with the student to help them learn how to find friends, rather than be the "class clown." Again, it takes a lot of patience but is well worth the effort.

    There is a great deal of evidence that A.D.D. is genetic. This child may have a parent who is A.D.D., thus the child forgot their lunch because mom forgot to make it. Often, parents find out that they are A.D.D. when their child is diagnosed. Communicate as much as possible with the parents. Let them tell you what works at home, and then you can discuss what works at school. Parents, as your partners, are powerful tools for learning. Form an alliance with this child against this problem and you will be helping to make a child's future brighter and successful.


Children with A.D.D. have attention problems; they are not stupid. In fact, many children with A.D.D. have high IQs and are very creative. Have patience; no one said that this child was easy to teach. However, this is not a discipline problem; this is a physical condition. Read books about the right-brained child in the left-brained classroom. You will find more ideas to help the A.D.D. child and all of the students in your classroom.

jigsaw puzzle piecesAim to play a positive role in a child's life, not a negative one. Look for the possibilities of the child, not the failures. Self-esteem is very important. Give credit to these children. Remember, they have made it to your classroom. Do not dwell on the faults from yesterday. How will you help them succeed and make it to the next classroom?

I often think of a child with A.D.D. as a child trying to put together a puzzle. Most people start with the corners when they put together a puzzle. The child with A.D.D. starts in the middle and often does not know how to find the corners. As a teacher, you can help the child with A.D.D. put together the pieces of their learning and form a complete puzzle picture. The child can have a successful, rewarding school year with positive memories. Your reward will be seeing this child succeed.


Canter, L. Homework Without Tears. California: Canter and Associates, 1987.
A great book to help the family help children with their homework assignments. This book also has many ideas for motivation and organization.

Canter, L. Homework Without Tears for Teachers. California: Canter and Associates, 1989.
A great book to help teachers help parents help their children with homework. It includes many ideas on study skills, a homework handbook for parents, and many motivational ideas, plus worksheets and lesson plans.

Parker, Harvey C., Ph.D. The A.D.D. Hyperactivity Workbook for Parents, Teachers, and Kids. Plantation, FL: Impact Publications, Inc., 1988.
A great book that is filled with ideas on how to work with A.D.D. students at home and in school.


Attention Deficit Disorder Association

Children and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder