Attention Deficit Disorder and the Student: Strategies to Improve Classroom Performance

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How Attention Deficit Disorder Affects Students

Running into the classroom, Brad realizes his homework is not in his backpack again. As he takes his seat, the teacher, passing out graded tests, keeps looking at him as he flips through crumpled papers and keeps moving around in his chair. When he looks at his graded exam she places on his desk, Brad exclaims, “Oh no, not again!” He failed another test.

Brad’s story is characteristic of students whom teachers may dismiss as unmotivated, undisciplined, or lazy. The truth is, like many students with these behaviors, Brad has attention deficit disorder (ADD). Although he tries to sit still and pay attention in class, he is unable to do so.

On average, ADD affects at least one child out of ten in every United States classroom, adding up to approximately two million students. The diagnosis of ADD is given to children who consistently display behaviors of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Inattention includes the difficulty of concentrating on any one subject or activity at a time, particularly if the task is boring or repetitive. Inattentive students may easily pay attention to something they enjoy, but find organizing and completing tasks and learning new concepts challenging. Hyperactivity causes children to constantly fidget, squirm, or talk excessively. They may run or climb in inappropriate settings, and have difficulties playing quietly and resting. Impulsivity leads students to act without thinking, blurt out answers in class without raising a hand or waiting for a turn, and guess without taking the time to think about problems and solve them.

Not all children with the disorder, however, display these behaviors. Some children may show the typical signs of hyperactivity, running around constantly and bouncing from one activity to another, while others sit quietly, appearing to be lost in space. Likewise, others may be able to pay attention fairly consistently, but struggle to control their impulses.

Strategies to Help Children with ADD

Treatment for ADD usually follows a multimodal approach, combining medication, family counseling, and individual therapy. On a daily basis, children and teens need clear, consistent routines and schedules to better function inside and outside of class. Students with ADD often learn alongside their peers in the regular classroom, but require accommodations to meet individual educational needs. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students are entitled to receive special education services and classroom accommodations with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IPE should be developed with special education teachers, general education teachers, school administrators, school psychologists, and parents to address the student’s strengths and weaknesses. To strengthen academic skills and weaknesses, the IEP must outline specific activities to improve learning outcomes.

Students can help themselves, too, in coping with the symptoms of the disorder and improving their performance in school. Parents should assist in implementing these strategies.

Use these tips in class:

  • Sit in the front of the classroom to limit distractions
  • Talk to teachers about ADD. Make sure the student is learning in the way he or she learns best
  • Ask teachers to review instructions for classroom assignments and homework
  • Ensure classroom accommodations are received. These may include note-taking assistance and additional time for tests
  • Break assignments into more, shorter due dates rather than a few, longer due dates

Attention deficit disorder and the student: strategies for homework:

  • Use calendars to write down class schedules and to keep track of due dates
  • Make and use checklists to cross off tasks and assignments as they are completed
  • Take advantage of study hall or breaks during the day to work on assignments
  • Ask teachers if they are available before or after school to give extra help. If not, arrange help from a tutor. College students make excellent tutors and sessions will allow students to work at their own pace
  • Choose a specific time and place for homework that is free of clutter, television, and pets. Turn off the phone and e-mail to avoid distractions
  • Ask for an extra set of textbooks to keep at home. Keep extra materials at home, too
  • Take short breaks every ten to twenty minutes
  • Use an analog clock or timer to better understand how long work time lasts
  • Place completed homework in a single “homework” folder
  • Organize backpack, folders, and even pockets, every day
  • File loose papers by hole-punching them and putting them in color-coded folders
  • Set up a homework procedure at school: establish a place where the student can easily find his or her finished homework and pick an appropriate and consistent time to hand in work to the teacher

In coping with attention deficit disorder, students should get regular exercise to deal with hyperactivity and restlessness. Exercise and other relaxation techniques can improve concentration and focus. Students should also recognize and reward their own accomplishments and abilities. Parents can help with this, too!


New York State Office of Mental Health.

The Nemours Foundation.