ADD/ADHD in the Classroom: Dealing with Distractibility

In the previous article of the ’ADD/ADHD in the Classroom’ series we had a look at the way in which homework assignments can be managed in ways that will facilitate the learning of those struggling with attention issues. This week we will expand the discussion by profiling some interventions to reduce the incidence of distractibility within the classroom. This is obviously a massive problem as remaining focused is one of the most difficult things for children dealing with ADD/ADHD to cope with. This means that even the smallest “invitation” to shift their attention somewhere else will be enthusiastically taken up. As a teacher you will very quickly become aware when this is the case (e.g. students will be daydreaming, fidgeting, looking out the window or even interfering with the learning of other children). It is up to you to have strategies in place for when this happens.
Here are some things that you can do:
Involve students in class preparation and presentation. You are probably well aware by this time that a passive teaching style is something that is very difficult for the ADD/ADHD student to cope with. The more you can involve him/her in what is actually happening in class the better it would be for learning and retention. This means that you should attempt to get such a student involved in some way as soon as you spot the first signs of distraction. Your response can be something as simple as asking him/her to hold up something or to write something on the whiteboard. You can even attempt interventions that involve the whole class in interactive learning. For example, when you see interest and attention levels drop it is a good idea to break the class up into small groups to discuss what they have just heard or to do some kind of activity. You can even move beyond this by involving students in class preparation. This may seem like a bridge too far but the payoff of asking students to evaluate past lessons and for their thoughts on how the classroom experience could be improved can be tremendous. There will obviously be some students who will think that the whole exercise is a joke and who will make facetious suggestions, so sorting the wheat from the chaff will be very necessary, but that does not mean that you cannot gain some very valuable insights in this way.
Communicate discreetly with ADD/ADHD students. Battling distractibility within the classroom context often runs up against two formidable barriers. It is firstly the case that most students do not realize that their attention levels are slipping. It is therefore very easy for them to drift into daydreaming or even obnoxious behavior without being aware of it. The second barrier is the understandable reluctance of the teacher to embarrass a student by publicly calling attention to his/her behavior. You can scale these barriers by having a private chat with a student who is easily distracted, during this discussion you can offer to help him/her to recognize when they are moving down the slippery slope of distraction. You can also at the same time prearrange a certain signal to let him/her know that it is happening. Be as creative as possible in choosing a signal to communicate this to the student. (You can for example write a specific word on the board, place or take an object from keys his/her desk). Depending on the personality of the student, this kind of communication may be seen as a very positive form of personal attention and interaction.
Build accountability into the classroom experience. One of the obvious results of a lack of attention will be careless and unnecessary mistakes in work submitted by students. If these mistakes regularly occur within the classroom context you should have systems in place to counteract it. At the most basic level you can communicate to students struggling with attention that you will spend a few minutes reviewing their work before accepting it for submission. This may seem like overkill, and may even initially be resented by the students. If, however, you handle it in a sensitive manner it will create a certain level of accountability (“I’d better pay attention because my work will be checked in a few minutes“) that some students will respond very well to.
It should be clear from the above that distraction can be effectively overcome in the context of the classroom. This can only be done, however, if you keep your eyes peeled for even the slightest hint of inattention. If you are able to follow this up with well targeted and effective interventions you will be well on your way to operating a classroom in which learning is maximized, not only for those children struggling with ADD/ADHD but for an entire class of grateful children!