Because most children with ADHD experience difficulties meeting some of the academic, social, and behavioral expectations of schools, schools need to play a critical role in providing behavioral and academic support for them. Unless your child has especially severe disruptive behaviors accompanying her ADHD or is diagnosed with certain coexisting conditions or disabilities, her needs can probably best be met in a regular classroom with proper treatment and appropriate support from you and the teacher. In fact, federal law mandates that children with disabilities, including those with ADHD, must be educated alongside children without disabilities as long as the regular classroom meets their needs and allows them to make educational progress.
Still, a number of factors within your child’s regular classroom environment—its physical setup, the sense of community that the students feel, the special resources provided, the educational approach used, the compatibility of your child’s and his teacher’s personal styles and, most crucially, the experience and commitment of the teacher and other school personnel—can have a profound effect on your child’s progress.
If you are in a position to choose the school your child will attend, or at least have input into her teacher for the coming school year, thorough research and a well-informed choice can make a great deal of difference to you both.
Your Child’s Classroom
“My son’s first-grade teacher has had a lot of problems with his behavior,” writes one parent of a child with ADHD. “He has a hard time sitting still and focusing on deskwork. The teacher has been talking with me about ways to help him get better at this skill, but I wonder if my son might be better off in a less-structured classroom where he does not have to sit still as much.”
Many parents of children with ADHD believe that a more free-flowing classroom environment may allow them to learn more effectively, in their own way. In some ways, it makes intuitive sense that a child who is not fettered by the constraints of a typically organized classroom will be able to make use of his own unique learning strengths and style at his own pace.
In fact, studies have shown that the opposite is usually true: Children with ADHD often make significantly better progress when the classroom is thoughtfully structured—that is, in an organized setting with clear rules and limits; immediate, appropriate enforcement; and predictable routines. Traditional classroom seating arrangements (desks facing forward) often work better than open-plan designs (students seated around tables or desks arranged in a circle). This type of classroom environment can help to cut down on distractions, thus making it easier for a child to focus and receive and retain information. Like training wheels on a young child’s bicycle, they provide the balance and stability that a child with ADHD may not be able to create on his own.
Smaller class size can be another important element that can help prevent sensory overload and allow the teacher to provide the individual support your child needs. The smaller the class the better, in most cases, with no more than a few students who need special educational or behavioral services. The structure in a classroom can affect your child’s day-to-day academic and social success.
If frequent social conflicts are a problem during instruction time, it is easy to see how these may be avoided if students are seated facing the teacher instead of one another. If your child has trouble staying seated or remaining quiet when this is required, then clear limits and rules can be set with immediate positive feedback for following the rules and some consequences for noncompliance. It may also be possible to make some classroom accommodations. If your child has difficulty sticking to one task, frequent praise and encouragement when he is persistent may help extend his focus. Of course, just as with behavior therapy parenting techniques, a structured environment works well only when it is designed to guide and support a child in positive ways rather than focusing on punishment and over-restriction. The thoughtfully structured routines of the ideal classroom environment should be balanced with a certain amount of variety, flexibility, and humor.
Your Child’s Teacher
The most important member of your child’s educational team is, of course, the teacher—particularly if your child will spend most or all of his time in a single classroom. The most effective teachers for children with ADHD are those who are generally informed and updated about it and the best ways to manage its related behavioral symptoms. If no such teacher is available, focus on requesting one with whom you feel comfortable and believe will be receptive to learning about ADHD from you, your child’s pediatrician, and others.
Training in and comfort using behavior management techniques should be a primary consideration. A natural, structured, and consistent teaching style is also a plus. Finally, teachers who speak expressively and who use a variety of different approaches (lectures, class discussion, audiovisual aids, computers) tend to engage the attention of a child with ADHD most successfully. A teacher who is structured and disciplined, but also dynamic, fun, and engaging, is the best choice for any student, including students with ADHD.
If you have a chance to request a teacher for your child, it can help to ask older students and their parents for advice based on their experience. It can also help to make appointments to speak to prospective teachers about your child and your concerns, and to get a feel for their general teaching style and their working knowledge about students with ADHD.
It is essential that you and the teacher feel comfortable exchanging ideas and planning strategies. You will spend a substantial amount of time together over the course of the school year. If possible, choose a teacher who is not only capable and knowledgeable, but with whom you feel you can connect.
As you think about an ideal school environment outlined in this article, it may occur to you that, in many ways, your thoughts are similar to what every parent wants for his or her child.
- Small class size
- Regular routines
- A teacher who is engaging, interesting, fun, and exciting; who provides a great deal of structure but can also be flexible; and who is able and willing to use multiple approaches to teaching
It may help to remind yourself as you visit schools and talk with teachers that you are looking for what would be best for any student—but that this environment will be especially important for your child with ADHD.