Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurological disorder linked with difficulty regulating attention, trouble physically and mentally organizing things, and trouble with impulsive behaviors. ADHD can also affect one’s working memory and executive functioning (ability to learn, process info, and prioritize tasks).
Students with ADHD often need extra support in school. It can be tempting to focus on subject proficiency or executive functioning, but the best way to help kids with ADHD succeed in school is by managing energy, focus, and sensory input.
In this post, we’ll highlight effective tips and techniques for body/mind regulation. These methods can help anyone achieve better focus and mental energy, but they are especially important for students with ADHD.
Understanding The ADHD Brain In a Classroom Setting
There are two main categories of ADHD; Hyperactive and Inattentive (often referred to as ADD). Kids in the hyperactive camp are easily identified by their inability to sit still or stop talking (think energizer bunny). Kids in the inattentive camp often go unnoticed or are misunderstood as spacey daydreamers. Kids with either subtype need additional support to regulate their bodies and minds.
ADHD has been correlated with lower levels of dopamine. Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter essential for motor skills, focus, and the brain’s reward system. Using things that are inherently fun and enjoyable to help boost your student’s dopamine can increase their focus and reinforce good habits around school. The ADHD brain is very interest-driven.
Ultimately, the classroom environment is not created for students with ADHD. Sitting still while being attentive and engaged are baseline classroom expectations. Energy and focus are taken for granted. But this is where students with ADHD struggle and where they need the most support.
How to Improve Energy and Focus in Students with ADHD
Finding the perfect balance of novelty and structure is essential for individuals with ADHD. Routine and healthy habits are essential for a happy healthy brain. However, monotony can cause boredom, agitation, and resistance in individuals with ADHD. Having just enough variety to keep curiosity and interest alive is essential. Creating space for autonomy and choices will help to keep your child engaged in their learning and routines.
Use Movement to Boost Dopamine
Asking a student with ADHD to sit still is a bit counterintuitive as they often need an excessive amount of movement and exercise to regulate. This is partly due to the fact that exercise and movement boost vital dopamine levels that kids with ADHD are naturally low in.
Some alternatives to asking a student to sit still at a desk:
- Using an exercise ball as a chair so they can bounce, wiggle, and work their core as they study.
- Creating a standing desk so they can keep their full body engaged and move their legs as needed. This can be achieved with a regular table or desk and a stack of books, especially for younger and shorter students.
- Sitting on the floor for rolling around, wiggling, and stretching freely. This can also be a nice time for parents and caretakers to sit down with their kids (if accessible) and take a moment to stretch, unwind, and move a bit with their child after a long day.
Use Timers to Make Transitions Smooth and Clear
People of all ages with ADHD can often struggle with transitioning between tasks and environments. Getting from point A to point B efficiently is difficult for people with ADHD. It’s like having a Ferrari brain with bicycle brakes. You can get going pretty quickly, but it can be extremely difficult to slow down and change directions. Because of this, it is essential to provide kids with ADHD extra time and structure as they transition between activities and environments.
It’s important to take extra time and create mindful routines for transitions such as dinner time to bedtime, or between school and homework to decompress after the day. A lot of friction can occur when you attempt to force your young ADHDer to stop and switch tasks immediately. Their brain needs time to shift gears from whatever they’ve been doing into what they’re about to do. Also, effective transitions can help prepare your child for their next activity so they feel more confident and equipped to tackle what’s next.
A key component of transitions for kids with ADHD is timers, time warnings, and countdowns. If your child is playing video games and needs to do homework in 20 minutes, letting them know when they have 15 mins, 10 mins, or 5 mins left can help them mentally and emotionally prepare for the switch. This is additionally helpful as people with ADHD often experience time blindness (loss of all sense of time).
Use Brain Breaks for Sustained Focus without Hyperfixation
There’s a funny analogy used to describe information load and comprehension. It’s referred to as penguins on the iceberg. Essentially, you can only fit a finite number of penguins (information) on an iceberg ( your mind) before a new penguin sliding on causes another penguin to slide off. Don’t overload the icebergs of our young learners! Also, the iceberg tips every 15 minutes, causing all penguins (focus and ideas) to fall into the water.
Being mindful that children across the continuum of neurodiversity need a mental break every 15-20 minutes is essential to learning. This is especially vital for children with ADHD. Taking a pause from homework roughly every 15 mins to reset and refocus can make an immense difference. Consider having your student take a 2-5 minute break after each 15-minute bout of studying so that they can wiggle, stretch, go to the bathroom, drink water, snack, get fresh air, etc in order to reset their focus.
There are two very common states that children with ADHD can get into, especially if they present with Inattentive type ADHD.
- Paralysis: they feel confused, exhausted, stuck, and unable to focus or move forward on tasks.
- Hyperfixation: They finally have locked onto something and have tunnel vision and can’t step away from it. Hyperfixation happens most with recreational activities like video games, TV shows, and art projects, but can happen at school and still have detrimental effects. On one hand, you’re excited that your child is finally focused and engaged with their school work. On the other hand, they may spend 2 hours on a single question or element of an assignment if they don’t break out of the fixation.
Use Small Tasks to Build Momentum
It may seem counterintuitive, but tackling small tasks can help the ADHD brain gain traction, focus, and momentum. Often when we create a list of priorities, we logically decide that our biggest, most pressing task should be completed first to simply “get it out of the way”. This mindset can be absolutely paralyzing to the ADHD brain.
Instead, completing and checking off several smaller, easier tasks first can create a sense of accomplishment and help snowball your student’s motivation and focus toward bigger tasks.
You can also combine brain breaks with to-do list items and a timer. Say your kid needs a wiggle break; you can ask them to help you unload the dishwasher, take out the trash, or put away some messes in their room.
In terms of assignments, see if they can start with short ones or work that’s already 50% or more complete. There’s no sense in having low or missing grades on short assignments that take 30 minutes or less, however, this is a common pitfall for students with ADHD.
The Importance of Sensory Management for Students with ADHD
Individuals with ADHD have a strong need for stimulation, but can also be sensitive and prone to overstimulation. They need a lot of input from their environment. Being either overstimulated or under-stimulated can lead to a lack of attention, disengagement, or even mood swings.
Finding the right amount and types of sensory input for your student to feel comfortable, focused, and regulated is essential to their academic success and wellbeing. Being connected to our 5 senses can help people of all ages and brains stay connected to their physical bodies and the present moment.
Below are some tips to create a sensory-friendly study space for your child, organized by each of the 5 senses:
Consider the brightness of lighting, colors present, clutter, and any visual distractions in your child’s study space. A study area near a window that receives plenty of natural light and outlooks a greenspace can be very calming. If your student studies in the evening, consider a clean and open clutter-free space with bright but warm lighting. Light that is too bright, harsh, or cold can be overstimulating and even disrupt sleep cycles. Additionally, having a tidy open surface for homework can help to eliminate distractions.
Find a space that’s mostly free from sporadic noise and environmental distractions (TV, conversations, street noise). Constant calming noise such as lyric-free music or natural sounds like rain can boost dopamine levels and help your student enter a state of focus and flow.
Elements such as candles, diffusers, or fresh herbs can be very stimulating and help with focus. Smell is also a powerful catalyst and trigger for memory. Studying with something scented and then taking that item or scent to school for a test can be a wonderful hack for learning, memory, and overcoming test-based anxiety.
Flavor is similar to smell and can also be used for memory and study hacks (ex: chewing mint gum while studying and again while testing). Jaw movement and various food textures can also be fun and stimulating and help students stay focused. Bright flavors and crunchy textures in snacks such as popcorn, chips, nuts, fruits, and veggies can be wonderful for studying. There are endless nutritious options for stim snacks to help regulate your student’s blood sugar, and focus, and even sneak in some extra vitamins and nutrients into their day.
Being comfortable during school and work can make a huge difference for many of us. Changing into cozy clothes made of soft stretchy fabrics can be helpful for homework time. Removing itchy tags from clothes can also eliminate an extra distraction from your student’s day.
Stuffed animals and fidget toys with comforting and intriguing textures can also be helpful tools for focus and regulation. The fun and enjoyment of these tools can help boost dopamine, resulting in elevated focus and mood. One boundary I set with my tutoring students is that stuffies and fidgets are always welcome so long as they are helpful for learning.
Reframing ADHD as a Strength, Not a Deficiency
There is emerging research that ADHD is actually a positive evolutionary adaptation. In the wild, the ability to pick up on new and changing stimuli in one’s environment is essential to survival.
ADHD in our modern world is defined by deficits– what a child lacks and what behaviors are dysfunctional. It can be more beneficial for parents and educators to view ADHD from the lens of a child’s strengths and what each child needs to actualize their strengths to succeed.
Is your child creative? Do they come up with new and innovative solutions to problems? Does their non-stop talking lead them to make a lot of friends and have an excellent sense of humor?
Do not let fear for your child’s future success scare you out of seeing the incredibly vibrant and unique kid right in front of you. Help them to know their strengths, show them you are on their team and have their back. This will teach them that it’s safe to ask for help, and in turn, they will likely trust both you and themselves more.
How Emergent Education Can Help Students with ADHD
Traditional academic tutoring isn’t set up well to support students with ADHD. It suffers many of the same pitfalls as the traditional classroom setting, being too heavily focused on academic output instead of body/mind regulation.
At Emergent Education, we take a holistic approach to academic tutoring, building trust and rapport with our students so that we can support them across a wide spectrum of needs. We know that every student is unique and so we try to get to know them well, getting down to the root of their struggles and building up from where it counts.
This philosophy allows us to support students with ADHD in a way that traditional academic tutoring falls short. In fact, most of our new students have ADHD or some other type of neurodivergence.
If you have a student with ADHD and you’re curious about tutoring, schedule a free consultation with us to learn more about how we can help.