Getting it Right for Learners with ADHD by Andrew Whitehouse #GetInvolved Number 10

For more than 20 years now I have been working with young people with neurological diversities such as Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome (PDA) and a range of related conditions.  More recently, the focus has been on Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) and the links between SEMH and Neurological Diversity are plentiful.  People who are perceived as being different, or indeed are different often feel like they don’t fit and struggle to achieve in a neurotypical world with neurotypical expectations.

So, my job…  well I do a range of things.  Conference presentations and keynote speeches, training workshops and insets and my favourite, observing young people in the learning environment –  boots on the ground.  This can be for a variety of reasons, challenging or disruptive behaviour, difficulties integrating socially, problems accessing the curriculum, not engaging with learning and a whole raft of other reasons.  I have no particular system that I follow, other than, I follow leads.  I look for what is going wrong and try to remove it from the equation or I look at what is going well and try to replicate it – “more of what works and less of what doesn’t.  A sort of “Non-system system”.

See Andrew at work

So, based on observations I have carried out in the classroom, strategies I have found successful and interventions which have proved effective, I have put together the following list of eight ADHD friendly practices.  I sincerely hope you find them useful.

Normalise ADHD

Young people with ADHD often feel that they are being judged for being different and not succeeding and yet there are so many positives.  People with ADHD are good at lots of things.  They can focus on the minutiae of tasks, they are creative problem solvers, they have boundless energy and yet often have low self-esteem.  Talk about their ADHD, ask them about what they like about their ADHD, ask them what it is about their ADHD that causes them problems.

In through the eyes and out through the mouth

Give them opportunity to talk

People with ADHD find talking the quickest, most efficient way of communicating information and yet we can find them verbally intrusive, accuse them of interrupting.  Try to make opportunities for your ADHD learner to talk.  This brings us to…

Use your visuals

For the most part people with ADHD are visual processors and yet in my experience, most teaching is auditory verbal.  Try to use your visuals more; visual timetables, now and next boards, lists of instructions, flash cards for spellings and any other visual interventions you can think of.

Remember attention spans #1

Depending on what you read, ADHD attention spans vary greatly.  The theory I like to use is that a child’s attention span is there age plus a minute up until the age of 16.  If that child has ADHD or a related condition, you can knock a third off that figure.  So, an 8-year-old child with ADHD has potentially a 6-minute attention span, and yet may be expected to sit through a 20-minute assembly followed by a further 20 minutes on the carpet listening to teacher.

Remember attention spans #2

In contrast to what we have just discussed, if a child with ADHD is really interested in something, they can have an almost unlimited attention span.  This has a knock-on effect on teaching and learning, if you can engage the child with ADHD’s interest, you will have great success, if you deliver non – contextual learning and teaching you will not gain their engagement.

A short video about attention spans

Gross/fine motor hyperactivity

Sitting still and not fiddling is not the natural state for people with ADHD and yet I see many professionals telling them to “leave that alone”, “put that down” and “stop rocking on your chair”.  Try giving them something to fiddle with; hand putty, fidget cubes, fidget spinners etc and for gross motor hyperactivity try fidgety feet wobblers (an intervention I find useful – pictured).  

A short video about hyperactivity

Keep them busy

Staying busy works well for people with ADHD.  Do you need a monitor for something?  Do you need a personal assistant?  Pencils need sharpening?  Photocopying need doing?  This is the ideal situation for a young person who finds sitting still a problem.


Most teachers I work with agree that when working with young people with ADHD the hardest thing to manage is impulsive behaviour, in particular the tendency to react to situations without thinking through the repercussions.  Spend time roleplaying situations that are either respond or react.  Practicing this will prepare children to make the correct and appropriate choices in a range of situations.

Teaching a child with ADHD should not be difficult, just different.  The problem with children with ADHD is not generally the ADHD but the expectation to behave neurotypically.  With a few tweaks and some creative thinking, you will get significantly better results.

Let me know how you get on.

Andrew Whitehouse MSpEd CPSE (PGCert) BAHons QTS

SEN Consultant

TEDx Speaker

Bamford Lecturer

Adult with ADHD


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