If you are not familiar with the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), below is an image of the the diagnostic criteria reported in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders-Fifth Edition (DSM-V), which is the manual utilized by doctors (i.e., psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians) to diagnose ADHD. After the image, I will discuss my thoughts about the popular claim that “ADHD isn’t real.”
When you have been in the field of school psychology for over 10 years and in the mental health field for 20, you start to notice patterns or similar behaviors that you see in different students. Whatever you want to call those behaviors or symptoms, they exist. They are not fake or made up symptoms. Not only does seeing them over and over, make them a reality, but so does feeling them. I can assure you that I deal with some of these very real symptoms myself on a day to day basis. For some people, the symptoms don’t matter. They can get through life and do all that they have to do, despite their symptoms. For others, support is needed because symptoms interfere with daily functioning. When several of these symptoms come together, and they are impacting a child’s functioning in school (or at home/in the community), they need to be taken seriously and the child needs to be given support, just as a child in a wheelchair would need a ramp or a child with asthma might need an inhaler.
Maybe in a non-traditional setting, one that taught to students’ learning styles; incorporated movement and exercise into learning; kept activities short, exciting, and interactive; allowed children to fidget when they needed to, etc. some of these symptoms would be minimized or may not even interfere with academic functioning; however, the traditional education system is not set up this way. Students are expected to listen to verbal input for long periods of time, finish a test or assignment in a certain period of time, or sit for a long time while concentrating on the same activity. With students who have symptoms of ADHD, these situations can be extremely challenging. For instance, they can lose focus to the point of missing what is said during lengthy verbal lectures, either due to internal or external distractions; make mistakes during assignments or tests, needing additional time for editing; lose focus during independent assignments or tests, again needing additional time; and/or feel an intense need to move (get up/adjust in their spot/play with items in their hands), although they are expected to sit still.
So whether or not we want to believe that ADHD is real, the symptoms are real. Just like we use a lot of different labels to categorize a variety of symptoms. Believing that a child just needs to get their act together is impractical. However, expecting schools to make changes to meet the needs of all children, including the ones with these types of symptoms may not be all that unrealistic. There are many ways to help children with symptoms of ADHD improve in the classroom, but it would require a large shift in the way traditional education is conducted. Picture lessons that encapsulate the six suggestions below:
1) allowing students to move if needed (e.g., get up and stretch, shift your position in your seat, take a quick walk in the hall-I actually used to do this in college to stay focused)
2) allowing flexible seating options rather than just sitting in hard chairs all day
Here is a great example of flexible seating
And here is another amazing “flexible seating” example:
3) incorporating movement into learning (e.g., run to the letter that makes the /b/ sound, jump and count, run and tag your partner after solving your math problem)
This video gives an amazing example of how to incorporate movement into learning
4) building exercise into the day (another great example)
5) allowing students to have a fidget item in their hands (I have seen student after student search for something to play with while he has to sit for hours. Teachers repeatedly saying to put the item away or taking the item away, while the student searches for the next item to fidget with). If used appropriately, is it so bad for students to have a fidget item in their desks? Teachers worry that they will be thrown or used inappropriately but we can set expectations and teach children how to use them.
Check out this video on the benefits of a Fidget Cube
6) keeping lessons stimulating and exciting by varying the way information is presented (for instance give a hands on demonstration for five minutes, allow students to practice the activity in a hands-on way for ten minutes, have students break up into groups to create a colorful poster about what they learned)-varying the tasks into different presentation types, using props, technology, or vibrant colors, and incorporating a hands-on component are just a few ways to keep lessons stimulating. What do you like to do to keep your lessons stimulating?
Keep in mind that, as of now, most classrooms are not set up this way, so when you have a child with symptoms of ADHD in a traditional classroom, they may need accommodations such as (flexible seating, fidget items, movement incorporated in their day, extended time to complete assignments, etc.) because they are constantly having to try to fit the mold of the traditional education system, which is often not a good match for their learning needs. Additionally, a child (or adult) with symptoms of ADHD may frequently experience symptoms that interfere with how they take in information, complete tasks, etc. in and outside of school. So while we can alter the environment, not every environment will be altered, and even if they are, some symptoms, such as missing instructions the first time and making careless mistakes, may still be present. This is why symptoms need to be recognized and ADHD needs the be thought of as real. People with ADHD can be taught strategies to help themselves in any environment, but if we don’t acknowledge that this is real, then it can be easily dismissed, and people can adapt the mentality that the person with ADHD symptoms needs to figure it out and no help is needed. After experiencing this personally and witnessing it for the past 20 years in others, I can tell you that this simply isn’t true! When symptoms interfere with functioning, support is helpful and offering support is the right thing to do!
This articles talks about a few of the ways to minimize the effects of ADHD in a traditional classroom. For more information on strategies to help students with symptoms of ADHD see 14 Strategies to Help Students with ADHD in the Classroom or at Home and 6 Research-Based Interventions for the Treatment of ADHD in Children!
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them.