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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Understanding how ADHD affects students, and knowing some teaching strategies to help them, is crucial for teachers and paraprofessionals to know while working with them.

What is It?

girl thinking while reading

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is defined as “a developmental, neurobiological condition defined by the presence of severe and pervasive symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity” (Daley, 2010, p. 455). ADHD is a very common disability in the school system; 3% to 7.5% of all school-age-children have this disorder. Students are diagnosed as having ADHD if they exhibit extreme and abnormal hyperactivity, inattention, or impulsivity for a period of over 6 months, before the age of 7 (Daley, 2010, p. 455).

Laws regarding ADHD

In the US, although ADHD has a relatively high occurrence, it is not identified as one of the 13 identified disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA). ADHD is classified in the IDEA category “Other Health Impairment” if the disability is such that the child requires special education. To be eligible for special education the student must be diagnosed by a qualified health or mental health professional, the disability must adversely affect the student’s performance in academics, must require special education services, and must be the student’s primary disability (p. 45).

In Australia ADHD is recognized as a disorder DSM IV (now V). The criteria listed above are the minimum necessary for a diagnosis of ADHD. There are currently some guidelines in draft form from the Australasian College of Physicians which provide information on ADHD to ‘assist decision making’ in regard to ADHD. We also have the Disability Standards for Education 2005 that outlines what a disability is and how a person with a disability should be treated in an education environment. The Disability Standards for Education 2005 is a Commonwealth legislation so it is applicable to all of Australia.

Diagnosis of ADHD

ADHD often will go undiagnosed for some time because the behavior appears to some to be “willful disobedience, defiance, laziness, or outright rebellion” against parents or teachers, rather than an actual inability to concentrate (DeRuvo, 2009, p. 11). Simply put, ADHD can appear as bad behavior, but these students actually have a biological problem that causes them to be extremely hyperactive and inattentive.

Causes of ADHD

There are no known causes for ADHD. Most experts believe ADHD comes from the combination of several factors including genes, environmental factors, nutrition, and brain abnormalities (National Institution of Mental Health, 2008, p. 3). There have been some studies that show children with ADHD have different brain structures than those without the disorder. These studies show that their brain tissue is thinner. Environmental factors such as exposure to cigarette smoke or alcohol during pregnancy or exposure to lead at a young age seem to cause a higher chance of developing ADHD (NIMH, 2008, p. 4). Excessive amounts of sugar and sugar additives, as well as preservatives and artificial colors may also increase the probability of ADHD (NIMH, 2008, p. 4).

Teaching Strategies

Appropriate and effective teaching strategies can help these students become successful in the classroom. These strategies will benefit all students, but even more so for those with ADHD. Strategies that are helpful include:

  1. Organization: If a teacher provides a way for students to easily organize and interpret information, it will allow them more time to process and understand the information being taught. The use of graphic organizers, advanced organizers, and guided notes can be very effective for students with ADHD (DeRuvo, 2009, p. 31, 34).
  2. Active Participation: Students with ADHD need to be taught using “non-linguistic representation” (DeRuvo, 2009, p. 33). Lecturing at the front of the class will not work for those with ADHD. The teacher must keep students engaged in the learning process. The best way to do this is to incorporate many forms of teaching in the classroom. The use of various pictures, technology, videos, small group activities, and graphic organizers will keep the student more engaged. Getting students involved, having them move around, using their senses, and interacting with their peers is what keeps those with ADHD more attentive.
  3. Motivation: All students need motivation, but this is even more important for those students with ADHD. Teachers must do all they can to motivate students. This can be through reinforcements, encouragement, and verbal recognition. Often students with ADHD don’t understand the importance of academics and don’t find it interesting enough to actually focus on what is being taught. They need the motivation, encouragement, and recognition that they are trying.


  • Daley, D. J. (2010). ADHD and academic performance: why does ADHD impact on academic performance and what can be done to support ADHD children in the classroom?. Child: Care, Health & Development, 36(4), 455-464.
  • DeRuvo, S. L. (2009). Strategies for teaching adolescents with ADHD Effective classroom techniques across the content areas. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint.
  • National Institute of Mental Health (2008). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).


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