ADHD—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder of childhood. It’s also one of the most commonly misunderstood.

“People think that every child with ADHD is hyperactive. They assume it’s a behavior problem or a lack of effort,” says former teacher Chris Zeigler Dendy, author of Teaching Teenagers with ADD, ADHD and Executive Function Deficits and cofounder of the Teacher-to-Teacher program at CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).

Indeed, because children with ADHD can (and often do) manage to achieve success in school, it can be easy to forget that the impulsivity, amped-up activity, and lack of organization that kids with ADHD exhibit are not a result of a deliberate lack of self-control.

We know that staying on task is not simply a matter of will—research shows that ADHD is a biological, brain-based problem.

The brains of kids with ADHD mature, on average, about three years later than those of other children. And the parts of the brain that take the longest to mature are those that control thinking, attention, and planning. Research also suggests that their brains may not as effectively use dopamine, a feel-good chemical that’s an important part of the body’s motivation and reward system.

In other words, the 6 million–plus American schoolchildren who have ADHD face significant obstacles. Those who manage to meet classroom expectations are often exerting much more effort than other students, and that often invisible effort can influence mistaken beliefs about ADHD.

When a student with ADHD is able to successfully navigate the academic and social demands of school, “it’s likely because he’s had some extra support,” says Ann Abramowitz, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta. To effectively teach students with ADHD, Abramowitz says, it’s important to “create an environment in which it’s more likely for kids to get it right.”

What does that look like in a school setting? Read on for four common classroom scenarios.

Scenario 1

Emmett can hardly stay in his seat during class and bolts as soon as the bell rings. In the lunchroom, he grabs other students’ food and frequently cuts in line.

Sitting still, or in one place, for a long period of time is torture for many kids with ADHD. “People with ADHD will seek out sensory stimulation. That’s why they’re always touching things, rocking back and forth in their chair, or clicking the top of the mechanical pencil,” says Ann Dolin, a former general and special education teacher in the Fairfax County Public School system in Virginia. “They need that sensory stimulation because it helps them focus.”

“Fidget toys” like squeeze balls can help. Teach students how to use the toys quietly and unobtrusively. Dolin, who also serves as president of Educational Connections Tutoring, suggests teachers implement an “I see it, I take it” rule. Letting kids move around the classroom and work in different locations (on the floor, in a rocking chair) can also give them the sensory stimulation they need.

Transitions are especially challenging for kids with ADHD, so allow plenty of time for a structured transition. “Stop two to three minutes early and tell your students exactly what they need to do,” Dolin says.

Also, help kids like Emmett navigate peer relationships they will face in the lunchroom or at recess by teaching them successful social strategies.

“A lot of times, kids with ADHD try to be funny. The problem is that if you’re just a little bit off with your humor, you’re not funny, you’re annoying,” says Eileen Kennedy- Moore, a parenting and child psychologist and creator of the video series Raising Socially and Emotionally Smart Kids. “Guide them in better strategies. It’s really hard to mess up kindness, so help them aim for kindness. You and the student can privately keep track of how many acts of kindness [he or she] does each day.”

Scenario 2

Brianna spends most of her time doodling in her notebook. She comes alive during group activities, but instead of focusing on the task at hand, she chitchats with her classmates.

“Hyperactivity does not have to be present to receive a diagnosis of ADHD,” says Dale Archer, author of The ADHD Advantage. “In fact, in girls, hyperactivity is likely not present.”

Because most girls with ADHD aren’t bouncing around the classroom, it can be easy for them to slip through the cracks. “As a teacher, you don’t always know that they’re struggling because they’re compliant,” Dolin says. “They may look like they’re paying attention in class but they may be missing some part of the instructions, so when they get home, they aren’t really sure what to do.”

Keep students on task with specific instructions and frequent check-ins, especially during group activities. Tell them exactly what materials they need to bring to the group; then, check to be sure they brought them. Break group activities into small projects with well-defined tasks.

Scenario 3

Tyler is constantly forgetting things. His homework is rarely finished, and his parents describe homework time as “a nightmare.”

“Even the brightest kids with ADHD are really stymied by homework, and their parents are, too,” Dolin says. When kids get home, they often don’t know what they’re supposed to do.

An online homework portal can be helpful if parents and students can access it, but they're not consistently used by all teachers. “Kids with ADHD don’t have the wherewithal to navigate a homework portal independently,” Dolin says. “They’re not going to say, ‘I didn’t write down what I was supposed to do in Mrs. Jones’s class. Let me look at the portal.’”

It’s better to have your students copy homework instructions into an assignment notebook at the beginning of class, and check in to be sure they’re doing it properly. Also, because kids with ADHD have problems with working memory and impulsivity, it’s a good idea to have a friend or teacher meet them at their locker or desk at the end of the day to make sure they take home their notebook and necessary materials.

Discuss homework strategies with parents as well. Try suggesting “10 minutes of homework with a quick exercise break in between,” Archer suggests. “Let your student try doing two subjects at once—going back and forth on each for a few minutes until he’s done.”

Scenario 4

Hannah’s social studies project is late. Again. When she finally turns it in, it looks slapped together, even though she had two weeks and plenty of in-class opportunities to work on it.

“Kids with ADHD have an impaired sense of time,” says Dendy. “They don’t accurately judge the passage of time. They feel like [they have] forever, and then suddenly it’s the night before the project is due.”

It’s best to share project assignments and timelines with parents directly, so they can help students stay on track at home. Because getting started is often tough, suggest external reminders, such as phone alarms and apps.

Break projects into smaller segments and provide plenty of support and scaffolding. Staring at a blank sheet of paper or screen can be overwhelming for a child with ADHD, “but if you have a graphic organizer that says Paragraph 1, key point, two or three supporting sentences; Paragraph 2..., that will help them get started,” Dendy says. Have students turn in each segment when it’s complete and grade it then.

Above all, accept and encourage them. “Kids with ADHD can also have wonderful talents. The people who work with them and are skilled [at nurturing] those talents can really help them develop their self-esteem and areas of strength,” says Abramowitz.

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Illustration: Phil Hackett