A Teacher's Perspective on ADHD: Practical Strategies for Classroom Success

Fall 2018

By Margaret Kraft-Smith

There is no question that one of the major challenges in classrooms today is knowing how to identify learning or behavior problems early on in the year and then knowing what tools to use for successful intervention. In my 29 years of teaching, I have learned several techniques for working with elementary-age children who have varying degrees of attentional difficulties. Over recent years, our awareness of these difficulties in young children has increased, and the need for teacher training appears to be more urgent now than ever before. In this article, I hope to share some successful strategies I have learned through the simple day-to-day happenings in a regular second-grade classroom.

A Description of Common Behaviors

When a child struggles with attention, the behaviors exhibited are much more complicated than just the difficulty with “focus.” The modulation of both body and voice is the most noticeable and can be the most problematic for teachers. A child’s need to move feet, hands, and body while seated or standing can be disruptive to others. The constant “calling out” or interrupting can be frustrating. Loud noises produced by a child make it difficult for the other children to concentrate, and the need for constant teacher attention can be exhausting. This constant movement and the need for immediate feedback can be exacerbated by other general behavior issues, such as the inability to handle change or manage frustration without an outburst. Once an outburst occurs, it can be extremely difficult to calm the child and help him or her move on with the day.
Stamina for work is also a huge concern for students with attentional difficulties. These children often don’t finish assignments on time, if at all, and they tire easily when completing typical tasks. Homework can be late and is often sloppy and unorganized. Assignments that require independent motivation pose particular challenges, and ones that are not “favorites” may be very difficult for the child to tackle. Writing is often the most challenging task of all. The focus required for a writing assignment involves integrating many processes, such as the creation of ideas, story sense and sequencing, phonetics and spelling, capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and even handwriting formation and placement. This laborious attention to detail is exactly what many of these learners are lacking and find challenging.
Social issues are yet another area of difficulty. Caroline Miller, from the Child Mind Institute in New York City, makes note of this in her article “ADHD and Behavior Problems”: “Unfortunately, the behavior problems kids with ADHD exhibit often affect their relationships not just with adults but with other kids.”1 When a child is impulsive with his or her language and is impatient and easily frustrated, this may well lead to difficulties when interacting with peers.
As a result of these central problems, I have worked to create a “tool box” of successful interventions that begin the process of helping these learners self-regulate their behaviors. The following tools, when combined with professional help from social workers or psychologists, can lead to a more successful experience in school.

Seating, Proximity, and Specific Areas to Regain Calm and Attention

One of the first tools available to the classroom teacher is the ability to set up the environment specifically to aid learners with attentional issues. Seating charts that place special learners away from obvious distractions are critical. Friends or students who chat while working are not the best seat companions. Small-group work or tables where just a few children are seated are ideal. Also, establishing an area of the classroom for “breaks” or places to calm down after an upsetting incident is very helpful. A library or quiet work area set apart from the regular instructional space can serve this purpose and is actually quite helpful for all students. Allowing a five-minute break is one of the tools I have found to be most helpful. This short break allows the student to relax; do an activity of his or her choice, such as reading; and regroup before rejoining the lesson or work period. Last, simple proximity can be successful as well. The teacher can help maintain regulation just by sitting nearby or walking near the student while teaching. If there is more than one teacher in the room, one of the teachers could sit at the child’s table to aid with focus, repeat directions, or repeat key points from the lesson.

Taking a Walk

Depending on the layout of a particular school, a walk can be a wonderful way for learners with attentional difficulties to rejuvenate their stamina and ready themselves to reenter the lesson or work period. If the child is trustworthy within a school where there is a well-managed security system, sending the child up some stairs and back or down a well-traveled hallway is a way to allow walks on days when the weather prevents an outdoor break. Help from a co-teacher, an assistant teacher, or a paraprofessional to escort the child around the block or around the perimeter of an outdoor recess yard is an excellent use of one-on-one time for recapping lessons, learning about social issues, or just having an informal chat. Adults use this technique all the time to reenergize during a work day, and so the fact that it works well for young children should not be surprising.

Tools and Gadgets

Teachers today are acquainted with various tools for aiding attention. Websites are filled with gadgets that can be purchased, such as putty, stress balls, chair bands, special cushions, or even something as simple as a piece of gum. Each device is helpful, and finding what tool is appropriate for a particular child can be as simple as testing each one to determine what works best. One helpful hint I’ve learned is that a set of rules must accompany each tool. Giving clear directions on the proper use of a tool, as well as when it can be used, alleviates any questioning if the tool has to be removed. These clear directions also help other children understand its usage as a “listening tool” and even will guide peers to instruct the child on proper usage if he or she fails to use the tool correctly.

The Class Meeting for Modeling Social Skills

Modeling social skills is another important tool to use with these special learners. Class meetings where problems are discussed and acted out in a nonthreatening way are valuable for all students, and particularly for those who have not developed these skills naturally. Modeling proper language, turn-taking strategies, and the creation of fair rules and ways to use equipment all lead to better play skills and a safe, structured recess period. During these meetings, children can brainstorm ways to solve problems and even develop certain plans for logical consequences or positive rewards. It is amazing what happens when students are held accountable for their own rules and guidelines.


Rewarding positive behavior is somewhat controversial in classrooms today. Many educators are against “treasure boxes” or other similar trinkets for encouraging students to engage in helpful, community-building behaviors. However, according to Caroline Miller in “ADHD and Behavior Problems,” children who struggle with attentional problems often need “external regulation” when being disciplined.2 Rewards of various kinds, like tokens, serve as this external aid for encouraging a student and then noting when positive behavior occurs. After some time has passed and target behavior goals have been met, tokens can be replaced with simple “compliments,” which is the ideal way to use positive reinforcement. For these learners, moving from an external to an internal reward in incremental steps may be necessary.

Tools for Handling Change and Managing Frustration

As mentioned above, helping these learners manage challenging situations is beneficial, not only for the child but for the other students in the classroom as well. Low frustration tolerance and rigidity often accompany attentional issues. Such strategies as previewing upcoming work or warning the child about upcoming changes, both at home and at school, are critical. Even a simple change in an afterschool schedule can trigger an outburst. These simple forewarnings may be enough, but if an outburst does occur, the classroom teacher should search for activities that calm or soothe the child. Getting the child to take a walk or encouraging a break can be difficult when he or she is crying or in the middle of a tantrum. Finding a favorite activity, such as reading or drawing, is often just what is needed in this situation. Also, if sensory issues are present, sometimes a simple object to hold (like a stress ball) works equally well. Once again, asking the child ahead of time to generate ways of managing times when he or she feels upset or out of control is worthwhile, especially if the list can be accessed easily when needed. When the ideas come from the child, he or she will almost always engage in the expected behavior.

Other Services

This article would not be complete without mentioning the need for other services when the teacher is attempting to work with children who have serious attentional issues. A classroom teacher may be both experienced and well-trained in the management of these special learners, but this is often not enough for remediation and overall improvement. Psychologists, therapists, social workers, or other medical professionals may be needed to guide and instruct both teachers and parents in best practices, as well as to treat the child individually. Individual treatment can help the child to better understand his or her challenges and can provide beneficial and constructive strategies for improving focus, internal controls, and social skills. When all of these interventions are planned in cooperation with each other, school can become a happy, safe, and successful environment for all.


  1. Caroline Miller, “ADHD and Behavior Problems,” Child Mind Institute; online at http://childmind.org/article/adhd-behavior-problems/.
  2. Ibid.
Margaret Kraft-Smith

Margaret Kraft-Smith (maks100@aol.com) has taught at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York City for 29 years at the kindergarten, first-, and second-grade levels.