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Why every educator should know how to spot the signs of ADHD

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hilst ADHD is not as common in the UK as it is in the USA, it is still one of the most common syndromes which affect the behaviours of children in school. It causes difficulty in learning for those who have the condition and potentially for those in the same environment if the condition and behaviours are not well managed.

Whilst parents have a responsibility to manage their own children and to ensure that they are ready for school and make the most of the opportunities offered, in reality it is the teacher or teachers who have day to day responsibility for ensuring that students achieve all they can. Given that the estimated prevalence of ADHD in the school age population is around 4% for boys and 1% for girls every educator should both know how to spot signs of and proactively manage ADHD in their environment.

What is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behavioural disorder which means people with the condition struggle to maintain attention on any task, tend to be highly active and physical combined with a lack of impulse control, which means they tend to do things without thinking. The typical child with ADHD is a bundle of energy without direction like a rubber ball bounced at speed in a confined environment, and just as disruptive. There is a variant, ADD (attention deficit disorder) which tends to be characterised by inattentiveness without the hyperactivity.

Whilst it is common for symptoms to begin in early childhood, it is often when a child starts school that the child with ADHD tends to stand out as different to their peers, especially when their peers quickly learn what is expected of them and they do not. The behavioural gap between the child with ADHD and his/her peers grows over time so that by the time the child is in year 3-4 at school, there is a move toward identification and diagnosis. To be diagnosed as having ADHD or ADD a child has to show signs of the condition in more than one environment using a test called “The Connor’s Checklist”. Whilst an educational psychologist is often the first port of call, the condition often requires a referral to a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist employed by the NHS. This is always the case if there is an intention to give the child medication to help them manage their symptoms better.

ADHD appears to have a mixture of genetic and social factors which are difficult to untangle. It is known from MRI scans that the brains of children with ADHD have some parts which are smaller than the population as a whole and other parts are bigger. There is also believed to be an insensitivity to dopamine (a neurotransmitter) in the control areas of the brain. What is not clear is whether these developments are a result of living a chaotic life in a family dominated by ADHD disorganisation or a genetic predisposition. To some extent this argument is redundant because however the condition is arrived at, the condition is real and the person needs help.

Generally, symptoms improve with age because people with ADHD experience a late maturing of their brain functions. However, many, though by no means all, continue to experience problems and may have difficulty keeping a job, managing relationships and even possible issues with alcohol and illegal drugs. It isn’t possible to distinguish between the effects of ADHD and the effects of having it has upon their self-esteem and social isolation, both of which can lead to the same outcomes. It is important for those educators working in adult education to recognise this as a barrier to learning and help a person with ADHD succeed and thus turn around negative perceptions and low self-esteem.

What do Educators need to do?

According to Dr Christopher Green a UK-based expert on the condition there is a range of strategies which educators can employ to help a person with ADHD succeed. Consistency and lots of positive feedback can help (to counter low self-esteem and difficulties with peer relations).

Here are five easy things you can do to help a person with ADHD.

  • Have a calm classroom – lead by example, use your voice well and model calmness and stillness. Reward those behaviours in the children in your classroom. Use proximity praise – if a child with ADHD is being disruptive, praise the nearest child who is on task and calmly working, and watch the effect.
  • Avoid clutter – Have a clear desk policy – only a pen, book etc. allowed. Children with ADHD are distractible and can’t help fiddling. Take special care with scissors or some unfortunate person may lose some hair!
  • Seating plan – put the child with ADHD next to calming children and remove an audience. Perhaps put them near the door so that it is easy to allow a “timeout” if your school policy allows it. Definitely avoid putting them near the window as what is going on outside will definitely be more interesting than in your room!
  • Look for the behaviours you want to see and reward them. Don’t expect your child with ADHD to perform at an age appropriate level, but set realistic goals and reward them, for example 5 minutes on a task. Make sure they get rewarded alongside their peers to prevent low self-esteem. If they lose, so will you.
  • Lists – People with ADHD are not very good at sequencing, so if you give verbal sequencing instructions to the class make sure you give a written copy to the child so they can tick off what they have done and move on.

Helping a student with ADHD succeed can be its own reward, but often you will get tangible rewards too, such as the surprise approach and thanks in a supermarket years and years later.

If you wish to find out more about ADHD please take a look at our comprehensive online ADHD Awareness Diploma course


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