The Key for Kids with ADD: A Predictable, Structured Environment
by Jan Zeiger
In last month's article, I discussed the first component of the "Bill of Rights" for children with Attention Deficit Disorder. I wrote about strategies that teachers can try to help children in their classrooms focus on activities and assignments. This month, I will discuss how a predictable classroom environment with clear expectations can give your ADD students the structure they need to succeed academically.
I NEED TO KNOW WHAT COMES NEXT...
IS IT RIGHT? I NEED TO KNOW NOW...
AM I ALMOST DONE?
(from ADD Bill of Rights, Author Unknown)
We often hear statements like this from teachers: "These kids need structure." When I was a student teacher, I realized that my idea of structure was simply not the same as everybody else's. What do you think of when you hear the term structure? Some see images of a classroom in which the children are sitting in rows taking notes while the teacher is standing at the front of the room spouting off information of some kind. In a classroom with a lot of structure, children are quiet. Children are focused. Often times, children do worksheet after worksheet and play passive roles in the classroom.
As I did research in college, I realized that a classroom could be structured without being stifling. I did my master's Action Research project on student engagement, and I found that structure, in the form of clear expectations, clearly impacted the level of student engagement in the classroom. This is especially true for children with ADD. Sandra Reif, author of How to Reach and Teach ADD/ADHD Children, writes the following about classroom structure and clear expectations:
Structure is one of the most critical elements for success. A structured class is not to be mistaken for a traditional, rigid, non-nonsense classroom. On the contrary, the most creative, colorful, active, and stimulating classrooms can be the most structured. Structure needs to be provided through clear communication, expectations, rules, consequences, and follow-up. Academic tasks must be structured by breaking long-term assignments into manageable increments with teacher modeling, guided practice, standards and feedback. ("Making Classrooms Work for Students with AD/HD", Summer '94)
In my classroom, I work hard to give my children with ADD the structure they need by providing a predictable classroom environment, clear behavioral expectations, and clear academic expectations.
A PREDICTABLE CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT
Children with ADD are not the only children who feel more comfortable when they know what is coming next. In general, people feel better when they are in a familiar environment with built-in routines. Even adults want to know what the meeting is going to be about, when they're going to get their next break, how long they're going to have to complete the project, and so forth. Imagine how you would feel if your boss said, "I'm not sure what day school will start this year. I'll just give you a call a couple of days before." You'd probably feel very uncomfortable with the idea. You need to know when you'll be expected at work. You need to plan ahead. You've got things to do. The feeling of being left "hanging" without information on what's happening next can be incredibly frustrating. However, that's how many teachers treat their children.
My classroom is a "structured" environment. My students know the schedule. They know the routines. They know the rules. However, this does not mean that my class is boring or that my students play passive roles in the learning process. It's actually the opposite. My children are able to play active roles because they are encouraged to do so. They feel comfortable because they know what's coming next. They know our schedule, and they are responsible for helping us stay on track. I give them a copy of the schedule to keep at their desks, and they are encouraged to remind me if we are supposed to be at the library, the computer lab, or the lunchroom. This makes them feel more confident because it's their schedule, and it helps them stay focused because they know what's coming up. I've seen children say to each other, "You need to get that spelling done because we are going to go to lunch in 6 minutes." I've also heard things like, "Share Time starts in 10 minutes, so we'd better get our dismissal procedures done fast!"
The students in my classroom know what's coming next. As a result, they feel more comfortable at school. They don't sit around and wait for me to tell them what to do. I've noticed that my children have trouble adjusting when we have to change the schedule due to school assemblies. When they get out of that routine, it's hard to get them back on track. I have found that consistency is the key when you are working with children. Consistency is even more powerful when some of the children in your class have ADD. Here are some of the things that happen in my classroom each day:
- Students are encouraged to greet each other when they enter the classroom. Then they practice their spelling words with a partner.
- After specials, they come back into the classroom and automatically begin centers. I don't spend anytime telling them what to do. They just begin as they walk into the classroom. (Of course, this didn't happen all at once!)
- After lunch, we have a special story time. During this time, the children can work on missing work, draw, write, or just listen. The only expectation is that the room will be silent so that people can enjoy the story.
- At the end of the day, we do our dismissal procedures. The class president checks for neat teams, while the vice president checks class jobs. When the room is clean, we begin Share Time. (Students sign up in advance.)
- On Mondays, we have class meetings.
- On Tuesdays at 2:00, we have an Author Study.
- On Fridays, a parent comes in to read to the class.
- We have "Lunch Bunch" on Fridays.
- The students get the materials they need at the "Student Center" without asking. (This is my desk that has been converted into a resource for students.)
Of course, these routines may seem simple, but they have a major impact on the classroom environment. I know because there have been days when I decided to cancel story time or share time because of time constraints, and it threw us off completely. I learned my lesson the hard way. My kids looked forward to story time all day, and for them, canceling it was a tragedy. For children with ADD, changes in routines can be especially unsettling.
CLEAR BEHAVIORAL EXPECTATIONS
Part of maintaining a predictable classroom environment is providing clear expectations for behavior. I have the following suggestions for teachers, especially teachers of children with ADD:
- Be fair and consistent at all times. Don't have any "Teacher's Pets." A good way to check this is to write the names of your students on a blank sheet of paper. Then look to see who you named first and who you named last. (I heard this from one of my professors.)
- Follow through. You must do this if you want to earn your children's respect. Don't say you'll do something if you aren't able to follow through. Children with ADD need you to be very clear about what you expect from them.
- Provide a student-centered learning environment in which students can become engaged in the learning process. Don't forget that your teaching methods do have an impact on student behavior.
- Be a role model for your students. Work together to solve conflicts. Be patient when it takes them a long time to "get" it. Don't forget to have a sense of humor. Children really respond to that! Finally, always model a positive attitude towards school and learning. (Don't forget that many children with ADD have low self-esteem and need extra special encouragement.)
- Work hard to develop a positive home-school relationship. Remember that parents play a vital role in their children's education and keeping them informed is essential.
- Try the number system for your children with behavior problems. I tried this last year, and I've been using it ever since. I simply print out a blank calendar for the month, and I staple it into a file folder. At the end of the day, I give the child a number on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being best). I write the number on the calendar for that day. I've seen most parents reward their children for an entire week with 4s and 5s. I started this last year, and I was surprised with how well my children responded to it. I think it works well because of the immediate feedback. Currently, I have a student who asks throughout the day, "What's my number?" She then adjusts her behavior accordingly. It's also easy for parents because they can simply ask their child for the calendar when they get home. Many children don't need a system like this, but I have found that my children with ADD need that frequent feedback throughout the day.
- Hold private behavior conferences. During this conference, I have a private discussion with a child who is having a problem making the right choices. I ask questions like, "How can I help you make the right choices?" and "What can I do to help you succeed in this class?" Usually, by communicating with a child at a conference, we can figure out what step to take next to solve the problem. I have found that behavior contracts are extremely helpful for my children with ADD. I type them up so they look especially formal, and the child, the parents, and all of the teachers sign it. From then on, we refer to it each day to see if we are meeting our goals.
These are just a few suggestions for providing clear expectations for behavior. Children with ADD need to feel good about themselves, and the last thing they need is to see their names on the board. Think about the way you are dealing with these children and ask yourself whether or not you could be doing more to help them make wise choices.
CLEAR ACADEMIC EXPECTATIONS
As a person with ADD, I need to break large tasks down into smaller ones. I got through graduate school by making "To Do" lists that were sometimes three pages long. At the time, I didn't know why I had to break everything down, but now I understand that large tasks overwhelm me. That's how many children with ADD feel when teachers hand them a math worksheet with a large number of problems.
Many children with ADD can complete the work. The problem is that it's overwhelming to them, and it seems like they'll never get done. For example, I have been putting off writing this article for weeks. I tried to get it done early, but it seemed like such a enormous task. It wasn't until I forced myself to break it down into smaller parts that I was able to do it. With a little extra time, teachers can break assignments down for children with ADD. As I said, even a simple math worksheet can seem overwhelming to a child with Attention Deficit Disorder. Here are some strategies for breaking assignments down so your children can be more successful:
- If your student needs to complete a large task, give frequent feedback. For example, if it's a math worksheet with problems in rows of five, tell your student to let you know when they get the first row done. When they get done, give them immediate feedback. I usually check the problems and draw a smiley face. After the first row, ask them to do the next two rows. (Some children do even better if you cut the worksheet into strips.) The same can be done for traditional tests. Break them down for your students with ADD. Keep my story in mind when you deal with your students. Laundry is a nightmare for me, but I am able to do it if my husband helps me sort my clothes into piles. He helps me break down a large task into smaller and more manageable tasks.
- Modify assignments as needed by assigning fewer problems or questions. I do this for all of my students-not just my children with ADD. In my opinion, children spend too much time doing rote exercises. For instance, when my children complete a page out of the math book, I have them do the even numbered problems. This way, I can tell whether or not they've got the skill. I don't need 30 problems to find that out. If I need to re-teach, they can do the odd numbered problems. Another way is to use the odd numbered problems for guided practice as a large group, and then assign the even numbered problems for independent practice. Take some time to reflect on your teaching practices by asking yourself whether or not your children are doing too many exercises when they could be doing more collaborative projects that are highly engaging and beneficial to them as learners.
- Research projects are wonderful, but they can be especially frustrating for children with ADD. I remember how overwhelmed I used to feel when my teacher assigned a new project. I loved school, but those types of projects were hard for me because I struggled with time-management and organization. I suggest that you give all of your students detailed assignment sheets, so they know how you will be assessing their projects. (I simply give them a copy of the rubric I'll be using.) Your students with ADD need a little more guidance. Remember that they need frequent feedback and help with organization. First of all, you need to make sure that their parents actually know about the project because children with Attention Deficit Disorder often stuff their desks with papers that need to go home. Talk with your children with ADD (and any other children who struggle with organization), and set short-term goals for the project. For example, tell your student with ADD to get books on his topic and to come show you the books when he gets them. This way, he is only focusing on one task, and it doesn't seem as overwhelming. Continue to do this throughout the project until he is able to complete it. He will feel great about it when he finally presents it to the class!
I hope that you've found the strategies suggested in this article helpful. Next month, I'll explore self-esteem builders for children with ADD.