As a classroom teacher and school principal, I have worked with thousands of students over the course of my career. Many students with whom I’ve worked struggle with the daily challenges of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts one’s ability to control impulses, organize thoughts and belongings, manage time, and can even get in the way of managing relationships.
A common misconception might be that students with ADHD simply present with challenging behaviors…that discipline in schools may be the only challenges these students face. In fact, students with ADHD have so many more obstacles to overcome in the school setting. Quite frankly, schools were just not built for students with attention challenges.
Over the years, many parents have asked me, "How does ADHD in children impact their academic performance?"
The optimal conditions for academic success require that students come to school physically, mentally, and emotionally available for learning. In other words, being ready to learn means that when we arrive at school, and throughout our day, we are in control of our bodies, our thoughts, and our feelings. This is often difficult for a child with ADHD.
Try this…Think about a child whom you consider to be a successful student − one who knows how to “do school” well. When I imagine this child, she is sitting still at her desk, listening attentively to the teacher. She raises her hand and waits to be called upon before speaking. This student completes her classwork in the allocated timeframes and she is prepared each day with her materials, turning in all homework in a timely manner. This student gets along well with her classmates, and on the occasions that social conflict should arise, she employs strategies to solve problems with her peers. It is unlikely that the student I have just described struggles with the day to day challenges of ADHD.
No two children are exactly alike. As such, students with ADHD do not present with identical challenges, nor are all students equipped with the same abilities and strategies to overcome these challenges. However, in my 17 years as an educator, I have identified some common factors that make it difficult for students to come to school available for learning.
Physical Disregulation and Academic Performance
Children with ADHD have a difficult time controlling their bodies. These children appear to be “on the go” much of the time. Sometimes we help students to identify when their “engine is running fast” in an effort to raise physical awareness and teach calming strategies. Students who have a tough time regulating their bodies find it difficult to sit still, say at a desk in the classroom, for long periods of time. They feel compelled to stand up, move around the room, and often seek excuses for leaving the classroom in order to satisfy their need for movement. How does this physical disregulation impact academic performance? In order for students to maximize their learning, they must first be present for instruction. Students miss critical instruction if they are frequently out of the classroom in search of movement breaks. Students may spend time at the water fountain, in the bathroom, or visiting the school nurse to satisfy a need to move their bodies. Many students with ADHD are better able to focus their attention when moving their bodies or receiving some sort of sensory input. Children may be more present in class and better able to attend to instruction if allowed to stand at a desk or taught to engage in deep pressure movements, such as chair push ups.
Sustained Attention and Academic Performance
Our ability to maintain attention to task and filter out environmental distractions is critical to our success as students. Classrooms are active places and come with their fair share of background noise and movement. The squeak of a chair, the tapping of a pencil, the sounds of a neighboring class traveling the hallways are all environmental stimuli that can derail the focus of a child with ADHD. It is also important that a child’s study space within the home be free of extraneous distractions. This can be challenging, especially when children have to access technology for school assignments. Let’s face it, our kids are more socially connected than ever and have constant access to one another. While engaged in online research or typing that English essay, a child may be distracted by the constant ping of group text messages and tempted to read every word in that text box that pops up on the corner of their screen. Teaching a child with ADHD how to turn off notifications during homework time empowers them to take control of their study space and reduce distracting environmental stimuli.
Emotional Regulation and Academic Performance
Students living with ADHD experience a kind of built-in frustration much of the time. Often their thoughts are racing faster than their bodies can keep up. Many children with ADHD are of average to above average intelligence. They often understand the content presented in the classroom but struggle to demonstrate that understanding in school. Their input doesn’t always match their output. As such, students may fail tests, struggle with writing, or may not complete assignments and long term projects. It's a frustrating situation all around. Students with ADHD may begin to feel incapable and defeated, and may even go so far as to simply give up on the task at hand. We can support children in building self-awareness and developing an understanding of how their brains work best. Students struggling with this frustration may also benefit from learning how to engage in positive self-talk or use deep breathing strategies during times of stress.
ADHD often impedes a student’s readiness for learning, thus adversely impacting academic performance. Understanding the effects of ADHD on academic performance empowers parents and teachers to take a proactive stance and teach children the strategies and tools that enable them to overcome obstacles and be fully available for learning.
Do you have a child with ADHD? Is it affecting his or her performance in school? Find out how Executive Function coaching can help your child overcome the challenges of ADHD and learn the skills needed to be a productive and confident student.
Jennifer Flewelling, M.Ed., is an Executive Function coach with Beyond BookSmart as well as a certified elementary school teacher and principal, with 17 years experience in education. Jennifer has developed English Language Arts curricula, consulted with local school districts, and is now instructing in teacher preparation and educational leadership programs at Salem State University and Endicott College. A graduate of Salem State University, Jennifer spearheaded various general education initiatives focusing on supporting students’ academic, social, and emotional growth. She co-founded Fort Beverly, a non-profit organization focused on providing in school and community supports to students and families whose loved ones are deployed on active duty. Jennifer led her school staff in creating a school-based Therapeutic Learning Center in an effort to provide a tiered structure of general education interventions to students with social-emotional, behavioral, and executive function challenges. This model was later adopted by the public school district and replicated across all elementary schools in the city. Jennifer’s work in school leadership is featured as a case study in the text, Leading for Powerful Learning, (Breidenstein et al., 2012), and she has presented her work at conferences throughout the state. Through these experiences, Jennifer has affirmed her belief that with effective instruction and appropriate supports, all students have the capacity to achieve high standards and meet every goal they set for themselves.