Supporting students with ADHD in the mainstream secondary classroom

Author: Emma Mahony
Published: 27/04/2023
Enthusiastic students leaping in the school corridor

I myself was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 52 so have a special place for those with the condition when I meet it in the classroom. Like many adults, I got my diagnosis after my child was diagnosed, following his suspension from school in year 7. Although I had yet to become a teacher at that point, I began to research this complex neurodevelopmental disorder, resulting in a book I published on the subject in October 2020, realising that many of my son’s challenges were similar to mine at school.

The challenges

However, when I started teaching six years ago, I quickly became overwhelmed by the obvious needs of the SEN children in a mixed-ability class when training as a teacher, and instead of compassion for my fellow ADHDers, I often felt a particular frustration with them and their constant disruptive ways. The three traits of ADHD – distractibility, restlessness and impulsivity – would often result in pupils calling out without putting their hand up (impulsivity), leaning back on their chair or tapping on the desk with pens and rulers (restlessness), or not following instructions and finishing work (distractibility).

With the incidence of ADHD at around 5% of the population,[1] I realised that I could expect at least one child in every class of 30, and often there was often no formal diagnosis on the register to offer further insight. I even began to worry that my own ADHD was somehow a trigger for class clown behaviour. Through observations and discussions with my more experienced mentor during my final NQT assessment period, I began to put greater effort into differentiation with my resources. Her mantra was to make every pupil leave feeling successful in the subject, even if it meant paring back the learning objective.

Planning for success

I no longer paid lip service to the obligatory ‘extension’ and ‘support’ details on each slide of my PowerPoint, and I started to overhaul my resources and handouts with the SEN pupils in my mind. First, I was encouraged to use more colour in my photocopies, provide writing frames for every writing exercise and provide vocabulary handouts so nobody had to copy from the board. Most importantly, I thought hard about making the less able feel successful in my lessons – moving them to the front of the class nearest my desk, even though I had been tempted to leave them at the back of the class.

With my mentor’s support, I began to understand that this level of planning (usually a Sunday afternoon) would actually save me time because I wouldn’t be circulating around the class keeping order or fire-fighting some incident that had broken out in the back corner, but instead would be quietly slipping those pupils a carefully planned handout to support their learning.

Improving behaviour

Then I turned to behaviour issues. I made my more hyperactive pupils into ‘book monitors’, a special status I had borrowed from primary schools, allowing pupils to be go-betweens between classes or to be out of their seat at the start and end of the class, dispensing and collecting the exercise books and textbooks. Often ADHD pupils crave recognition and attention, hence their behaviour, so now I also had a reason to motivate them positively with the school points system.

As the disruption in my class began to subside, my own teaching confidence improved, as did the peaceful and positive atmosphere in the class. Ironically, this also served the distractible ADHD students. After a few months of this approach, what I loved about teaching – sharing knowledge and seeing progress in pupils – was now visible in my mark book.

[1] NICE Guidelines

Emma Mahony

Emma Mahony was a journalist for the Times newspaper before changing career and becoming a secondary school teacher through the Now Teach scheme in 2017. She now teaches modern foreign languages (French and Spanish) to KS3 in Sussex. She is also author of Better Late Than Never: Understand, Survive and Thrive a Midlife Diagnosis of ADHD.