Ideas for a brighter future for all

How can students with ADHD be better supported at school?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting approximately 8.2% of all Australian children and 11% of boys. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), it is characterised by developmentally inappropriate levels of inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity that can impact adversely at home, at school, and in peer-related contexts. For many students with ADHD, the classroom can be a highly demanding environment as difficulty managing unwanted behaviours can make schooling a challenging and negative experience. The increasing prevalence of ADHD in Australia and the perceived limited progress to date in regard to appropriate interventions and resources for teachers for this student group is concerning. Even though there has been recent research around schooling and ADHD from the perspective of teachers, there remains fewer studies devoted to kinds of resources that could be helpful to teachers in their capacity to enrich the learning for these students.

A students view

A recent study (under review) explored the kinds of resources that students identified that were most helpful to their learning. 67 Australian school students with ADHD between the age of 11-16 years completed a survey about the kinds of educational support that they perceived were helpful to their schooling. Fidget spinners and wobble cushions are popular, however, there is little research to confirm the benefits of their use.  

A teachers view

From the teacher perspective, they are a popular choice as they are not as time consuming to implement such as extra time to complete tasks and note-taking interventions. The students in the study also identified a “movement’ or “brain” break as helpful to accommodate for ADHD type behaviours. However, the research is not conclusive in regard to physical exercise and its capacity to improve focus and concentration for students with ADHD.

A parents view

Of high importance for parents, is for teachers to have a good knowledge and understanding of ADHD, so that they are confident that their child’s educator will be able to confidently accommodate for their classroom needs and ensure they can reach their full academic potential. However, research over the past few decades has continued to report that teachers understanding of ADHD is not comprehensive and often inaccurate. Gaps in knowledge by teachers also limit their capacity to understand the causes of ADHD as well as accommodations and behaviour management interventions that are best suited for students who are experiencing difficulty with focus and concentration.

" ... research over the past few decades has continued to report that teachers understanding of ADHD is not comprehensive and often inaccurate."
Reform required

A comprehensive survey of 1024 Australian school teachers was completed by ADHD Australia to gather and identify Australian Educators’ knowledge, experience and training to enhance support for students with ADHD. The demographics included teachers across all states and territories, the three school sectors (State, Independent and Catholic), and Primary and Secondary educators from metropolitan, regional and rural areas. The results revealed that just over half of all teachers have some knowledge of ADHD but the survey did not highlight the extent of their knowledge (e.g., very good, good or poor). Just over fifty percent of the participants indicated that they do not know how to adequately support students with ADHD in their classroom. The majority of the recipients also revealed that their pre-service teacher training did not adequately prepare them to recognise or support students with ADHD. As one teacher stated, “if you didn’t major in special needs education, you didn’t get any instruction in this area,” while another teacher shared that  “ADHD is barely taught, understood or considered in Australia. I don’t think the ageing lecturers at my Uni were well-versed in things like ADHD in their professional experience.” These comments are highly concerning and point to the need for university courses to include mandatory learnings to adequately prepare pre-service teachers to teach students with ADHD.

The teachers also highlighted that there are considerable differences in resources and/or learning support available to teachers and students across states and primary and secondary school settings. However, the types of resources that were popular or beneficial other than teacher aide/learning support officer assistance was not explored. For teachers to be better equipped to teach students with ADHD, they suggested on-going and up-to-date professional learning experiences. Secondly, the teachers indicated that they would appreciate authoritative, current and accessible information that would help them to more effectively teach and support students with ADHD.

The teachers commented on the need for educational reform to ensure students with ADHD have access to quality education that is equitable and responds to their academic needs. Many made comments similar to this teacher who asked, “what is the current ‘best practice’ model for support?” or another teacher who queried “where can I find information about evidence-based practice that enhances the teaching and learning environment for students with ADHD?” Their questions highlight the importance of coaching mentors for teachers to include ADHD experts such as specialists and allied health professionals who can access to schools on a need by need basis to provide on-going mentoring to teachers as well as families. The importance of collaboration to support students with ADHD through sharing ideas and respecting individual’s knowledge and experiences is an important step toward improving teacher knowledge and understanding of ADHD. For students with ADHD to be adequately and appropriately supported during their educative years, collaboration by classroom teachers with significant others who are connected to their schooling is paramount.

Additional resources needed

For students with ADHD to reach their full academic potential at school, they require classroom teachers who can provide an inclusive and effective learning environment. For this to happen, continued research is required that identifies the types of supports and resources that are evidenced-based and well-suited to the learning needs of students with ADHD. Improving teacher knowledge and understanding of ADHD, the availability and use of interventions that meet the students’ learning needs, and on-going coaching and mentoring by educative specialists in the field of ADHD, are some ways to improve the learning for children and adolescents with ADHD.

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Dr Kathy GibbsDr Kathy Gibbs has taught across a range of disciplines and held several high-profile teaching positions in schools in NSW and QLD. Dr Gibbs is currently the Program Director of the Bachelor of Education in the School of Education and Professional Studies (EPS) at Griffith University. Kathy is a member of the Board of Directors for ADHD Australia.

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