Building Bridges with Students Who Have ADHD - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

September 1, 2016

Building Bridges with Students Who Have ADHD

The one student who challenges us the most may be a gift in disguise.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Social-emotional learning
Building Bridges with Students Who Have ADHD thumbnail

This kid is going to ruin my reputation and my career. What if I actually lose control and start screaming incoherently at him? All that time and money for grad school down the drain. What other jobs could I possibly do? Will I have to move back in with my parents at this age? These thoughts ran through my mind every time I met Baxter for our twice-weekly sessions. It took every iota of mental energy I had to push them away and concentrate on working with this 4th-grade boy on strategies for managing his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

I dreaded those sessions. And I knew that Baxter hated working with me. He told me so often, in a variety of creative and sometime hurtful ways. It was understandable—after working hard all day at school to pay attention, he was simply wiped out, and now he had to spend extra time with some strange lady who was trying to get him to do even more work. Not only that, but she was also making him work on the things that were hardest for him—organizing, planning ahead, checking details, handwriting, reading, and writing essays. Even cleaning out his backpack was a major chore for both of us. It was so full of crumpled papers, dirty clothes, sticks, and food wrappers that I was amazed that any folders and books could even fit in there.

Baxter pushed me away every moment that we worked together. He was rude, sarcastic, and often downright mean. He got up and walked away every time I asked him to do something he didn't want to do, which was … everything. When his mother asked me whether adding a third session a week would be beneficial, everything in me cried out to respond that I thought I should refer him to someone else, for both our sakes.

Stepping Up My Game

At that crossroads, however, I pushed myself to remember what I say to my college students when I talk about the kids I work with: "They're so used to being rejected, pushed away, and made to feel bad about themselves, especially when it comes to school, that the number one strategy I have for helping them is that I really like them, and I see their strengths." So I challenged myself to really, really like Baxter.

It wasn't easy. I worked harder with Baxter than with any other student I've ever worked with. In the car on the way to the appointment, I would tell myself, "Smile. Feel happy. You like this kid. This will be a fun hour." I listened to music that would charge up my energy and put me in a good mood before I saw him. I focused my thoughts on being present with him, not on how much time was left before the session ended. I made bad jokes to try to entertain both of us. If he told me he liked something, I spent time researching it so that I could talk to him about it. I worked hard to find materials he was interested in so that we could practice skills while exploring topics that were fun for him. If he got up and walked away, instead of saying, "Come back and sit down," I would say, "Looks like you need a break. Let's go outside and walk and talk." We developed inside jokes—about both him and me, but mostly about me.

I was honest with Baxter, telling him when I was feeling frustrated, but explaining that I was frustrated because I believed in him. I asked him for suggestions about how I could change my own behavior to help him more. He was honest with me, telling me things like, "When you interrupt my reading to correct a word, it throws me off. Can you wait until the end of the page to tell me the words I got wrong?" I listened, and we joked about how hard it was for me not to jump in.

I worked so hard to like him that I actually kind of started looking forward to seeing him. I started to really like him. And because of this change in me, he started to really like me. This change didn't happen quickly. In fact, it happened painfully slowly, with a lot of setbacks and mistakes on my part. I tried to be honest with him about these mistakes, saying things like, "I don't like how that sentence came out of my mouth. Let me try it again."

What Teachers Can Do

I know that most teachers don't have the luxury of working one-on-one with students like I do, and they don't have extended lengths of time to patiently connect with kids. But I also know, from years of working with students who struggle in school, that even one positive, authentic comment from a teacher can resonate for years, changing the feelings students have about themselves and about school.

For students with ADHD, finding this connection and changing the way they think teachers see them is incredibly important. There are many fine books and online resources that deal with helping students with ADHD learn academic material or manage their behavior, and I urge readers to check them out, but I want to focus here on strategies for connecting with these students. Try some of the following ideas for at least a few weeks without giving up, and see which ones improve your relationship with a student whom you're having trouble connecting with.

  • Ask the student to help you figure out what he needs and how you can help him. This strategy is effective for connecting because you're establishing that both of you are responsible for working together to make sure that both the student's needs and your needs are met. Be clear about what the student needs to learn, what the limits are, and why, but also ask for and truly consider his input. This process not only shows students that you value their ideas, but it can also give you some useful information.

  • Frame new strategies as experiments, not decrees. I usually ask kids, "Can we try something that I've seen work for some other kids? Are you open to trying something new that might make some things easier for you?" I ask them to try a new strategy for a week; then we'll discuss how things went and tweak the idea or abandon it. This process puts us both on the same side as we try to solve an interesting problem, instead of looking like I'm trying to control or fix something "wrong" with the kid.

  • Teach students how to question and challenge in a manner that will get them heard, not written off as simply rude or immature. Tell the student that you're open to correction if you're doing something that's not ideal for her learning and comfort level, but also teach her how to provide this feedback in a respectful, positive manner. For example, I told Baxter, "It's really helpful for me to know that sometimes you're trying to put your thoughts together when it looks to me like you're just zoning out. But can we make a hand signal for you to show me that you're doing this, instead of you yelling at me when I try to get you back to work?"

  • Rather than trying to clamp down on off-task behaviors, use them to get to know students better. I would tell Baxter, "Let's do five math problems, and then you can tell me the story you want to share right now," or "Let's write one paragraph, and then you can play your favorite song for me while we organize your folder."

  • Share stories with students about your own struggles with getting work done, paying attention, or staying organized. Stories that don't have an ideal outcome can be especially helpful; they show how, even as an adult, you have to keep problem-solving to find strategies that work for you.

  • Try as much as you can to accommodate the needs of students with ADHD, within the constraints of your own classroom management needs. For example, although many people recommend placing students with ADHD in the front row, I sometimes offer students the option of sitting in the back row so they can stand up or pace without being disruptive to other students. Giving students choices about what they think might work best for them can set the stage for a trusting relationship.

  • Make deals with students about behaviors that you both want to change. For example, many students with ADHD have sleep disturbances, which can further harm their ability to focus in class. I will say to kids, "I have a harder time falling asleep if I'm playing on my phone or watching TV right before bed, but it's so hard to put all the screens away. How about if we both try just reading a book before bed for the next week, and then let's check in about how it went?" Framing the change in terms of something that's hard for both of us bonds us together, rather than just making it about one more thing that's "wrong" with the student. It also allows me to model how I handle obstacles that are keeping me from reaching my own goals.

  • Try as hard as you can to limit negativity in your interactions with a challenging student, not only out loud but also in your head. Acknowledge your negative feelings and thoughts, but then try to change them into something positive. If you find yourself frustrated with a student, try to find something that you genuinely like and respect about that student, and repeat it to yourself. Even better, say it or write it to the student. Changing your thinking will change your attitude in a way that the student will usually pick up on.

  • Have students teach you something. Like many other kids, Baxter loved video games. I am terrible at video games—when I have to play them, I just randomly push buttons and hope the experience ends soon. I would let Baxter spend the last five minutes of some sessions teaching me how to play one of his favorite video games. This time was a great investment in our relationship. He could be the expert, and I gained empathy for what it felt like to have someone get frustrated with me for not understanding something that came quite easily to him. Most important, we could engage in what cements any good relationship: laughing and having a good time.

  • As much as you have time to do so, take a beat to stop and acknowledge that a student with ADHD may have the right answer, even if it's not the answer you were initially looking for. If Baxter gave an answer to a question that I thought was incorrect, I would usually say, "That wasn't was I was thinking, but let's double-check to see if I'm wrong or if there is more than one way to do this." Or I would say, "I don't think that's right, but try to convince me!" This response acknowledges and values the students' point of view while teaching them valuable skills, such as building an argument. Many times, I've found that this type of interaction demonstrated that a student was actually thinking in an incredibly creative manner that I never would have seen otherwise.

  • If a student seems to be off-task or is having trouble getting started, don't assume he hasn't been paying attention; instead, offer a different way for getting a foot in the door to start the project. Often, students with ADHD have so many ideas that it's hard for them to pull those ideas together and explain their thinking so that others can follow their train of thought. When I find they're having a hard time getting started on a paper, I'll tell them to just talk about the book or subject and not to worry about transitioning from idea to idea right now. If they enjoy art, I'll ask them to draw their ideas. Acknowledging students' unique ways of thinking will help you see their abilities in a different light, which will improve your relationship.

  • If it's possible, allow students to work just outside the classroom door (if there isn't too much noise that could be a potential distractor) or even better, in an area with grass and trees. Being outside or around natural objects can be helpful for all students, but especially for students with ADHD; even a plant on a student's desk can sometimes help her feel calmer and more focused. When I find that students are having trouble staying on task, we'll go outside, either for a short break or to actually get some work done. We may run flashcards or record ideas for an essay on the phone while walking around the block.

  • Finally, and hardest of all, be patient. If you lose your temper, acknowledge it, explain why it happened, and let the student know that you want to work together to repair the relationship. Let him see that although you won't put up with rude or disrespectful behavior, you're going to continue to like him and you won't give up on him. Your relationship won't change overnight; students who struggle in school tend to distrust teachers, and you may have many years of difficult experiences to make up for. But even if your relationship hasn't changed by the last day of school, you're setting the stage to make it just slightly easier for next year's teacher to establish a good relationship.

Back to Baxter

My rough relationship with 4th-grade Baxter gave me a gift. It allowed me to practice patience and taught me how to repair the times when I let that patience wear thin. I'm both a better practitioner and a better person for having him in my life.

I changed Baxter's name for this article, but I didn't have to; Baxter knows exactly how I felt about him. I talked about it in a speech I gave at his high school graduation dinner two years ago, to which he responded, "Yeah, I hated you when we first met. Hated you!"

These days, I usually hear from Baxter when he is begging me to proofread an essay for a pre-med class (at his first-choice college) that's due in a few hours. "Did I teach you nothing about planning ahead?" I write. "This time, I'm not reading it at the last minute." And then I do it anyway. Because I adore this kid.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?