Attention, Working Memory and ADHD

Attention and ADHD don’t go together. It’s one big reason why kids with ADHD struggle in school. But it’s not their fault – it’s a neurological developmental delay. And there are things teachers can do to help students with ADHD cope better.

There are three subtypes of Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Inattentive type, Hyperactive/Impulsive type, and Combined (both inattention and hyperactivity). One study looking at student experiences of ADHD recorded difficulties with attention in the words of students. Quotes from the study included reflections of inattention: “when I find it hard to do something I normally kind of just zone out”—Felicity, 11 years, “probably concentrating sometimes”—Rory, 9 years.

Fortunately, there are also many evidence-based strategies for in the classroom to support ADHD.

How to support attention in ADHD

Introduce physical activity

Physical activity helps with hyperactive type ADHD. It also supports greater attention in class. We have a giant list of brain breaks here, which include a bunch of classroom friendly physical activity breaks.

Other ideas include giving these students tasks that require movement such as handing out books or sheets. They might have fidget toys or wobble chairs, stand up desks or other tools that enable them to discretely move.

Listen to quiet music while studying

Russell A. Barkley, an expert in ADHD, recommends listening to quiet music. Putting headphones on and listening to quiet music can help with focus and reducing external distractions.

Be entertaining

This study by McDougal et al also quotes children reflecting that their attention wanders when the work is boring. One student in the study is quoted a saying “I absolutely hate maths … ‘cause it’s boring”—Paige, 8 years.

Increase attention and motivation to learn by being fun and entertaining. This is supported by Reiber and McLaughlin who also promote keeping curriculum interesting, varying activities and using colourful materials. Their study suggests to use colour, large fonts and bold lettering.

Remove environmental distractions

A common strategy is to seat a child with ADHD on their own at the front, away from others and windows. While several studies including this one from 2005, and this one from 2004, support this intervention, I think it warrants careful thinking. We don’t want to socially isolate children with ADHD. Indeed in the same 2004 study, children with ADHD report being bullied, having difficultly making friends, and being on the outer socially. Perhaps we can find ways to remove environmental distractions whilst still allowing ADHD students to be fully included in the class. Indeed, another strategy from the same study is to use peer tutoring to support ADHD students – you can’t do that sitting on your own!

Reinforce behaviours with praise

This study recommends having a private attention cue by the teacher to encourage the student to refocus and stay on task. This cue might just be saying the student’s name.

This study suggests that teachers give verbal praise as positive reinforcement of attention. The same study also suggests having a token economy to collect tangible rewards for good behaviours.

How to support working memory in ADHD

Inattention can also be related to low working memory in students with ADHD. Strategies include:

Simple directions

Ease the cognitive load of holding large amounts of information in working memory. A number of concrete strategies from the literature include providing:

  • single-step directions
  • written, simple instructions
  • FIRST, THEN lists or checklists of the tasks, or a visual schedule
  • have the student paraphrase instructions back to the teacher
  • check in individually with the student after whole class instruction to make sure they understand
  • keep instructions in written form up for a longer time – students with ADHD may forget and need to refer back again
  • don’t talk too much

Pointing out what’s important

When handing out tasks, try to reduce the words. Try strategies from this study like:

  • using colour, bold lettering or highlighting to draw attention to key aspects of tasks
  • breaking tasks into smaller steps, or only releasing small numbers of problems at a time
  • providing guided notes e.g. outlines, lesson headings, printed slides
  • make the text and instructions brief

Make it physical

Russel A. Barkley recommends offloading working memory by making it physical. A child can’t hold instructions for a task in their mind at the same time as working on the task – one of those things has to go.

Write instructions or reminders on a post-it note. Use index cards to record steps. Make lists on a white board. Make picture sequences of common processes. Whatever you can do to take information out of working memory and put it on paper somewhere else helps.

Have regular breaks

Regular activity or brain breaks help recharge attention. Again, we have a list of brain breaks here, which include classroom friendly physical activity breaks.

References

McDougal, E., Tai, C., Stewart, T.M. et al. Understanding and Supporting Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the Primary School Classroom: Perspectives of Children with ADHD and their Teachers. J Autism Dev Disord 53, 3406–3421 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-022-05639-3

Reiber, C. & McLaughlin, T. F.. (2004). Classroom interventions: Methods to improve academic performance and classroom behavior for students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. International Journal of Special Education. 9. 1-13.

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