5 Teaching Strategies For Students With Attention Differences

5 Teaching Strategies For Students With Attention Differences

Before I share some teaching strategies for working with students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), let’s start with an ADHD quiz. Identify which of the following are true or false:

  • ADHD is a learning disability
  • ADHD is caused by diets rich in food additives and sugar
  • Most individuals with ADHD are of gifted intelligence
  • According to DSM-V criteria, all individuals with ADHD have problems with attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity
  • Children with ADHD perform best on assignments that are detailed and complex

The answers? While every assertion above is false, a great deal of misinformation exists about ADHD.

What is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?  

ADHD is a chronic disorder caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that can begin in infancy and extend through adulthood. Students with ADHD show a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. 

Diagnosis can only be done by healthcare professionals. One reference they use to help diagnose ADHD is the DSM-5. Learn more.

Today I’d like to share some ideas on how we can better support ADHD students in our classrooms.

Teaching Strategies

1. Structure and Schedule

Structure the classroom so that expectations are clearly understood, rules are plainly stated, and routines are predictable. Review the classroom rules frequently. If a student is having difficulty with a specific rule, write down the rule for the student. Be clear and concise. Provide the student with specific examples of the rules.

Keep a daily schedule on the board or another prominent place. Discuss the schedule and remind in advance any changes that will occur. Use signals such as turning the light off/on, ringing a bell or playing music as a gentle reminder that the activity is coming to a close.

2. Environment

Place the student in a location with a minimal number of distractions. Students with attention differences should be seated away from doors, windows, or high traffic areas. Seat students who are good role models near students with attention differences.

Place the majority of colorful items in the back of the classroom, or an area not facing the students during group instruction. This will help alleviate distractions.

3. Movement/Energy

Allow the student to release excess energy. It is difficult for many students with attention differences to sit for long period of times. This movement can include a trip to the restroom, serving as a messenger to another classroom, helping erase the board, or simply standing and stretching. Green and red flip cards can also be useful. When the red side is showing it means the student needs to remain seated. When the green side is showing the student may quietly move about the room.

Students with attention differences respond well to tasks they can complete by doing. Movement aids their ability to attend to classroom activities and retain information.

When working with young students, especially elementary level students, use a lot of whole-body (gross motor) activities. Keep hands busy and allow for postures other than sitting. Provide strong visual input and “show” then “tell” students.

4. Tools/Materials

If the student is having difficulty completing assignments within the allotted time, set a timer. The timer can coincide with the amount of time you perceive the student is able to remain focused. Tell the student what you expect to be completed in the allotted time. Gradually, the time can be increased and the student can experience success in completing the assignment.

If possible, allow the student to have an extra set of classroom materials, or an extra instrument at home. This can help with the transition and assure that the student will be in class with all required materials.

5. Social Coaching

Coach the student in social skills. Students with attention differences often have difficulty relating to peers. They may cut in line, talk too much, blurt out answers, interrupt conversations, or intrude in games. They also sometimes have difficulty making friends.

Give the student guided practice in ways to handle various situations. Over time, this can help the student become more observant of his behavior, more aware of alternative ways of behaving, and less impulsive when responding.

Additional Strategies

Put emphasis on quality rather than quantity when making assignments. Consider reducing assignments and emphasizing competency and mastery. Students with attention differences may also need extra time to complete assignments.

Use random strategies when calling on students during large and small group activities. Place the students’ names in a basket and randomly select one. Be sure to call on the student with attention differences before she becomes agitated from waiting longer than she is able.

Encourage students to learn to plan by requiring the use of a homework and/or day planner and helping students develop a “stop” strategy:  

    • Stop – slow down – take a deep breath
    • Think – What is my problem?
    • Options – What are my choices?
    • Plan – What am I going to do?

Finally, assist the students with any transition difficulties that could lead to organizational or behavioral differences during class. Allow the student a few additional minutes to adjust and organize materials before beginning class.


Dr. Alice Hammel, Ph. D., is a music educator, author, and clinician. She teaches for James Madison and Virginia Commonwealth Universities in music education and music theory respectively, has taught both instrumental and choral music, and has maintained a flute studio for more than 20 years. She is the autism spectrum disorder music intervention specialist for ASSET (Autism Spectrum Support, Education and Training), a division of Virginia Youth and Family Services. Dr. Hammel is a co-author of Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-free Approach, and Teaching Music to Students with Autism, available through Oxford University Press. She is the author of Winding It Back: Teaching to Individual Differences in Music Classroom and Ensemble Settings and has been published widely in music, arts, special, and general education journals.

Get the best from SmartMusic

Discover practical music education tips, delivered directly to you!

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By viewing or browsing our site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. More Information