Primary schools | SEND

How primary schools can support students with ADHD

By Joanne Starkie

16 Feb 2023


Primary school students diagnosed with ADHD often show symptoms such as inattention, forgetfulness and hyperactivity. Keep reading to find out how schools can support learners with ADHD to thrive.

If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, helping them to deal with their symptoms is challenging and, at times, it can be distressing, for both you and your child.

Fortunately, many mainstream primary schools have support systems in place to help students with ADHD to manage their symptoms, cope in a classroom situation and overcome the difficulties caused by ADHD to improve their learning and social development.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behavioural condition which usually emerges during childhood, and it can become more apparent when a child undergoes a major change in their lives, such as when they start school. It is estimated that ADHD affects around 1 in 30 students, and it tends to be more commonly diagnosed in boys than girls.

Children with ADHD may display symptoms of inattentiveness, where they struggle to concentrate or focus on activities, or they could be hyperactive, restless and unable to sit still. Many children with the disorder display a combination of symptoms and, in most cases, indicators that a child may have ADHD usually appear by the age of six.

The specific causes of ADHD have not been fully determined, but studies indicate that the root could be genetic to some extent, as well as being more prevalent in children who have been born prematurely or who have suffered some form of brain injury. It has also been linked with certain lifestyle factors during pregnancy, including smoking, drinking alcohol, and substance misuse.

For a child to be diagnosed with ADHD, they need to have started displaying symptoms before the age of 12 and to have been showing symptoms continuously for at least 6 months in more than one setting (i.e., at school and at home or in wider social situations).

There are various strategies in place for treating ADHD, including medication, behavioural therapy, diet and nutrition, awareness courses for parents, and the provision of tailored support at school.

If you are concerned that your child may have ADHD, it is always a good idea to speak to their teachers for feedback to get a wider picture of their behaviour in the classroom and other situations at school before contacting your GP.

It is also important to stress that many children go through phases of inattentiveness or restlessness, but this does not necessarily mean that they have ADHD. Speaking with staff at your child’s school will help you to determine whether their behaviour may require further exploration and intervention, and whether your child requires additional support at school to help them manage their symptoms.

The common signs that children with ADHD display in the classroom can be divided into two broad categories of behaviour:

  • Struggling to focus, concentrate or absorb information
  • Inability to stick to a task or frequently trying to switch between activities
  • Appearing reluctant to listen to what the teacher is saying and unable to follow instructions
  • Repeatedly making careless mistakes with schoolwork and during class activities
  • Frequently forgetting things or misplacing belongings

  • Difficulty with sitting still and staying quiet in class
  • Tendency to interrupt when the teacher or other students are talking
  • Fidgeting a lot and regular bursts of excessive physical movement
  • Inability to wait their turn during classroom games and activities
  • Excessive talking
  • Acting without thinking and impulsivity

Many children with ADHD will display a combination of these symptoms and may require a range of different strategies to support them in the classroom.

ADHD is classed as a special educational need (SEN) as it can have a detrimental impact on a child’s ability to learn, affecting their concentration levels, ability to follow instructions and retain information, and potentially their ability to socialise properly or interact appropriately with others in the classroom.

Primary schools have certain obligations when it comes to providing support for students with ADHD under the guidelines set out by the Department for Education’s (DfE) SEN protocols.

Schools are required to provide a framework of support for SEN students and specific guidance on what institutions are responsible for putting in place is stipulated in the DfE’s SEN Code of Practice. The SEN Code of Practice has five stages, which are:

  • Action plan
  • School intervention
  • School and/or external support
  • Statutory assessment
  • Statement of educational need

It also outlines four main areas of support that schools need to make provisions for, which are:

  • Communication and interaction
  • Cognition and learning
  • Physical and sensory difficulties
  • Emotional, social and mental well-being

The SEN Code of Practice contains detailed information about what institutions must do to help. As ADHD can potentially affect multiple aspects of a child’s learning and development, it is important to discuss their needs with their teachers or the school’s SEN coordinator to ensure they are receiving the right help.

If school intervention is required to support a child with a special educational need, an IEP will be created. This will contain specific strategies and the steps that will be taken at each stage to support students with ADHD, including several short-term and longer-term specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound (SMART) targets.

Depending on the type of ADHD symptoms a student is displaying, this could include SMART targets for improving concentration and focus, staying calm and quiet, minimising disruption in class, increasing attainment or socialising more effectively with teachers and peers.

As a parent, your input is crucial in the formulation of a robust IEP for your child if they have ADHD, as you will be able to offer valuable insight into their behaviour patterns, their predominant ADHD symptoms at home, their strengths and weaknesses, things they respond positively to, and what makes them uncomfortable.

You should take the opportunity to discuss your input and concerns with your child’s teachers to make sure they have adequate support in place and their IEP reflects their needs, such as whether you feel they would benefit from following a special learning programme, receiving extra help from a teaching assistant, being placed in a smaller group, or support to communicate with other children.

While primary schools have a set of guidelines and requirements to follow when it comes to supporting students with ADHD, there are also many ways in which individual primary teachers can help children manage their symptoms and, over time, go on to thrive in class and enjoy their time at school.

Many children with ADHD struggle to stay focused on tasks and remain still and calm. Primary teachers can counteract these tendencies by establishing a clear and rigid routine and sticking to a predetermined structure for the day.

Class rules, such as no interrupting, putting your hand up to ask questions, or sitting still when the teacher is talking, should also be displayed and reiterated in a way that students with ADHD can understand and absorb.

Maintaining a healthy and efficient routine and adhering to class rules will contribute to maintaining an orderly classroom environment and help children with ADHD improve their focus and discipline.

Students with ADHD can struggle to communicate effectively, either by talking excessively, interrupting when others are talking or struggling to listen to what the teacher or their fellow students are saying.

Teachers can try to improve communication by establishing ground rules when speaking and listening, encouraging students to think before they speak, requiring everyone to put their hands up if they want to speak, and including regular mini question-and-answer sessions to check understanding and ensure any information or instruction has been received and understood by the students.

As concentrating on a task or doing a repetitive activity can be a challenge for students with ADHD, teachers can alter how a task is presented and the pace it is carried out to try to make it as interesting and engaging as possible.

Tasks can be broken down into more manageable chunks and allow flexibility in how information and instructions are presented to students. Teachers can also introduce a rewards system as an incentive for students to stay on course when completing tasks and motivate them to remain focused for longer, such as through games-based learning.

As many children with ADHD are visual learners, introducing visual aids in the classroom can help with all aspects of managing symptoms and improving their learning.

Teachers can use visual aids such as pictures, flashcards, posters, graphic organisers, storyboards, knowledge organisers and videos to encourage students to stay focused on tasks, improve communication, adhere to the class rules and feel more connected with what is happening in the classroom.

Students can also be asked to get involved in making visual aids which will help to improve concentration, allowing learners to take ownership of the task and make a positive contribution to classroom activities.

Hyperactivity, restlessness, the compulsion to be physically active and the urge to talk all the time or interrupt others when they are speaking are all common symptoms of ADHD. These can be very disruptive in the classroom, as well as frustrating and distressing for those living with these behavioural traits. Without being properly managed, these types of behaviour can lead to disjointed and disorganised lessons, cause frustration for fellow pupils and have an overarching negative impact on every member of the class.

There is a range of strategies that primary teachers can use to deal with and deter disruption, distractions and lack of focus in class.

Where children with ADHD sit in class can have an impact on how easily distracted they become: for example, if they sit facing the window or next to another student who tends to distract them they will more readily lose focus, whereas if they are sitting next to a calmer learner or closer to the teacher they may be quieter and more engaged.

As sitting still for a long time can be very difficult for children with ADHD, incorporating physical activity and regular breaks into the lesson will help to prevent any unwanted outbursts of excessive movement during moments where quiet concentration is required.

Providing stress balls and different fidget toys can help to calm restless students and help them to channel their urge to move around excessively during class. Just ensure these are used as the fidget tools they are, not as another source of distraction for the class.

As a parent, you can receive advice about ADHD and how to help your child to cope with it from their school. Additionally, you can get a lot of helpful information about living with ADHD through the NHS, awareness training courses and specialist support groups.

You can also take steps at home to help your child deal with everyday life, manage their symptoms and get into a good routine when completing their homework:

  • Break their daily routine down into manageable, structured steps
  • Establish clear boundaries, offer praise and small rewards to celebrate positive behaviour and be specific about what your child has done well
  • Give clear and concise instructions when you want your child to do something
  • Try to establish a positive and calming night-time routine to ensure your child gets enough sleep and avoid overly stimulating activities before bed
  • Ensure your child is receiving the right nutrition and their diet is not inadvertently making symptoms worse (your GP can help with this)
  • Choose a quiet, calm and orderly part of the house for your child to do their homework
  • Use checklists and colour-coded folders to stay on track and organised
  • Introduce visual aids and technology to retain your child’s interest
  • Schedule regular short breaks to keep them focused

Living with ADHD is not easy for any child or parent but there is help, information and support available from your child’s school, medical professionals and specialist ADHD support organisations. Not all children with ADHD have the same symptoms, which is why primary schools offer individual support plans in addition to employing effective strategies in the classroom to help students with the condition and to minimise disruption for the rest of the class.

If you are concerned your child has started displaying symptoms of ADHD or they have already been diagnosed with the condition, it is crucial to speak to their school to make sure they receive the ongoing support they need to manage their symptoms and improve their learning and development.

Although ADHD is a challenging condition to live with for all concerned, there are many ways your child’s primary school can help them and there are also lots of positive steps you can take at home to further support your child’s academic, social and emotional development if they have ADHD.

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