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Empowering Children with ADHD at School: Strategies for Success

Includes advice for parents, how to help with problems on the playground and 15 strategies for teachers to try.

ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, though I prefer to use the word ‘differences’ because having an ADHD mind doesn’t mean a child is broken.

As educators and caregivers, it is crucial to create an inclusive and supportive learning environment that empowers children with ADHD to reach their full potential. In this blog, we will explore effective strategies to help children with ADHD thrive at school, fostering their academic and personal growth.

Click on images to discover recommended books and resources.

ADHD is not the result of poor parenting, laziness, diet or a child being naughty. Individual genes affect a person’s chances of having ADHD, in the same way as they affect someone’s chances of being tall or short, or a person’s hair colour. ADHD develops due to differences in the size, structure and wiring of the brain- we call this neurodivergence. About 5% of children have ADHD, with boys being three times more likely to receive a diagnosis than girls.

Individuals with ADHD can be mostly inattentive, mostly hyperactive and impulsive, or a combination of both presentations. There are treatments to help with ADHD, as advised by a healthcare practitioner. These may include therapeutic approaches and medication. No two children with ADHD will have exactly the same presentation, so it is important to understand the individual needs of a child and that these will vary over time.

Here are two useful definitions of ADHD:

‘Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurological disorder that impacts the parts of the brain that help us plan, focus on, and execute tasks.’ ADDitude

‘People with ADHD have great difficulties with using their executive functions for purposes of self-regulation and attaining their goals.’ Dr Russell Barkley

What’s it like for a child with an ADHD mind?

Before diving into specific strategies for how to help children at school, it’s important to develop a solid understanding of ADHD. This will help guide you in planning what types of support to put in place.

Most people have some awareness that ADHD makes it hard for a child to concentrate, but many are unaware of the numerous other difficulties that a child with ADHD may struggle with. Having an ADHD mind can make it hard for a child to:

  • Control impulses – Also called inhibition, if you tell a child with ADHD to stop doing something, they have likely already done it! Dr Hallowell explains that an ADHD mind is like having the engine of a racing car but the brakes of a bicycle. This is one reason children with ADHD often find it hard to settle to sleep.
  • Plan ahead and be organised – Possibly one of the more frustrating difficulties parents deal with… lost PE kits are expensive to replace! Some children will also find it hard to visualise different steps of a project in their mind. This makes it very hard to work towards an end goal, such as writing a story.
  • Have a sense of time – ADHD minds struggle to work in a linear way; they might go from A to B via H, D and Z!. Typically, children with ADHD find it hard to sense when deadlines are getting nearer, often leaving schoolwork to the very last minute.
  • Perform tasks consistently – Children with ADHD minds may know what to do but find it very hard to control their emotions and impulses in order to put their knowledge into practice- they find it hard to apply their knowledge ‘in the moment.’
  • Sift and sort sensory input – When the ADHD brain processes information taken in through the senses (speech, smells, colours, etc) it tends to experience everything all at once, finding it hard to filter out irrelevant information and give attention to what is important. This can be very overwhelming for children, especially in busy environments.
  • Regulate emotions – Meltdowns are NOT temper tantrums. They are very distressing, highly emotional and physically exhausting experiences where a child is not in control to be able to make choices and feels utterly overwhelmed.
  • Think flexibly when problem-solving – This is especially difficult for children when their emotions are heightened and the reactive part of the brain takes over the rational part. Some children find it hard to use private speech (talking to yourself in your mind) for problem-solving and overcoming obstacles.
  • Use working memory – Imagine a mini notepad in your child’s mind where information gets erased too quickly, or it’s not big enough to hold everything they need to think about when completing a task. Throw in some daydreaming and being easily distracted… this is why a child may go upstairs to get their bag, hat and bottle, but come down and ask when they’re going to the cinema!
  • Focus on one thing at a time – The ADHD mind can be super inquisitive and gets very excited about numerous things at once. Sometimes a child’s senses are overloaded so their brain struggles to know what to focus on.
  • Remain alert – Children who are more inattentive have brains that keep switching off and often feel very ‘foggy.’ Trying to remain alert can cause a child to feel really tired. Imagine how you feel after driving 5 hours. Now imagine someone is asking you to drive 5 hours every day of the week.
  • Be themselves in front of others (masking) – Some children try to hide their difficulties because they want to please others and/or avoid being reprimanded. Others may try to hide their struggles for fear of embarrassment and not wanting to be different. Either way, masking places a child at greater risk of developing mental health needs, especially anxiety, and interferes with learning, as it is exhausting to sustain.
  • Cope with constructive criticism (rejection sensitivity) – Intense emotional sensitivity to criticism (including friendly, constructive feedback) can feel like rejection. This may stem from differences in the brain and/or daily experiences of receiving consequences for unwanted behaviours.

How parents and carers can help

It can be worrying and frustrating if your child is struggling at school, especially if they become unhappy, anxious and start to show signs of emotionally-based school avoidance. Even though you are not at school with your child, there are lots of things you can do to support and advocate for them. Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn about ADHD. No-one knows your child better than you. Learning more about ADHD will help you better explain your child’s strengths and needs to their teachers. Read books, watch videos and book onto courses- lots of charities offer free or cheap training for parents.
  • Sift through the myths. You’ll hear lots of different opinions about your child’s rights and what can or cannot be done to support your child at school. IPSEA is a fantastic, independent charity that explains the Law in clear articles. Have a browse to help you feel more confident in knowing what support to ask for.
  • Focus on executive function. One of the biggest difficulties for children with ADHD is executive function. This includes using the brain to plan, remember information, be organised, control impulses and regulate emotions. Executive function skills are particularly important for effective revision. You can help by sharing some tools with your child that compensate for these needs. Try the Smart But Scattered books by Guare and Dawson.
  • Be proactive during school transitions. Best practice is for schools to plan ahead, so it’s ok to ask how your child’s new teacher will know about the strategies that work well for them. Don’t be afraid to share information with the teacher, especially if the school have not had recent training. If you read a helpful article (like this one 😉) then consider emailing it with a friendly note. For info on how to create a transition pack, read my blog on school transitions.
  • Ask for regular home-school communication. This could be a book, email or quick chat at pick-up, either daily or weekly depending on your child’s needs. It’s a great way to hear about what’s going well for your child and reduces the pressure on your child to remember details of the school day. You can also let school know about things your child responds well to at home.
  • Boost your child’s self-esteem. Help your child understand ADHD and learn about their personal strengths. There are some fantastic videos and books available for all ages. Focus on boosting your child’s confidence and ask their teachers to do the same.
  • Encourage healthy habits. We know from research that children’s brains benefit from daily exercise, consistent sleep patterns and a healthy diet, all of which are directly linked with achievement at school. This can be really tricky to manage for children with ADHD, especially if there are side effects from medication. Speak to your child’s healthcare practitioner for advice, lead by example and follow your child’s interests.

Exercise: There may be charities in your local area that offer different sports in environments designed for neurodivergent children.

Sleep: Try music, reading, aromatherapy and white noise to aid sleep.

Diet: Never pressure children to eat as this can increase anxiety. Try to calmly encourage eating (getting stressed will make things worse); offer variety alongside favourite foods; try fun shaped ice cubes if your child dislikes water; and cook/bake together.

  • Ask questions. If you have a meeting with your child’s school, it can help to email in advance, writing 2-3 questions that you would appreciate answers to in the meeting. Responses will likely be more specific, and the overall meeting more productive, if teachers have chance to prepare.
  • Keep calm when doing home learning. One of the most frequent issues I hear about from parents is home learning. My advice is always to encourage and support, but focus on keeping home your child’s safe space where they can unwind. For each piece of homework set, make a note for the teacher sharing what your child did independently and what they needed help with. Check that your child’s home learning is being differentiated… how is the teacher adapting tasks so your child can understand what to do and show their knowledge? For older students, is there a homework club they can attend?

Still to come in this blog… advice on how to help with playground problems.

But first, let’s look at some evidence-based strategies that teachers and teaching assistants can use to engage and inspire children with ADHD.

Although the strategies below are designed for use in an education setting, parents and carers may find some of them helpful to try at home too.

What can teachers do to help?

Effective teaching approaches help children access what is being taught and support a child to show their learning. Here are some strategies to consider that can help children with ADHD…

15 teaching approaches to try

1. Wonder why: Behaviours are a child’s way of communicating or trying to cope with something, so taking time to explore what these are for the individual child you’re working with can have a massive impact on understanding how to help them. Blob Tree resources are simple to use in understanding a young person’s perspective, and there is a free guide on the website.

2. Build trust: The most important and effective way of supporting a child with ADHD is to proactively build a trusting relationship with the child you’re working with. Do not underestimate the power of relationship-based teaching approaches. Additionally, create a supportive and nurturing classroom environment where students feel safe expressing their emotions. 

3. Work together: Establishing a strong partnership with family members is vital when supporting children with ADHD. Regular communication and collaboration will help create consistency between home and school environments. Parents and carers can provide valuable insights into their child’s strengths, triggers and effective coping mechanisms. Together, you can develop a tailored support plan to ensure the child’s success. Many children with ADHD will also have a parent who is neurodivergent; regular communication, with empathy, will help reduce parental anxieties and build a positive home-school relationship.

4. Increase praise: Remind a child of reward incentives by showing them before starting tasks. Give frequent praise and rewards throughout the process of completing a task, not just at the end, to help build self-esteem and motivation. Be specific about what you are saying ‘well done’ for. To minimise rejection sensitivity, aim to share 3 pieces of positive feedback for every suggested ‘next step.’ Be mindful that you communicate praise in a way that the child feels comfortable with- do they prefer the whole class to see and hear or quiet, discreet recognition.

5. Communicate clearly: Establish and rehearse communication systems (visuals may be better than verbal systems, eg hand gestures or picture symbols) – how will the child tell you if they need help and how will you give them learning and behaviour prompts? Be very mindful of what the child feels comfortable with, especially at secondary school where children become increasingly concerned about how their peers view them.

6. Encourage movement: Engage children with ADHD through active learning strategies that encourage movement and participation. Many children with ADHD have a physical urge to move and remaining seated can take a great deal of effort, so plan regular movement breaks into each lesson. Consider using an adjustable table top, so the child can stand or sit as needed. Occupational Therapists can offer advice on the types of movements that help attention, and those that are calming.

7. Think visual: Display classroom rules visually and back up verbal communication with visual aids. These will help with any working memory needs. Visual timetables will help a child know what to expect from their day ahead. Some students like to use checklists and alarms, such as watches that vibrate with reminders. To help with planning school work, use written instructions with symbols or pictures and graphic organisers. Place a finished example of each activity on the child’s desk with 3-5 visual prompts as steps towards completing the overall task. Take a look at Sarah Ward’s approach Get Ready, Do, Done.

8. Model and scaffold: Show the child how to organise thoughts and put ideas onto paper, and create a visual reminder of the approaches you practice with the child. Older students may feel more comfortable receiving targeted teaching in private rather than during a lesson. Try using the phrase ‘watch me – together – show me’ to complete the first few items of an activity. Then, if the child feels confident, encourage them to have a go independently.

9. Be resourceful: Consider what resources may benefit the child, such as noise-blocking headphones, wiggle cushions and sensory boxes. Sensory items can also be made using craft materials and provide a great opportunity for cross-curricular activities. Ensure there is a safe space the child can go to if they need some time to feel calm. Utilise manipulatives, role-playing, technology and educational games to make lessons more engaging and accessible. Multi-sensory teaching helps children to process information and increases their active participation in the learning process. 

10. Prompt early: Discuss with the child what discreet prompts they might find helpful for refocusing attention and think about how the class environment helps or hinders concentration. Praise the child’s focus before they lose concentration. For example, say ‘you’re doing a great job of thinking about xxx, keep going.’

11. Give space: When a child with ADHD has a meltdown, their brain finds it very hard to process information, especially someone talking to them. In these situations a child needs space, patience, empathy and sensory comforts. Once calm, then use visual aids to reflect on what caused the meltdown and what further support the child may need.

12. Be flexible: An ADHD brain can grow and become more efficient, but this may take a lifetime for some children. Be patient and expect symptoms to come and go throughout the school year. Have a flexible approach where you can increase/adapt support based on the child’s needs at any given time.

13. Teach regulation: Traditional behaviour management approaches are typically ineffective in helping a child with ADHD to change unwanted behaviours. This is because the ADHD mind finds it very difficult to make choices when overwhelmed by emotions. You can help by explicitly teaching emotional literacy skills (recognising, understanding and regulating emotions), so the child can develop tools to help them self-calm and pause before responding to things they think are unfair or unkind.

14. Celebrate strengths: Find ways for a child to show their personal strengths that come from their ADHD brain, such as creativity, hyper-focus, sports skills, diverse thinking and resourcefulness. What projects can students get involved with where their unique strengths will shine?

15. Educate everyone: Teach the whole class about neurodiversity and neurodivergence so other children understand ADHD symptoms and have some ideas on how to respond in an empathic way. LEANS offer a free resource pack for schools. Share knowledge with colleagues for how to help children develop attention, concentration and inhibition skills. Managing ADHD in School, a book by leading expert Dr Russell Barkley, can be used to identify and plan targeted teaching sessions, including specific short-term outcomes.

Problems on the playground

Read on to find out what works for children with ADHD.

Playtimes are usually the most chaotic, noisy and busy parts of the school day. So it’s not surprising that most arguments and incidents happen during breaks. Unless the child you’re working with also has autism spectrum differences, they will typically know what to do during social disagreements but struggle to put their knowledge into practice in the moment. Here are some approaches to try when supporting children on the playground…

Remember the Playground Ps

  • PREDICT – Identify what support may be needed during break times and build this into the child’s personal plan. Try to predict triggers and ensure key strategies are communicated to all staff. For example, if football is a trigger, how can games be more closely supervised and what gentle reminders (visual and verbal) can you give the child before they start playing? 
  • PRACTISE – Teach the child sensory self-awareness, e.g. to recognise physical changes in their body when starting to have an emotional response to a social situation. Teach how to self-calm, then support the child to practise through modelling in different situations. Offer choices of 2-3 pre-planned sensory options to help a child feel calm, eg paper to tear, a weighted teddy/blanket, cooling off next to a fan, punching a pillow, etc. 
  • PREVENT – Develop scripts that staff can use when a child’s emotions are heightened, to help prevent meltdowns. This is particularly important in secondary school where children are typically supported by multiple members of staff. A script should include how to talk to the child as well as what to say- shouting, or even raised voices, will very likely cause a child to respond negatively.
  • PROMPT – Give gentle reminders, alongside visual cues, ‘in the moment.’ Remember, children often know what to do but find it hard to activate the rational part of their brain when experiencing big emotions. Use ‘doing’ language, as it’s easier for a child with ADHD to do something than to stop, e.g. instead of ‘don’t argue’ say ‘take some slow breaths.’ Keep prompts short and clear. Use cue cards to remind children of self-calming tools.
  • PROVIDE – Make sure there is always a space available where the child feels safe, so they can have time to calm before you support them to reflect on and resolve social disputes. Give reassurance that you want to know what they think. Listen and actively acknowledge the child’s feelings, even if you think they are not accurate – they need to feel heard and understood. Phrases that might be helpful include, ‘I heard you say xxx.’ – ‘It seems like you think/feel xxx.’ Use visual resources so the child can point to emotions they cannot verbalise. 
  • PRAISE – Use visual approaches to reflect on incidents e.g. Comic Strip Conversations, spotting what the child did well even if they made some big mistakes. Emphasise the child’s social successes, eg ‘Your friends really like it when you xxx.’ and ‘It was great when you xxx, it helped to xxx, well done.’

Thank you for reading my blog

By implementing the strategies recommended in this blog, you can create an inclusive learning environment that empowers children with ADHD to excel academically and develop essential life skills. Remember, each child with ADHD is unique, so it’s crucial to tailor the support to their specific needs. By fostering understanding, collaboration and targeted interventions, you can help children with ADHD unlock their full potential and thrive at school.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. It’s important to note that many children with ADHD will have other additional needs that require some of the strategies mentioned in this blog to be further differentiated. For more ideas on how to help children with special educational needs, you might like to join my Facebook group: Top Tips for Learning and Child Development, watch my YouTube videos @EdPsych4Kids and read my other blog posts at

If you are interested in booking ADHD training for your education setting, please drop me an email:

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