Compassionate teaching for students with ADHD

Small but considered adaptations to teaching can support students with ADHD to succeed at university. Fiona S. Baker lists modifications that can make all the difference

Fiona S. Baker's avatar
Durham University
28 Dec 2022
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Female student looking distracted from her work

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Students with ADHD are likely to experience challenges, especially during their transition into university studies, as ADHD can affect executive functioning skills. This may lead to a lack of well-being and mental health worries. They may experience challenges attending and concentrating in lectures and may procrastinate on getting started with reading and assignments. Managing the complex hierarchical tasks involved in university studies may cause stress. This, combined with moving away from home and having to organise the tasks of daily living, can be overwhelming for a student with ADHD. The challenge of organising studies across time can lead to crisis, while multiple coursework deadlines can be detrimental to students’ self-esteem and feelings of competence.

Higher education needs to create a friendly and supportive environment for students with neurological diversity. While some students with attention difficulties may be receiving psychological intervention or medication, others will not. A diagnosis for ADHD can take two to three years because NHS trusts have long waiting lists, so students may not be accommodated. Compassionate pedagogy is about creating a learning environment that notices distress and disadvantage and actively seeks to reduce these barriers to learning. A key part of this is to be receptive when a student talks about his or her needs and what may be of value. Start by asking the student what can help them, as needs differ from person to person.

As a general rule, the following additions and modifications may be useful for making all courses accessible, whether taught in-person, online or a combination of the two:

  • Provide a course unit schedule and bullet-pointed content
  • Break course materials into sections, providing a periodic pauses to enable students to recharge and aid their focus
  • Have the student set a timer for concentration, pace and timed breaks during sessions. Allow students to leave the room during these breaks for a breather
  • Stagger assignment deadlines over time so work does not need to be submitted back to back. Provide extra time to submit an assignment, if necessary
  • Check in with the student on the pacing and progress of an assignment during its preparation, giving positive feedback, guidance and reassurance
  • Following a regular pattern for all lectures, so students know what to expect in terms of length and volume of content, can help limit confusion or distraction
  • Support students with organisation of equipment and notes
  • Support students in test-taking environments. Provide extra time in a space that is distraction-free
  • Record lectures so they can be accessed by students who do not attend or whose attention lapses during the live lecture. It is very difficult to catch up on “lost work” if students cannot go back over past material
  • Open a chat online so questions can be texted and answered live during a seminar. This can relieve an obsessive need to have a question answered, which can prevent the student from moving on or focusing on the new content being shared
  • Ask the student if they would like a peer to help keep them focused. For instance, to gently tap them on the shoulder, if they are observed being distracted, and to help them in organising equipment and checking in on assignment progress.

Having students with ADHD at the university is enriching for all members of the university community. Neurodiverse students with ADHD often have distinctly different abilities and expertise. The university community can alleviate challenges by creating learning experiences that recognise and value ADHD. Course content and resources can be created that are inclusive while offering learning that is compassionate and supportive.

Fiona S. Baker is a teaching fellow in the School of Education at Durham University.

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