How to Create an ADHD-Friendly Home and Classroom

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Dr. Sydney S. Zentall, professor of Special Education at Purdue University, is an internationally known researcher in the education of children with ADHD. He focuses specifically on the preferences and responses of these students to specific learning conditions and environments and is the author of the book ADHD in Education.

How Do ADHD Children Learn Best?

According to Dr. Zentall, children with ADHD seek change/novelty and high-interest activities. They do best with an engaging active curriculum at school and an active home environment. Incorporating physical movement and motor activity throughout the day increases successes. When involved in a cognitive activity, children with ADHD often benefit from choices rather than solely adult-directed tasks. With their innate curiosity, these kids have a great potential for learning.

The trouble arises when a child with ADHD becomes bored. The longer they have to attend to a task, for example, or the longer they have to wait for their turn, the more stimulation they need. In addition to this need for stimulation, children with ADHD also have a need to feel competence, both academically and socially. They tend to do well with activities that involve some competition which enables others to see how well they are doing—earning rewards, badges, leadership opportunities or other symbols of achievement.

Social Needs and Challenges

Children with ADHD also benefit tremendously from social connections and relatedness to others. Social interactions are often their most important source of stimulation. If you are a teacher, your warm support and personal attention to these students are vital.

Kids with ADHD also enjoy producing emotional reactions in others. They may be drawn to the children at school who cause more trouble and they often look for or try to provoke an emotional reaction in order to feel more stimulation. Because a loud or angry response from an adult or peer tends to be reinforcing for many children with ADHD, when you must convey disapproval or reprimand a child with ADHD, a nonemotional, calm, and matter of fact response is best.

Creating an ADHD-Friendly Classroom

Dr. Zentall has developed a checklist for parents and teachers to utilize in order to help children with ADHD appropriately fulfill their need for stimulation and competence.

Goal 1 – Needs Stimulation (Movement and Choices)

  • Movement among centers and seats
  • Activity breaks
  • Active response tasks
  • Choice of tasks and reporting methods
  • Choice of jobs and responsibilities
  • Choice of learning groups

Goal 2 – Needs Competence

A. Academic Competence
1. Tasks

  • Reduced length (chapters)
  • Self-paced
  • Interests used in instruction
  • Color (overlays, markers, paper)
  • Relevant color used
  • Computers provided
  • Teach how to visually plan
  • Make global points and outlines

2. Settings

  • Interesting centers
  • Use of games in teaching
  • Animals present
  • Music available
  • Checklists, prompt cards used
  • Activities or toys for delay time

B. Social Competence

  • 3 times more positives than negatives
  • Intense, emotional rewards
  • Private, firm, soft reprimands
  • Show personal interest in child
  • Peer activities with rules
  • Cooperation is taught and rewarded

Creating an ADHD-Friendly Home 

Goal 1 – Needs Stimulation (Movement and Choices)

  • Available paths to run, trampolines, pools
  • Active responsibilities that are “helpful”
  • Available family activities (picnics, biking)
  • Choice of homework setting and task order
  • Choice of jobs and responsibilities
  • Choice of homework activity breaks

Goal 2 – Needs Competence

A. Academic Competence
1. Tasks

  • Flexible play materials (​Legos, paints)
  • Support for pretend play, journaling
  • Books selected for child’s interest
  • Family conversations related to interests
  • Support for collections/hobbies
  • Computers provided
  • Teach how to visually plan
  • Reduce verbalizations to the child

2. Settings

  • Interesting homework settings
  • Use of games in getting tasks/jobs completed
  • Pets present
  • Music available during homework
  • Checklists, prompt cards used
  • Activities or toys for delay time
  • 3 times more positive statements than negatives
  • Intense, emotional rewards
  • Private, firm, soft, nonemotional reprimands
  • Shows personal interest in child and child’s friends
  • Friend activities with rules
  • Strict reasonable rules and manners are rewarded
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  • Sydney S. Zental, Ph.D. “Friendly Class and Home Settings to Support Children with ADHD.” Closing Keynote 21st Annual International CHADD Conference on AD/HD. Cleveland, Ohio. October 10, 2009.
  • Sydney S. Zentall, Ph.D., Friendly Settings and Tasks @ School (F SAT-S) @ Home (F SAT-H). Purdue University. Department of Educational Studies. 2009.
  • Sydney S. Zentall, Ph.D. Email correspondence. October 20, 2009.

By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.