According to the National Education Association, educational equity means that education should be accessible and fair to any child who wants it. In principle, it’s based on the 14th Amendment and the 1954 school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. The aim of that court decision was to fix the ills of an educational system based on segregation and inequity in the funding of schools as it pertained to minority students.
The decision did improve educational equity for children with disabilities. As a result of the decision, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (that includes IDEA, Section 504, and ADA), signed into law in 1975, paved the way for students with disabilities and made it easier to secure services.
DSM-5 defines attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a developmental disorder, and the Americans with Disabilities Act considers it a disability. But getting a 504 accommodation or special services based solely on an ADHD diagnosis is difficult. Rulings laid out by the U.S. Board of Education are stringent, and unless students manifest “one or more specified physical or mental impairments,” they won’t be eligible.
Without these accommodations, many students with ADHD don’t thrive in the classroom. Betrayed by their bodies, these kids struggle with peer relationships, feel like failures, and are stigmatized. In 2012, the CDC reported that 33 percent of all students with ADHD who didn’t have a comprehensive therapeutic/educational plan failed out of high school.
These kids are caught in the middle. Not necessarily minority, they’re not part of the educational equity debate. Not necessarily disabled, they’re ineligible for services.
As teachers, despite being a part of an embattled profession, we do hold tremendous power. We can help flailing learners believe in themselves. Even without a 504 accommodation, we can with some ingenuity create a more effective learning environment for children with ADHD. Here are five possible approaches.
1. Make learning child-centered.
Child- or student-centered learning presumes that students who are drivers in their own learning will be more invested and motivated. It’s a tenet of the Constructivist Learning Theory first proposed by Piaget, and it considers the learning styles, preferences, and interests of the student. It’s also a way to accommodate a child with ADHD. The teacher must map out goals and resources, and assumes the facilitator role. Gaming, MOOCs, hands-on activities, webquests, and mini-lessons can all be integrated as resources.
2. Differentiate learning and encourage mastery.
This is the basis of the Montessori Method. Assess each child’s learning style and design an individualized learning plan to accommodate that child. It’s student-centered learning at its best, facilitated by the teacher and encouraging mastery, confidence, and enthusiasm — and students with disabilities do well with this method. In What Works for Differentiating Instruction in Elementary Schools, Grace Rubenstein shows how this modification can be put into place.
3. Integrate movement breaks and mini-mindfulness meditation sessions.
Children with ADHD are statistically quite bright. Unfortunately, their symptoms of ADHD — distractibility, hyperactivity, clumsiness, impulsivity, nervousness, and poor focus and concentration — can undermine learning. To help them “blow off steam” and refocus, schedule some short movement sessions such as yoga, tai chi, Zumba, or a quick power walk. The exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, the “happy”” hormones.
Mindfulness meditation is another activity gaining in popularity. Scientific American, in a recent article, reports that after an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation, MRI scans showed the amygdala, the brain’s “fight-or-flight” center, shrank. It also showed that the prefrontal cortex, the area associated with executive function (concentration and decision-making) became thicker. A recent report in Clinical Neurophysiology concurs with the benefits of mindfulness meditation in the treatment of ADHD. In one study, adults with ADHD showed marked improvements in mental performance, a decrease in impulsivity, and greater self-awareness after participating in a series of mindfulness meditation sessions.
4. Create a positive, supportive learning environment.
There are common practices that teachers use to reduce classroom distractions. Seating the child in the front row, away from doors and windows, is just one approach. Jane Milrod, Director of Princeton C.H.A.D.D. and an ADHD/Executive Function coach, strongly recommends mentoring programs. Her approach is the “study buddy,” a fellow classmate who shows another classmate with ADHD “the ropes.” Knowing that one person is there to help him or her can empower a student with ADHD. School becomes a less hostile environment. Another program through Eye-to-Eye, a national mentoring organization, places high school and college students with similar labels into the schools to help students with ADHD develop their homework, study, communication, and peer interaction skills.
5. Document as much as possible.
District policies do change. With change, students with ADHD may be eligible for accommodation and special services. Document whenever possible, and involve the parents in your strategies. Note any modifications made in the classroom and their effectiveness, and make recommendations toward creating educational equity when strategies that don’t include special education are insufficient.
Most importantly, consider these strategies as fresh ideas. Teaching a child with ADHD is challenging, frustrating, and exhausting. New ideas can generate new energy. And that new energy can revitalize and bring hope to a child with ADHD. It can also help to bridge the gap between educational equity and the children without it.