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Why Traditional Discipline Doesn't Work for Students with ADHD

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, the discourse surrounding ADHD has taken centre stage, demanding a reevaluation of traditional disciplinary methods. Often misunderstood as a behavioural issue, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that significantly impacts a person's ability to focus, control impulses, and regulate energy levels. In this realm, the conventional approach of discipline, characterised by punitive measures and one-size-fits-all strategies, falls short of addressing the unique challenges faced by students with ADHD. To truly support these individuals and foster an inclusive learning environment, a departure from traditional disciplinary norms becomes imperative. In this blog, we delve into the intricacies of ADHD, dissect the shortcomings of conventional discipline, and advocate for a paradigm shift towards more nuanced, individualised approaches that empower students with ADHD to thrive academically and personally.

A child, let’s call her Jennie, is in a maths class but is continually turning around and talking to her friend in the seat behind. She’s actually asking how to do the work as she was zoned out during the lesson and missed the content that the teacher was teaching. The teacher, let’s call him Mr Smith, calls her name from across the classroom and says if she doesn’t get on with her maths she will not go out to play.

Jennie is distraught; she hates being called out and doesn’t want to miss play so immediately tries to turn her attention back to the task. However, she doesn't understand the work and has forgotten what she needs to do. She needs help but she is too scared to ask. She also feels like she needs to get up and move around as she has been sat for so long. She also doesn't know how long it is until break, but the impending feeling that she won't get enough done before break is causing her anxiety. So instead she stays in her seat, looks like she is working but in actual fact her tummy is flipping butterflies and she is starting to feel sick.

Another child, let’s call him Daniel, is in the same maths class. He is constantly calling out, jumping up every 10 minutes, distracting others and rummaging through his drawer. He’s looking for a letter that he knows should have been given in about a PE trip. Mr Smith approaches him and crossly asks him why he is out of his seat. Daniel is unsure how to answer that. He just knows his body needs to keep moving. He can do the maths easily so he actually finished it within 5 minutes and now he’s bored as no additional work as provided. Daniel is unsure what lesson is next and is panicking that it’s PE. He often misreads social cues and is now getting angry because he feels the teacher is always picking on him. So he answers him rudely which immediately escalates the situation and Daniel is made to leave the classroom.

Both Jennie and Daniel would be labelled as 'naughty' or 'disruptive', yet they have both been diagnosed with ADHD and so will have difficulties with hyperactivity, impulsive behaviour or being inattentive. Their executive functioning is poor so may have problems with initiation, organisation, time management, working memory, transitions or emotional regulation. On top of that there may be some sensory sensitivities or sensory seeking behaviour which may affect focus and attention.

The Myth of One-Size-Fits-All

Threatening a child with a punishment, such as missing play or detention, will not make them fidget less or call out less, will not help a child who is distracted by a flickering light, or is worried about missing an instruction or needs to fidget.

Punishments make children with ADHD feel worthless. It affects their self-esteem and makes their peers see them as naughty and may avoid establishing friendships. This is fundamentally a recipe for developing sad little people. Children with ADHD also have a tendency towards a phenomena known as Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria, and any kind of public humiliation or comments made about their behaviours, many of which they cannot help or need to do, can be devastating. A recent study showed that children with ADHD hear an additional 20,000 critical or negative messages before they are 12 compared to their neurotypical peers.

I am not suggesting that our children use ADHD as an excuse to get away with unacceptable behaviour. Of course, our children need boundaries and if there has been a serious issue there needs to be consequences.

This is when I believe that teachers and educators need to take a step back and think, "Am I offering reasonable adjustments for this pupil?" or "What is this behaviour signalling?" By evaluating our practices and trying to see the world from the point of view of a child with ADHD, we can see what small things we may be able to do or offer that would make the learning environment that little bit better for them.

A Shift in Perspective for Disciplining Children with ADHD

To genuinely support students with ADHD, we must pivot from punitive approaches to proactive strategies that nurture positive behaviour. This shift involves adopting a more empathetic and understanding stance, acknowledging that these students require tailored support to thrive academically and personally.

Establish Clear Boundaries

Discipline does not involve yelling at ADHD children. There are far better, easier ways to foster positive behaviour; the first is to set clear expectations. When setting clear expectations for a child with ADHD, it’s essential to consider several factors.

First, identify the behaviours and tasks you want your child to focus on. It could be completing homework, following class rules, or using good manners. Communicate these expectations using simple and concise language. Ideally, have these rules and expectations agreed upon by the whole class so that children have buy-in to the rules as they were part of creating them and then display them visually around the classroom.

Remember, consistency is crucial, so try to ensure your expectations are the same across different settings and situations.

Teach with Patience

In the realm of instilling discipline in children with ADHD, patience emerges as a cornerstone for fostering a conducive and nurturing environment. A patient approach acknowledges and accommodates the unique challenges these children face, allowing them to develop their skills at their own pace. This deliberate choice to prioritise patience contributes to the creation of a positive learning environment where the child feels not only supported but also encouraged to navigate their educational journey. Discipline, in this context, transcends the traditional notions of corrective measures, extending to the cultivation of an atmosphere that values individual growth and progress. It's crucial to recognise that disciplining children with ADHD may necessitate additional time for processing information and formulating responses. As educators and caregivers, offering them the necessary time and space becomes paramount. Avoiding the inclination to rush or pressure these children allows them the freedom to engage meaningfully with their learning experiences, fostering a sense of comfort and confidence in their abilities. Through patience, we not only guide them in developing essential skills but also instill a sense of autonomy and resilience that will serve them well beyond the classroom.

Positive Reinforcement is Key

Harnessing the power of positive reinforcement emerges as a transformative tool for educators. Focus on praising and rewarding a student for completing their homework, focusing on their achievements, no matter how small. This approach not only boosts their confidence but also enhances their engagement and commitment to the learning process. You can do this either on an individual level and on a public stage. Just saying something along the lines of "I'm so impressed with how Jamie is sitting right now, well done for sitting so nicely!" in front of the class as they gather for circle time will go a long way for boosting the child's self-esteem.

Also, set up a reward system for achieving certain goals or completing tasks. These rewards include small treats, extra screen time, or a special outing. Make sure the rewards are appropriate for the child’s age and interests.

Offer Choices

Too often, children are told what to do, how to do it, when to do it etc. and it can take away feelings of being on control, which children with ADHD often need in order to feel safe and as if they have an impact on their world. Offering choices is a great way to see reductions in disruptive or argumentative behaviour. You can still control the type of choice on offer to ensure that the actions taken are productive and relevant to the learning outcomes, but ultimately, the child decides what they are doing. For example, if a child needs to complete some homework during after-school club or over lunch, then you can give the option of either doing their math homework or their science homework. The task, ultimately, is to do homework - does it really matter which is done first?

Offer Logical Consequences

As stated earlier, children with ADHD still need some consequences for behaviour. Using logical consequences is an effective way to discipline children with ADHD as logical consequences help the child understand the cause-and-effect relationship between their behaviour and the consequences that follow. Logical consequences should be directly related to the behaviour or action that led to them. For example, if a child refuses to clean up their toys, they may lose the privilege of playing with them for a period. They need to learn there are natural consequences to some behaviours.

Also, logical consequences should be reasonable and not excessively harsh. Avoid imposing punishments that are too severe or may cause the child to feel ashamed. Yelling at ADHD children only forces them back into their shells, and no situation should ever be approached with anger. We need to remember that these behaviours cannot always be helped and that their brains are fundamentally different, and therefore reasonable adjustments should be made to their environment and the way you approach situations with them.

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