Working with Students with ADHD at the High School Level

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can affect children at all stages of development. In this article, we’ll look at how to work with students with ADHD at the high school level. There are many challenges, but with a little prep work and the right mindset, you can successfully help these students prepare for college or career.

ADHD: What You Need to Know

As the name implies, ADHD causes a range of symptoms that can negatively affect a child’s ability to learn in the traditional classroom. The condition prevents them from applying critical life skills such as focusing on a single task and following instructions. However, educators should be aware of some other vital information about ADHD:

  • If a child has ADHD, there is approximately a 66% chance that they also have an associated disorder. Some of these disorders include, but are not limited to:
    • Anxiety
    • Sleep disorders
    • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder  (OCD)

  • The vast majority of children with ADHD have average or better-than-average intelligence.
  • As ADHD has a genetic component, it is likely that one of the child’s parents suffers from it, as well, even if they don’t know it.
  • Teenagers with ADHD are at a higher risk of trying drugs as a coping mechanism.

To learn more about the medical aspects of ADHD, please consult your school’s special education teacher or school psychologist.

Modifications to Instruction

If a child has been diagnosed with ADHD, they will likely have a 504 rather than an IEP.(Individualized Education Plan). What’s the difference? In simple terms, a 504 a set of recommended guidelines for modifications to help a student learn, while an IEP is a legal document that prescribes modifications to the way you teach and assess a student. To put it another way, a 504 gives you the chance to experiment with techniques that can help your student with ADHD become a more effective learner in your classroom.

One popular method is incorporating more physical activities into your classroom instruction. Having students stand up to do a station activity can help your student with ADHD focus on their work. There are many additional strategies, and I encourage you to research as many as you can. Different strategies work with different students with ADHD.

Working with Parents

As soon as possible, reach out to the families of students with ADHD. Here are some vital questions to ask:

  • Does your child currently take medication (e.g., Ritalin) for the condition? Or did so in the past?
  • Does anyone else in the family have ADHD?
  • Does your child suffer from a diagnosed associated disorder?
  • To your knowledge, has your child ever experimented with drugs?
  • In the past, did teachers use any techniques that helped your child learn?

The last question is especially important as if there is a proven technique, you should start using it right away. As with all children, those with ADHD need an established routine and structure to help them succeed.  


Do students with ADHD disrupt class? In my experience, all the time. It’s unfortunate, and even veteran teachers find it difficult to determine whether these actions are the result of ADHD, or simply the child being a teenager.

If your student with ADHD is acting out, consult the student’s other teachers to see if this behavior is common across all classes. If their behavior isn’t consistent, investigate why. For example, I once taught a student with ADHD who was a terror in my class. However, in another class, he was an excellent student. In this case, the cause was likely due to ADHD; children with ADHD do have the ability to focus on subjects that interest him. My course, history, was not his favorite.

To fix this situation, it is best to sit down with the individual student and discuss their 504 or the modification you use. Explain that you do not expect them to be perfect, but they need to communicate how ADHD is affecting them from day to day. Here’s a valuable example: many children with ADHD are unable to control their emotions as well as their peers. With the student, set up a code word that they can tell you at the beginning of class to let you know when they are in an unbalanced emotional state at the beginning of class. That way you can adjust your expectations and better work with the student during the lesson.

Note: If the student expresses to you that they feel this way on more than a handful of occasions, contact the parents and special education staff to set up a meeting. There may be another underlying issue that needs addressing.

Keep in mind that other students will pick up on the fact that you are not enforcing discipline the same way when a student with ADHD acts out. If they ask why, let them know you can’t say anything, but they can always ask the student.

Final Thoughts

ADHD negatively affects learning, but many proven strategies can help these children succeed in the classroom. By learning about the condition, working with parents and students, and keeping high expectation for work and behavior, you can help students develop into responsible young adults.

Thomas Broderick is a freelance writer and consultant in the education field. He lives in Northern California. You can learn more about Thomas on his website.