How my brother’s ADHD shaped my teaching

ByMelissa Sandler, MEd

A vivid memory I have from my childhood goes like this: I am 14 years old. It’s 2 a.m. I should be asleep, but the sound of my 6-year-old brother downstairs is keeping me awake. What is he doing? Building a K’Nex roller coaster museum, of course!

My brother Noah was diagnosed with ADHD when he was 8 years old. As a 16-year-old, I didn’t know what that meant. I did know that Noah passionately explored many interests at home: magic, cup stacking, drumming, and computers, to name a few. Once he found a new interest, he couldn’t focus on anything else until he mastered it. 

But at school, Noah felt misunderstood and frustrated. If he could maintain focus and enthusiastically complete tasks at home, why was school so hard for him?

When I started college, I had several career paths in mind, but one kept coming to the forefront: teaching. I didn’t want to be just any teacher. I wanted to be a teacher who taught kids with ADHD, recognized their strengths, and gave them the positive experiences they deserved. I wanted to be the teacher Noah would have loved — the one who learned about his interests to see him as more than the “kid who moves too much.”

To be this teacher, I had to experiment to find out which strategies work best for students who learn and think differently. As an elementary education major, I did not learn these strategies in my program. I searched online, read teacher blogs, and asked for help from other teachers at my school. I also thought a lot about my brother.

While every student has different needs, I’ve found that these four strategies help students thrive in my classroom:

1. Find students’ strengths.

Not every student can tell you what they’re good at. But by observing your students and talking with their families, you can find where they excel. Sometimes students’ strengths aren’t strictly academic. Their strengths may be skills like drawing, playing a musical instrument, or knowing every part of a computer. If you get to know your students on a personal level, you can build on their strengths and plan lessons around their interests.

2. Build positive relationships with families.

Have them fill out questionnaires so that you can learn about students’ interests and challenges. Speak with families about their experiences and keep them up to date on class activities. Be present at afterschool activities. Building strong relationships with parents and families shows students that you care about them as whole people.

3. Provide choice.

When students get to choose how to show their learning, they feel empowered. In my classroom, I follow the UDL practice of giving students multiple ways to show what they know. For example, students can choose to draw a picture, write a poem, or make a video to summarize what they learned from an informational text. Students can also choose where they complete an assignment, whether on the carpet, at a desk, or at a table.

4. Be flexible.

If a student is not emotionally or physically ready to learn, don’t force it. Talk to your students throughout the day to assess their readiness to learn. If they need a break, take a whole class or individual brain break. Allowing students to decompress by acting silly or being mindful helps them to refocus and produce higher-quality work afterward.

I think about Noah every day as I’m teaching. I think about him when my students who have ADHD need to walk around the classroom or talk about their favorite hobby before starting their assignment. I think about him at Back-to-School Night when I explain to parents why I became a teacher.

Even if you didn’t grow up with someone who learns and thinks differently, you can show empathy by adapting your instruction — but more importantly your mindset. All students can learn if you create the right environment for them to do so. If you can find and build upon their strengths, students will engage, feel appreciated, and thrive.

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About the author

About the author

Melissa Sandler, MEd is an Understood Teacher Fellow and a third-grade general education teacher, co-teaching a special education inclusion class at Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda, Maryland.