Practical strategies for building self-esteem in pupils with ADHD

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Children with ADHD will hear thousands more negative messages while at school than their peers, making self-esteem and poor self-image a huge challenge. Dr Pooky Knightsmith considers how to better support ADHD pupils

“Was self-esteem an issue? Yeah. For sure. I'd almost say it was ‘the’ issue. When you're told off all the time for being lazy, being rude, not paying attention, fidgeting, saying the wrong things, bringing the wrong things and, well – you get the picture. When everyone's hating on you, you start to hate on yourself too.”

Given that pupils with ADHD could hear 20,000 more negative messages than their peers by the time they finish primary school (Jellinek, 2010), it is perhaps not surprising that poor self-image and negative self-esteem is a frequent issue for this cohort of pupils.

With this in mind, I would like to explore some steps that we can take to boost the self-esteem of children with ADHD.

Teach staff and pupils about ADHD

We can start by making sure that pupils who have, or are suspected of having, ADHD have an understanding about what ADHD is and what this means for them. It is also important that the staff who work with them have a good basic understanding too.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder and refers to a pattern of behaviour that affects children in most situations. Core symptoms of ADHD are difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity, and acting impulsively.

By explaining the basics of ADHD to pupils and staff and becoming curious about how ADHD affects the pupil’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours each day, we can gain a greater understanding of – and empathy for – the pupil.

It can also help the pupil (and the school staff) to recognise which parts of their regular school experience may be more challenging due to their ADHD and which areas of their behaviour we might need to find some different ways of addressing.

For both staff and pupils, the realisation that some behaviours and actions that might set someone with ADHD apart from their peers are driven by their neurobiology and that correction and punishment are unlikely to have a significant impact can be helpful.

It can be a relief for a pupil to understand that there is a reason why they find it hard to “be good” like their friends and it can be helpful for staff to realise that a pupil is not being wilfully inattentive or disruptive.

This doesn’t mean that it is impossible for pupils and staff to work together to enable them to be fully included in lessons, but it can give a more sympathetic starting point.

And in those lessons when a pupil’s behaviour has not attracted any negative attention, this understanding can help us to recognise that “doing normal” likely took a superhuman effort from the child and this should be celebrated (even if this is something that is “easily achieved” by peers).

Hunt for the good and praise it

Due to the nature of the condition, children with ADHD are likely to have received corrective and punitive messages at home and school pretty consistently from a very early age. They don’t tend to receive a lot of praise at all and so the balance of messages that these children receive is wildly skewed in favour of criticism.

Over time, this can lead the story that ADHD children tell about themselves, and indeed the stories that their supporting adults tell about them, to lean heavily towards the negative. They will frequently use words about themselves such as “stupid”, “naughty”, and “failure”.

This can be a negative and self-reinforcing cycle with both adults and children falling more and more into line with this narrative. As such, it is important that we try to help staff and pupils to rewrite the narrative for pupils with ADHD and to look for the positives and to praise them.

When we start looking for the positives in pupils with ADHD, they abound as they are frequently highly imaginative, incredibly kind and full of enthusiasm and energy.

Simply making a conscious commitment to looking for things to praise can be a good start. It can be especially helpful to put the positives in writing and both the child and their family needs to hear them, especially if the family have frequently been made aware of the more negative aspects of a child’s school experience. The families of children with ADHD may be especially appreciative of good news phone calls and postcards.

Create opportunities for success

Particularly if a pupil has a very negative self-narrative, we may find that they are often living down to the expectations set by themselves and others. In which case, creating opportunities for the child to succeed is an important first step in changing the broken record. This will mean thinking about leaning into activities that speak to the child’s natural strengths and way of doing things. For many children with ADHD this might mean looking to tasks that benefit from a creative point of view, where a lot of physical or mental energy helps, or where positive relationships with peers are a bonus.

Developing tasks or activities with the pupil in mind can mean we increase their chance for success, and we need to be sure to highlight and praise those successes as they happen.

Another way to celebrate the successes of pupils with ADHD is to take a step back and get to know a bit more about the ways in which they choose to spend their time outside of class and meet them where they feel most comfortable. Maybe we can celebrate their successes in a sport they enjoy or by asking them to talk to us about a hobby, passion or interest in which they take particular pride.

Children with ADHD may struggle in the classroom but often flourish elsewhere; learning about where and how they are thriving can help us to identify ways for them to flourish in our lessons too. As a minimum, it can help balance up our view of them (and their view of themselves).

Ensure criticism is constructive

There will need to be a certain degree of input and correction for all pupils with ADHD, but by thinking carefully about how this is delivered, we can take the sting from its tail and increase the likelihood of it having a positive impact.

Trying to phrase our critique of actions and behaviour so that they are directed externally (i.e. making it clear the behaviour is not appropriate rather than the child being inherently bad). We can also aim to couple corrective comments with suggested alternatives and constructive ideas about how the pupil might handle the situation differently.

This works best when we are able to draw on a past time when a child has succeeded in a similar situation. We can remind them of this success and the strategies underlying it. For example, if Amy is finding it hard to focus without fidgeting while the class are getting on with quiet work, we might quietly mention to Amy that she was able to focus very well on a similar task recently after she took a 60-second fidget break and recommend she try the same thing now.

Conclusions and reflections

Day-to-day life for pupils with ADHD can feel pretty hard as school is not a natural fit for many children with a profile of impulsive, inattentive or hyperactive behaviour.

However, if we look past the behaviour and see the child and aim to create an environment that draws on their strengths, it is possible for children with ADHD to flourish in our classrooms and beyond. A small amount of thought and good intentions can go a long way and can help pupils to view themselves in a positive light and to aspire to do well and to embrace their quirks. For example…

“I was honestly a bit of a nightmare. I was always being told off for shouting out or talking in class. I didn’t mean to behave badly but I would get so excited that I would cause trouble. It was worst with the best teachers because I would find my head got full of all these different ideas that just kind of had to come out.

“One day, my English teacher taught me about mind-maps and told me to make sure I had paper and pens to hand – now when all those ideas want to burst out, I make my mind-maps. I think the teachers are quite surprised that all that time they thought I was being annoying or naughty, I was just full to the brim with ideas about the lesson. They look at me a little bit differently now; and I hardly shout out at all.”

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. You can contact Pooky via or follow her on Twitter @PookyH. For her previous articles in Headteacher Update, visit

Further information & resources

  • Jellinek: Don't let ADHD crush children's self-esteem, Clinical Psychiatry News (38,5), 2010:

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