What not to say to an ADHD pupil

Written by: Sarah Templeton | Published:
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Every teacher will have students with ADHD in their classrooms at some point. ADHD counsellor and author Sarah Templeton discusses seven things we should never say to these young people...

It is estimated that 5% of children and young people – around 700,000 – are living with ADHD (Sayal et al, 2018).

This means that the vast majority of teachers can expect to have ADHD children in their classrooms.

In my experience, ADHD children are often on the receiving end of a number of common phrases or admonishments that, however well intentioned, simply will not help them to achieve in their education. Here are seven phrases to avoid (and why).

‘Can’t you just sit still?’

It won’t be a surprise to you to know that the H in ADHD stands for hyperactivity. What might be a surprise to you is just how serious a problem this is for ADHD children – and even adults.

An ADHD brain is looking for stimulation all the time and the easiest way to get this is by moving – shaking a leg, tapping a foot, drumming fingers on desks, doodling, twiddling hair, picking nails, or keeping one part of the body constantly on the go.

These habits actually calm the brain down enough for it to be able to concentrate. So, if you really want an ADHD child to concentrate on what they are doing, accept (and allow) that one part of their body will have to be moving.

‘If you’d only concentrate and focus, you’d achieve a lot more’

Believe it or not, an ADHD child has very little control over whether they are able to focus and concentrate. Much as they try, sometimes it is just impossible.

Circumstances that are likely to lead to this situation include when a subject is not being taught in a way that stimulates their brain – or perhaps the subject simply does not interest them sufficiently.

Try as hard as they will, they are not going to be able to focus on these things. Their brain will automatically start looking for something that stimulates them more.

‘Why on earth couldn’t you see that was going to happen?’

This kind of admonishment is usually uttered when a pupil has damaged, broken or dropped something or caused havoc by “not thinking about what they were doing”.

An ADHD brain does not naturally think of the consequences of anything. Literally, the area of the brain that is supposed to think about outcomes and consequences malfunctions in a person with ADHD.

‘There is no excuse for getting poor grades in geography when you do so well in English’

When a pupil is being assessed for ADHD, one of the first things they will be asked is: “Did you have wildly differing grades at school?”

I am a good example of this truth. In my O levels, I managed an A for English and yet was ungraded for maths.

Wildly differing grades is a common indicator of ADHD. This is plainly and simply because we will try our very hardest and usually achieve our very best in subjects that interest us and stimulate our brains, while we will struggle hugely with subjects that don’t. This is why ADHD children are not often “good all-rounders”.

‘Think before you speak or shout out

More easily said than done for an ADHD child. Impulsivity is part of the condition, and this means that their ADHD brain will literally “eject” whatever it wants to say or do without any thought beforehand.

‘Stop procrastinating and just get on with it’

Procrastination is a trait of ADHD, particularly for those with the “inattentive” presentation of the condition.

ADHD children will procrastinate for a wide variety of reasons. They may have perfectionism as a co-existing condition and therefore they cannot start a project or a piece of work unless they know they are going to do it absolutely perfectly.

Others will procrastinate because they cannot motivate their brain to be interested in the subject and as such are doing anything and everything they can to avoid it.

And others will procrastinate because of low self-esteem and the feeling that whatever they do won’t be good enough.

‘I’ll take your break time away’

Whatever they have done, never take away their break! An ADHD child needs to expend their energy and restlessness more than any other child, so the very last thing you should do is stop them from going outside and running off their pent-up energy.

Their behaviour will not improve if you take away their break. It will actually have the polar opposite effect.

  • Sarah Templeton is an ADHD counsellor, coach, CBT therapist and author of How Not to Murder Your ADHD Kid: Instead learn how to be your child's own ADHD coach (Gemini Publishing, 2022). Visit www.sarahtempleton.org.uk

Further information & resources

Sayal et al: ADHD in children and young people: Prevalence, care pathways, and service provision, The Lancet Psychiatry (5,2), February 2018: https://bit.ly/3TUyfbu

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