Teaching a child with ADHD?

Do you have or are you teaching a child with ADHD? Whether you are a homeschool mom, a teacher in a classroom, a leader in children’s ministry or work with children ever… you have likely experienced the challenges that come from teaching a child with ADHD symptoms.  You know the signs:

  • Trouble paying attention to non-preferred activities (think math, reading, chores… whatever is not perceived as interesting is considered non-preferred)
  • Hyperactivity (the wiggle worms)
  • Difficulty taking turns
  • Impulsive
  • Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another
  • Strong emotional responses to change
  • Is your child struggling with reading?
  • Does she become overwhelmed and shut down when staring at a sheet of math problems?
  • His room messy even after he spent “forever” cleaning it?
  • Copying from the whiteboard or from another text bring her to tears?
  • Do you become frustrated with chores being “half-done”?
  • Check out Attitudemag.com for more information.

When our children struggle with symptoms of ADHD, it can be extremely challenging for teacher and student alike.  The student struggles to maintain attention and becomes bored and distracted.  Teacher becomes frustrated with her inability to teach the child effectively.  Academic growth stalls out while frustrations and tensions between child and teacher grow.

So what does the homeschool mom or school teacher do to more effectively teach a child with adhd?  After all, a child’s engagement is critical to retention and understanding.

** This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.  If you do end up purchasing any of the recommended items through this link, I may receive a small commission at no cost to you which allows me to continue offering as much free content as possible.  Appreciate your support.  

ADHD Teaching Tips

To gather some useful teaching tips to engage kids with ADHD, I sought out the advice of an amazing friend.  Alicia Matthews, MS, OTR/L, has walked alongside my family for years and is a wealth of information for helping parents and teachers more effectively engage and teach children with ADHD.  It is no wonder that I would seek out her ADHD teaching tips.


What is OT ? For those who don’t know, OT stands for Occupational Therapy. Many parents are catching on to the benefits of Occupational Therapy (OT) for kids. OT strategies are often used to strengthen various areas of development for children. According to Understood.org, a great resource for teaching students with ADHD:

Occupational therapy (OT) helps people who struggle to do everyday tasks because of poor motor skills. For kids, that includes tasks that are part of learning and functioning well at school.

Understood.org, Occupational Therapy: What You Need to Know

There is a common misperception about OT amongst many parents. I know because I used to be one of them.  I used to think that school-related OT was only useful if a student had handwriting issues. However, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Occupational Therapy for Teaching a Child with ADHD?

Occupational Therapy is not a new area of intervention for teaching students with ADHD.  However, recently more and more parents are learning of its effectiveness at addressing their student’s ADHD symptoms.  Fortunately, OT strategies can help with a variety of school-related issues. Today, we will discuss how OT strategies can assist with teaching students with ADHD.  Specifically,  today we will discuss a common ADHD-like symptom that impacts learning: visual attention weaknesses.

Why is it important to assess visual attention in students struggling with school?  Specifically, why do children who hate math and reading often have this attention weaknesses?

You may be shaking your head at the computer or phone screen mumbling, “Wait a minute, Lindsay. Huh? Visual attention? What is that and why do I care?  Just help me get my child to sit still and focus!”

Deep breaths, Friend… I’ve got you covered.

What is Visual Attention?

I love me some Understood.org… let’s see what they say about visual attention.

The brain, not the eyes, processes the visual world, including things like symbols, pictures and distances. Weaknesses in these brain functions are called visual processing disorder or visual processing issues.

Understood.org, Visual-Spatial Processing: What You Need to Know

Occupational Therapists (OTs) use their skills and knowledge of the brain and its connection to the body, to apply OT strategies to improve visual attention in children.

My Middle & Symptoms of ADHD Visual Attention Weaknesses

Like many other parents, I entered the world of OT through experience with my middle daughter.  My middle daughter began reading quite easily at the age of four-and-a-half. Because her early printing and handwriting was done fairly neatly and well, I always assumed learning would be easy for her. However, it wasn’t until the age of 7 that I began noticing some “little things” that were, in fact, becoming big issues for her.

I began noticing her aversion to school work or reading.  Physically flipping and cartwheels at all times. Physically writing answers on a piece of paper was a very laborious task for her. She quietly avoided writing answers to questions on paper. For her, the act of hearing a question aloud and then processing it into a coherent answer was enough for her. Having to physically write down her thoughts was an overwhelming task.  Additionally, I began noticing that she skipped words or lines of text while reading.  As the font became smaller, these reading “missteps” became more frequent.

I noticed her lack of attention to details, lack of focus and her continued hyperactive-like behaviors.

Physical Therapy Leads Us to Later Occupational Therapy

As a baby, my daughter was late to sit up, crawl and walk. Because of these delays, at around 10 months, I brought her to pediatric physical therapy for months in order to strengthen these areas. Later, these memories combined with other emerging challenges, prompted me to seek out an OT evaluation for her.

It was through this evaluation that I learned of my daughter’s struggle with visual attention. God blessed us with an amazing Occupational Therapist who ultimately worked with my daughter on visual perception issues. My daughter showed difficulty with visual convergence, visual tracking and overall control over her visual system.

Each week, Alicia, my daughter’s Occupational Therapist, implemented OT strategies to improve my girl’s visual attention skills. Alicia would then debrief me as to what “homework” I was to complete with my girl. It was crucial for me to support the continued strengthening of my daughter’s visual system.

Why OT for ADHD-Symptoms such as Visual Weaknesses?

Basically, visual attention is what helps us weed through all of the information that our brains receive at any given moment. In the case of this ADHD symptom, our brain must process all of the input that is collected from the eyes. The brain must then take all of the information it receives and focus on that which is most important.

Every day, our brains receive a mass amount of input from our body systems. We smell, we hear and we see, for example. Our brains then process the information and ultimately, decide where to focus.

For example, while at the park, you keep your eye on your child despite hundreds of other objects in your view. Your brain knows to focus on the little boy in the red shirt and not the trash cans.

Taking this into consideration, we can apply it to a child’s learning struggles. Often, when a child progresses in reading skills, he may begin to shut down or hate reading. This is indicative of a visual perception problem.

For more information on reading instruction, check out my blog post on Reading Instruction for Struggling Readers.

Are Visual Attention Weaknesses impacting your student?

In a child with a visual attention weakness, he may struggle when given a math worksheet. Often there are twenty or more equations on a sheet of paper. This can be very visually overstimulating for a child with visual attention weakness.

This child’s brain has to weed through the many digits and focus specifically on one problem. This can cause a student to become overwhelmed. Anxiety prevents him from processing the math problem well. and ultimately, this leads to gaps in educational success.

These symptoms are troubling for many parents and children to navigate. Often times there is the perception that the child is not trying, just sloppy or careless. However, experts now realize that these symptoms are associated with an actual cognitive deficit. Specifically, experts are finding that visual attention deficits are often at the root of these issues.

If this describes your child, do not fret. There are strategies to help.

12 Tips for Teaching a Child With ADHD 

Today, I am honored to have my sweet friend, Alicia Mathews, MS, OTR-L share her expertise with you. She will offer valuable suggestions on how to use OT strategies to improve a child’s attention. These OT strategies to increase attention are useful for home educators and traditional educators alike. I know you will find these tips useful.

Alicia, take it away!

Sensory: 5 Senses + Two More Senses

Get up and move!

As an OT, I start with sensory strategies to improve all learning challenges. For learning that requires visual attention while the child is seated, sensory input is recommended right before the child sits. When you can incorporate movement into a lesson, go for it!

Movement as a strategy to improve attention

While you’ve probably heard that getting up and moving can “wake up” the body, you’ve probably never been told why.

A full sensory diet should be developed by an OT based on your child’s specific needs – however, the rule of thumb for a “sensory snack” is that vestibular activities should be followed by proprioceptive activities.

1. Vestibular input:

Outside “vestibular” activities may include going down a slide, swinging high in the air, or riding a scooter.  Indoors vestibular activities may include log rolls, spinning in an office chair, or performing inverted yoga poses.

Vestibular sensory system involves changes in head position. This movement releases histamine, which increases arousal. Additionally, head movements also help organize other neurochemicals.

 2. Proprioceptive input:

Outside, activities may include climbing a rock wall, maneuvering through monkey bars, or jumping on a trampoline. At home, activities may include pushing/pulling a heavy bin of toys, deep pressure with a sofa cushion, or climbing up stairs on hands and knees.

This refers to movement that incorporate changes in joint position. This input is also described as deep pressure. This movement releases serotonin, which decreases arousal level and “calms” the body down.  (Think deep-tissue massage.)

Sensory tools and tips

3. Time

When working on a difficult activity, start with small increments of time (5 minutes can seem like a day for some kiddos). Increase time when accuracy and skill confidence develops. Don’t be afraid to use short movement breaks as small rewards – remember, vestibular activities increase alertness level and proprioceptive activities to decrease altertness.

4. Obstacle Course

When movement can be incorporated within a lesson, try utilizing an obstacle course. Place lesson materials throughout the course or incorporate a “writing/reading/math” obstacle within the course. Have your child help create the course for increased motivation.

5. Seating

Varying your child’s seating option can be helpful. A sensory cushion, therapy ball, or chair band can help a child stay “alert” during seated activities. For high arousal kids, they tend to become more of a distraction.  However, I think that they work best for kiddos that need to increase arousal level. For more active kids, these options tend to become more of a distraction.

In the end, we all know that every child is different! If something doesn’t work, try another option.

Warm up your eyes!

Why is it important to warm up the eyes?

When reading and writing, your eyes perform a variety of movements. When these foundational skills are not present or automatic, your brain has to work harder to compensate. Understandably, this negatively affects a child’s ability to focus and control extra energy because he lacks the mental effort that has been waster trying to control his eye functions.  Often, the following reading skills are overlooked at annual well-visits so it is entirely possible that a child may be struggling in this area:

  1. Fixation: the ability to focus on a target
  2. Saccades: the ability to jump from one target to another
  3. Pursuits: the ability to track a moving target

Occupational Therapy focuses on advanced eye movements and skills within formal treatment.  Here are some easy eye warm-ups you can do at home. 

6. Toss a Ball or Balloon

Hit a balloon or toss a large ball back and forth 10 times.

  • For older kids, you may vary the height and speed of the object.

7. Tick Tocks

Complete “tick tocks” by looking up and down 10 times in a slow rhythmical pattern. Follow with looking right and left.

  • You can complete with music to increase efficiency.

8.  Play “Eye Movement” Simon Says

  • Mirror eye movements made in the 4 corners of your visual field. Start with 1 movement and increase until someone loses the pattern!

Check out the environment

9. Lighting

Natural light is best. Florescent lights can quickly cause fatigue, especially with intensive reading activities. Use natural light when possible, and try to limit visual distractions. While it might be great to sit beside a window, it may be difficulty to “tune out” visual or auditory distractions from outside. When natural light is not possible, you can remove the amount of light bulbs in an overhead light or position your child with their back facing the light source.

10. Slanted Desk Area

Oculomotor (Lindsay’s Translation- Eye Movement) – Decrease eye strain.

Your left and right eye must converge (work together) to focus on text at near and far. Many children struggle with eye convergence. This often explains a child’s complaints of headaches and lack of desire to read.

You can decrease eye stress by using a slanted board or large binder under your child’s paper or book.  It is also helpful to maintain all text from one activity at either near or far. Instead of using a whiteboard, provide a handout or place the principal text beside your child’s paper.

11. Reduce Amount of Text on Page

Visual Field – Decrease the visual field.

Full pages of text can be overwhelming for children, particularly with non-preferred activities. For kiddos that are struggling with oculomotor skills, it may increase the likelihood of skipping words or full lines of text when reading.

A solid piece of paper can be used to cover half of a page, or can used as a line marker when reading or referencing. Some children may prefer a page “window.” A rectangle (to fill one or more lines of text) can be cut from a full piece of paper.

12. Use Color…Except Yellow

Perception – Increase visual perception. Visual discrimination, visual closure, figure-ground, form constancy, visual memory and sequential visual memory all contribute to visual attention and reading/writing skill development. There are some general suggestions that may help this area.

Ensure written and typed work is clear and without excessive text. Use contrasting colors, avoiding yellow text on white paper.

Research on color overlays and learning disabilities is limited. However, overlays are frequently used to decrease visual stress while reading or studying. There are a variety of colors available, and blues/greens are the most popular.

These can be used to cover a full page or a specific area of text. Similarly, highlighter strips may also be used to increase visual attention to text while reading. Older children can use a highlighter to maintain reading speed.

OT Evaluation

All in all, if your child is experiencing difficulty sustaining attention to seated tasks, or you suspect oculomotor and visual perceptual concerns, reach out to an OT for a sensory or visual-based evaluation!

Thank you to my sweet friend, Alicia Matthews, MS, OTR/L for her collaboration on this post.  She has been a part of my journey and I have learned so much from her.

Alicia is a pediatric occupational therapist with 8 years of experience in North Carolina. She has a Master of Science Degree in Occupational Therapy from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She developed OT Avenue, LLC in 2017. Alicia currently works in home health and private practice in the Concord and Charlotte area. You can connect with her at OTAvenue@gmail.com