Free article: ADHD in the classroom

Published: Tuesday, 02 December 2014

Are you waiting for them to fail or challenging them to succeed? Jane Cordez reminds us that pupils do not care what you know until they know that you care.


  • Without truly knowing and understanding the person behind the statistic you can’t expect to help them grow.
  • Plan proactively for the worst-case scenario.
  • Allow challenging pupils the time and space to self-soothe, thus preventing the forthcoming disruptive behaviour.

Many colleagues will have been in a classroom situation today where they have had to deal with ‘low-level disruption’, but what is that? How and why do we support the idea that there are acceptable levels of disruption? Surely, disruption is disruption! We then spend many hours providing and managing sanctions, mostly with no real long-term effect. Just look at the statistics of repeat offenders in your school. A more alarming statistic is that 95% of young offenders have SEN or mental health issues.

Does your school have a cold?

I like to think of behaviour like a cold. When we have a cold we exhibit symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose or sore throat. The cause of these symptoms is the common cold. We can’t cure it but we can manage the symptoms. Behaviour is the same. In schools we see and talk about the symptoms but there is not always a full understanding of the cause. Has your school got a cold?

Here’s a scenario: you have a class that is really challenging three times a week. Each lesson they repeat similar behaviours. You try and keep the lessons simple with minimal transitions or movement so that you can keep control and give yourself the best chance. The situation does not improve and it is now April.

I have heard this scenario many times in a very short period of time. It clearly brings stress and challenge. They are not bad teachers: they have been overburdened by the system and when presented with the bigger challenges they have no fight or capacity left. In short, both pupils and staff suffer. So what can be done?


Schools are museums of data. Each September staff are provided with the latest edition detailing results, expected progress, target grades, aspirational grades (shouldn’t they be the same?) and the SEN register. The tomes of information are recorded in the fresh new teacher planner or stored in the classroom desk. As a young teacher, I was overwhelmed with information at the start of term and just wanted to get on with planning, preparing resources and teaching the kids. However, this information is crucial for ‘managing the cold’! To really be able to ensure progress for all and close the gap we must pay far more attention to the starting points of the young people within our care. Not only must we dig deeper, we must understand them.

Leading relationships

So, what do you know about the pupil who consistently challenges the ‘rules of the classroom’? What is your relationship with them? Is it positive or negative? How were the rules established? Yes, there is school policy and consistency is key but you are the leader in your classroom. How much of your time is spent ‘managing’ and how much time is spent ‘leading’? I challenge you now to jot down all the functional tasks you undertake each lesson and mark them either ‘M’ or ‘L’. You may be surprised!

Starting points

The SEN register is circulated or uploaded to the shared area. We then mark in our planner, so we identify the SEN in the groups we teach. Job done? Sometimes there is a planner check in Week 2 and then the year carries on. The question here is, how many staff truly understand what that special need is? What training have they had? Do they really know how to understand and manage ADHD or provide a dyslexia-friendly lesson? Do they understand how the pupil with severe ADHD can have an impact on the sensory needs of the pupil with autism? Have they a clear understanding of the often missing link – attachment theory? Do they really know how to manage the symptoms of the cold when they don’t know the cause?

Boris (not his real name) had ADHD. He was switched off from education and arrived at the school a very angry young man. At school he was very aggressive towards both staff and pupils. He lived in a distressing social situation (ambivalent attachment) and it wasn’t long before he was involved in criminal activity to the extent where he spent over a year in a young offenders institution. He returned and I picked him up in Year 10.

Staff with previous knowledge were cautious but I hadn’t met Boris before and so a new relationship could be built. I spent time getting to know what made him tick whilst setting clear boundaries of what needed to be done, but with mutual collaboration on how this could be achieved. The outcome was the same, but the journey to reach it may have been different to others. In fact this was similar to all my learners.

Boris was medicated and so there were certain points of the day where he had more energy, so lessons and content were learnt through physical instruction, whether in a classroom or in the gym. Other points of the day he would be more docile and ‘couldn’t be bothered’ and needed motivating more. This would be when short bursts of information would be given with ten minutes of applied learning, or when interventions and emotional support therapy were timetabled. His curriculum was designed to ‘work with him’ and with what he enjoyed and was motivated to do.

We built his self-esteem and allowed him to lead other students and classes in areas where he was confident. The cycle of destruction was broken. He became a role model for younger pupils.

He left school with seven GCSEs A–C including maths plus additional college vocational qualifications. He got two distinctions in Btec Sport and went on to college to study mechanics.

My proudest moment was when he coached football in a primary school and then went on to lead and plan a primary festival for the county.

Why did it work? I spent more time focused on what he could do rather than what his data said he couldn’t. I found out how he worked best, at what times of day and through which methods. In two years, I never had a behavioural issue with him. I lived up to the promise of my school vision: ‘Arrive with a past, leave with a future.’

When establishing the starting points of all pupils it is not enough to know their current level (although now extinct) or their target grade. Without truly knowing and understanding the person behind the statistic then you can’t expect to help them grow; you haven’t read the instructions. It becomes a leap of blind faith – and remember you can’t make anyone do anything without their co-operation. What are their triggers, likes and dislikes? What makes them tick? What is their support system like? Do they have one? Good things happen when there is a trust relationship. This does rely on everyone being more open, but you are going to spend many hours together, so why waste them?

Training and planning

Essentially the level of ‘real’ understanding of staff is surface level. They know it exists, they know some of the key facts, but often they don’t then know how to translate this to classroom practice. We recently ran a training course with SkillForce (Prince William’s charity), a fantastic alternative provision of instructors who are often faced with the most challenging pupils in the school and who don’t hold QTS. After providing knowledge-rich content of all the types of SEN they may encounter, we then applied it both in a practical and a classroom situation. Instructors took on the role and exhibited behaviours of a particular SEN. With new knowledge the leading instructors had to find the cause and then react appropriately to engage the pupil in the lesson.

This was very challenging, as adults tend to ‘overplay’, but if you can plan proactively for the worst-case scenario then surely you are going to improve your chances of delivering your lesson and the pupils will be far more engaged?

So how do we get to know their starting points? Many of you probably use these already:

  • academic data
  • SEN register and external agencies information
  • learning style questionnaire/multiple intelligence
  • pen portrait – pupils and staff
  • SDQs – strengths and difficulties questionnaire (
  • Packtypes – a unique self-awareness tool (

The removal of NC levels gives schools a real opportunity to baseline the ‘whole child’ and show progress using many measures beyond academic data. After all, ‘IQ gets you the interview but EQ gets you the job.’ Similarly we hire talent and sack for poor attitude, so our role, as ever, is to shape the young person to be able to succeed beyond the school gate.

Have we got the balance of progress wrong? If we engaged young people via their strengths then their attitude, behaviour, confidence and results would improve. We must break the cycle of destruction. The young people who appear to deserve the consequences the least need your help the most.

What do you do when you’re stressed?

I’ve run sessions with many groups of adults and their solutions to stress are always very similar: go for a walk/run, eat, sleep, listen to music, talk to friends, shout/scream etc. Generally these are all acceptable behaviours and when we see a colleague who is struggling we encourage them to do these things. These techniques help us to self-regulate.

What do the kids do when they are in a state of stress, whether it’s learner anxiety or outside baggage? They do all of the things which are generally seen to be acceptable self-regulation tools. However, they then get a detention, sent to isolation or – worse – exclusion. Ultimately they get a sanction. What if we were to know the pupils well enough that we could identify the triggers and then be proactive to allow them the time and space to self-soothe, thus preventing the forthcoming disruptive behaviour? Passive and previously agreed systems can be followed, and when the young person is in a state of calm, the cause can be tackled.
When you can truly understand and manage ADHD you will use the same tools for all your behaviour management problems.


Use the following items to put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Jane Cordez has spent 20 years in education teaching KS2–5, and most recently as a successful BESD headteacher. She recently gave a keynote speech at the ADHD Conference and delivers ‘Understanding and Managing ADHD’ to teachers on their behalf ( She now runs LEaD Training Academy, which specialises in delivering teaching, learning, behaviour management and leadership development courses.
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.