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I have the utmost respect for anyone who undertakes the noble profession of educating children. Teaching can get infinitely more complicated when your class includes children with Isms, such as attention regulation difficulties, sensory processing challenges or fluctuations in activity level.

Tracking the needs of each individual child, and making sure you meet them, has to be daunting and overwhelming at best. However, there ways you can modify your classroom environment and teaching approach to make life easier on your students and their families. Oh, and did I mention most of them will make your job easier too?

Creating an Ism-Friendly Classroom

1. Distractability

Seating arrangements where the children face one another can create more potential for distraction. Additionally, the children sitting with their backs to you have to make more of an effort to focus on what you’re trying to say to them.


  • Consider a traditional classroom seating arrangement with desks facing forward.
  • Seat the students who struggle with inattention or distractability as close to you as possible, preferably in the front row.
  • If desks aren’t an option, require the children seated with their backs to you to turn their chairs around when you’re giving lessons or instructions. This also limits their access to items on the table such a papers, pencils etc.
  • Be animated, dramatic and (if possible) funny when teaching.

How Could This Help? Many students with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dyslexia or other conditions are highly visual, kinetic learners easily drawn in by visual stimulation and movement. Sitting in the back of the class means they have to look past all the other students in order to see you and focus on what you’re saying. By removing the distractions in their field of view you’re increasing the likelihood they’ll be focused on your movements and words, rather than another student.

2. Follow Through

Children with attention or motivation issues often have lower amounts of the brain chemical “dopamine” in their system. The neurotransmitter dopamine is the body’s reward system, so children with naturally lower amounts of it need more frequent rewards, praise and positive feedback than average.


  • Institute a token economy or other incremental reward system in your classroom.
  • Empower your student by asking them how many problems they can do, then praising them for getting them done.
  • Consider creating a “work to completion” policy for as many assignments as possible by allowing students to re-do missed questions so that every assignment receives a 100% score. BONUS: they often learn the material more completely.
  • Decrease the child’s workload by eliminating boring “busy” work.

How Could This Help? Praise, success and rewards give every human being a “warm fuzzy” feeling; in other words a little surge of dopamine in our brain. It’s worth noting that stimulant medications, such as those used to treat ADHD, also manipulate the dopamine system to improve focus and motivation, so making sure there’s extra dopamine available never hurts. Besides, who doesn’t love feeling all warm and fuzzy?

3. Over-Active/Under-Active

One child is a living example of inertia and another is sitting perfectly still, thoughts flittering from one thing to the next like super-sonic butterflies. Even more confounding is the fact they’re both in the same classroom: yours! How can you possibly address two apparently conflicting “isms?”


  • Permit students to stand at an adjustable-height table to do their work instead of sitting.
  • Encourage frequent breaks which include movement such as walking, stretching or changing position within the classroom.
  • Allow kids to sit on an [easyazon-link asin=”B009YUAD6S” locale=”us”]exercise/yoga ball[/easyazon-link] instead of a chair. Place the ball inside an appropriately-sized cardboard box to keep them from rolling away.
  • Give the child use of a “fidget tool” like [easyazon-link asin=”B000EOASEK” locale=”us”]Silly Putty[/easyazon-link], non-drying clay or other small, quiet item they can manipulate in their hands to help them focus.

How Could This Help? It may seem counter-intuitive that “the wiggles” and “slug mode” can have the same origin, but it’s often true nonetheless. Movement and exercise produce all kinds of wonderful, beneficial chemicals in our brains and bodies. Therefore, we all tend to perform best when we get frequent breaks which include moving around and many studies suggest that having a physical item to manipulate in their hands actually helps many children focus more effectively.

4. Disorganization

Missing or incomplete assignments, unfinished classwork and general difficulty pulling it all together.


  • Introduce planners or schedule-based assignment books as early as possible.
  • Avoid sending home unfinished class work for parents to do; unfinished classwork indicates an issue in the classroom that is interfering with performance.
  • If additional text books are available, issue two sets to a disorganized child and instruct them to keep one set at home.

How Could This Help? Parents of children with special “isms” are often already overwhelmed by ordinary home responsibilities and regular homework assignments without adding more stress by sending home unfinished classwork. Additionally, conditions such as ADHD and Executive Function Disorder are often inherited, so mom and dad may be struggling with organizational issues themselves and not know it, or may be too embarrassed to tell you. Helping the child to learn tools and strategies, such as planners or extra sets of books helps them to build important organizational skills while increasing their success at school as well as later in life.

Teaching Outside the Box
Some of these suggestions are adapted from Dr. Russel Barkley’s suggestions for “80+ Classroom Accommodations for Children or Teens with ADHD”, and others are just my two cents. I hope I’ve inspired you to think “outside the box” when it comes to classroom approaches and teaching style. Many of these strategies will benefit all of your students and allow you to spend more time focused on doing what you do best: teaching!


Barkley, Russell A. 80+ Classroom Accommodations for Children or Teens with ADHD. The ADHD Report, Vol. 16(4), pp. 7-10. Guilford Publication.