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Adjustments in Classroom Management

One child with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder can keep a classroom in constant uproar if nothing is done to counteract his trouble with attention, organization, time, and social acceptance. In these areas, the youngster does not have the ability to control and change his own behavior. Teachers have to deal with these problems by adjusting his environment. Careful classroom management can prevent the LD/ADD student from becoming a strongly disruptive influence.

One child with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder can keep a classroom in constant uproar if nothing is done to counteract his trouble with attention, organization, time, and social acceptance. In these areas, the youngster does not have the ability to control and change his own behavior. Teachers have to deal with these problems by adjusting his environment. Careful classroom management can prevent the LD/ADD student from becoming a strongly disruptive influence.

Students with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder usually find the normal hum of classroom activity extremely distracting. Even such tiny, unavoidable sounds as turning pages, shuffling feet, and whispered conversations catch their attention and draw their minds away from schoolwork.

When left to their own devices, LD/ADD students tend to use background music to filter out normal environmental noises. They usually like to play the radio, the stereo, or the television when they want to concentrate. They also find it helpful to work in an area where they can spread out, move around, and be comfortable. Body postures other than sitting up straight at a desk help them to “get into” what they are doing. Standing at the blackboard, kneeling on the floor, leaning back in a chair, perching on a stool, pacing around the room, or hunching over a workbench, a countertop, or a drawing table-any position that increases whole body involvement is likely to help these youngsters pay attention to their work. When studying at home, they tend to prefer spreading out on the dining-room table or sprawling on the couch, bed, or floor.

By taking note of the modifications these youngsters provide for themselves, teachers can make adjustments in the classroom environment to help LD/ADD students overcome many of their difficulties with paying attention in class. In a carefully controlled atmosphere, the LD/ADD pupil has his best chance for successful learning.

Distractibility and a short attention span are major causes of the LD/ADD youngster’s classroom disasters. The child who is not paying attention to his work is usually doing something else. And as often as not, that something else produces noise or movement that disturbs the rest of the class.

Thus, the teacher’s first objective is to establish firm limits on the LD/ADD student. His difficulty with focusing attention must not become the entire class’s problem.

Finding the right spot

Regardless of age, LD/ADD students usually have an attention span significantly shorter than that of their classmates. Because their periods of concentration are so brief, they frequently look up from their work and check on what’s going on around them. If there is something interesting nearby, it captures their attention so that they never return to their work.

Claude was an extremely bright, extremely active first grader. He loved school; he loved people. He was curious about everything. First-grade work should not have been terribly difficult for Claude. His learning disability was mild, he was getting excellent therapy, he was on stimulant medication, and he very much wanted to learn.

But in the classroom, the youngster never got his work done. He barely even got started on most of his schoolwork. “He’s off in the clouds,” his teacher complained. “Staring off into space. He just won’t get down to business. The boy doesn’t even try.”

The LD specialist spent a morning in the classroom observing Claude. Just as had been recommended, the boy was seated at the end of the front row next to the teacher’s desk. Unfortunately, this location placed him beside an aquarium and a row of windows that provided a fabulous view of a busy playground.

Claude wasn’t “off in the clouds.” Every time his attention broke and he looked up, there was something fascinating going on in the fish tank or on the playground.

It took several moves to find the right spot for this wide-eyed first-grader who found everything interesting. One seat provided a neighbor who enjoyed fooling around with him. Another was so close to the door that he kept watching the activity in the hall. Finally, when seated off to the side by a blank wall, with two studious little neighbors and no interesting animals or vistas nearby, Claude found his ideal location. His surroundings were so boring that schoolwork was the most interesting thing available.

Everything in the LD/ADD child’s environment competes for his attention. And extreme distractibility makes his focus very fragile. Even among highly motivated LD/ADD students who develop adequate study skills, difficulties with concentration cause lifelong problems.

For the teacher, the trick is to seat pupils with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder where there is little of interest to hold their attention when it’s not focused on schoolwork. A seat in the front of the room is often best. This limits what’s in the student’s line of vision. Instead of seeing a whole room of interesting bulletin boards plus thirty or more active bodies, he sees only the front third of the room, the blackboard, and a few classmates. If the pupil is situated on the extreme left or right side of the front row, distractions can be cut to a minimum. However, front row corner seats present special problems which must be taken into consideration. Areas of heavy traffic and frequent activity should be avoided. If the teacher’s desk, the wastebasket, and the pencil sharpener are on one side, the LD/ADD child should be on the other. When the choice is near the door or near the window, the door is usually the less distracting of the two.

College students with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder almost always have less trouble paying attention in class when seated in the front of the room and off to one side. When seated in the middle or back of a lecture hall filled with two hundred or three hundred students, they notice every person-what they’re wearing, what they’re doing, where else they’ve been seen around campus-and little attention is left for watching the instructor, listening to the presentation, and taking notes.

In young children, this tendency to notice everything going on around them can be a tremendous handicap. For those few who simply cannot screen out the sights and sounds around them, any class of more than six or eight students makes concentration totally impossible! No amount of medication, classroom modification, or one-to-one instruction can enable them to tune out the other students and keep their minds on their schoolwork. Such children can make a shambles out of a tranquil classroom. With the “inclusion” law and small LD classes rarely available, parents of these highly distractible youngsters are faced with the choice between home schooling and private school. Leaving severely distractible children in regular classrooms is far too destructive to the child-not to mention to his teacher and his classmates-to be given serious consideration.

Some LD/ADD students should not be placed in the first row of a classroom. For those who are hyperactive and those with serious behavior problems, sitting in front of an entire class makes them actors with an audience. When the distractions that disturb them are limited, they become the distraction that disturbs everyone else. This must not be allowed. Overactive children-whether medicated or not-wiggle, bounce, tap, twist, hang out of their chairs, wander around the room, and race to the teacher’s desk. Most of the time, they are playing with something in their hands. Almost always, they are in motion. Medication often helps them contain their excess energy, but as a general rule it is pointless to try to control their level of activity. The most effective approach is to limit their territory.

Hyperactive students usually are least disruptive if seated at one end of the back row. This location also provides them the extra amount of physical freedom they need. Rather than wasting her time and energy trying to keep such youngsters in their seats, the teacher can concentrate on confining their activity within reasonable but specific bounds. It is effective to give such youngsters an adjusted set of rules: “You may move freely about this area of the room, provided you do your work, don’t do anything dangerous, and don’t disturb others.” The exact limits of their territory should be made absolutely clear. With young children, it may be necessary to mark off their space with a chalk line or a strip of tape so they know exactly where the boundaries are. This approach enables a teacher to exert a reasonable amount of control over hyperactive pupils. But it will work only if the adjusted rules are strictly enforced.

It is also helpful to give these wiggly children something to play with in their hands. They almost always bring an item from home to fill this purpose, but it is usually a toy that is so much fun that it demands all their attention and keeps them and their neighbors from work. A piece of modeling clay, a big rubber band-anything they can twist and squeeze without distracting their classmates-can help them sit still and focus. For testing, a private place is almost always essential.

LD/ADD students who cause constant discipline problems should also be seated in the back. With them, the teacher’s objective is to protect the rest of the class from the disturbances they create. Situating these youngsters in a corner of the back row has the effect of separating them from the other children. No one has to watch their antics, and there is only one neighbor to be disturbed.

For more complete separation, a disruptive boy can be surrounded by girls who will not interact with him. He should not be given the enlarged territory allowed the hyperactive child. And he should not be placed in some remote corner that isolates him entirely. (Although total isolation may be in the child’s best interest, a teacher should not take this type of action without first consulting the LD specialist, the psychologist, the school’s counselor, the principal, or some other administrator who is intimately acquainted with the legal ramifications of such actions under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 and other current legislation that might apply.)

Children’s preferences can be a great help in determining the ideal location and type of seating. The learning styles research of Drs. Rita and Kenneth Dunn is also useful in analyzing the five environmental factors that must be considered when choosing an appropriate study locale.

1. Noise.

The noise level is of primary importance. For many pupils, deep concentration is so easy that they stay engrossed in their work despite even loud sounds. Very few LD/ADD youngsters have the ability to tune out the smallest background noises. It’s usually difficult-and sometimes impossible-to provide the degree of quiet they need when there are other students nearby. For those who can tolerate looking “different,” sound insulating earmuffs like those used at airports may be helpful. Earplugs and stereo headsets playing white noise offer the same benefits at less expense.

Many learners actually need noise in order to concentrate. Background sounds from a radio, stereo, or television help such students filter out the intrusive background noises that would otherwise disrupt their concentration. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that certain types of classical music can be an aid to concentration and learning. For LD/ADD students who find music helpful during study sessions, a small cassette or CD player with a headset can be extremely valuable.

2. Light.

The amount of light in the work area can have a strong effect on concentration. Some students find that dim lighting makes them sleepy and sluggish, while bright light helps them stay alert. Others find that low light helps them feel calm and focused, while intense light makes them fidgety and nervous. Several studies have shown that poor readers and right brain thinkers tend to prefer dim light for study. As might be expected, many LD/ADD students find it easiest to learn in a room with low intensity lighting. Perhaps baseball hats should be allowed in classrooms as a socially acceptable form of eyeshade.

3. Temperature.

Personal preferences concerning room temperature vary widely. While some students fan themselves and complain of the heat, others seated nearby shiver. There is a limited temperature range within which the human brain functions well. When the classroom thermometer registers above eighty degrees, the mind becomes sleepy and sluggish; when the reading falls below the mid-sixties, discomfort disrupts serious thinking. Youngsters with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder seem especially susceptible to extremes of cold or heat. Consequently, the teacher’s personal comfort level shouldn’t dictate what’s right for an entire classroom. Students need to be taught to adjust their clothing according to the temperature so they can remain clearheaded and alert. It is essential that classroom temperature be monitored closely.

4. Seating.

Standard classroom seating isn’t ideal for all pupils. Mozart wrote his music standing up at a high table. Others do their best thinking stretched out on the floor. Some can’t concentrate unless they’re in motion. While it’s more convenient for the teacher to have the entire class sitting in chairs lined up in neat rows, LD/ ADD students should be encouraged to explore alternate postures.

5. Oral stimulation.

Many people find that the machinery of thinking works best when accompanied by movements of the mouth. When concentrating, they chew on a pencil, smoke a pipe, eat, drink, chew gum, or bite their fingernails. Some experts believe that such activity “integrates” the nervous system. Although food and drink aren’t normally available in a classroom, many youngsters with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder could benefit from such intake.

A former student of mine recently waited on me in the glove department of a local department store. As we exchanged news, Rose said, “You know, it’s because of you that I graduated from college.”

This lovely young woman’s flattering comment caught me by surprise. As a fifth grader, Rose had experienced such severe problems with reading comprehension that I assumed she was going to have trouble just getting through high school. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might actually make it through college. Unable to remember what I had taught her that proved so valuable, and eager to hear about my great skill as a teacher, I asked, “What did I do that was so helpful?”

Rose replied, “You were right. That one trick you taught me made all the difference. I haven’t had any more trouble understanding what I read.”

Trying not to show my confusion, I wondered what “trick” I’d taught her so many years earlier. Fortunately, Rose continued. “Yes,” she said, “as long as I chew gum when I read, I have no trouble with comprehension.”

The Dunns’ learning-styles research makes it clear that some very small adjustments in the classroom environment can make a gigantic difference in a student’s academic achievement.

Always, in selecting the ideal seat for an LD/ADD student, the teacher needs to look for a quiet spot with little traffic, a limited view, and few neighbors. The neighbors can be as important as the location. A youngster with a learning disability and/ or an attention deficit disorder should not be seated near children who pick on him or tease him. Talkative students and those who fool around a lot should also be avoided. The LD/ADD child’s distractibility is bothersome enough without noisy classmates nearby to make it worse. A seat beside a pleasant, quiet, good student can have a very steadying effect.

The “good neighbor”

“What page are we on?” “What row are we supposed to do?” “What were the directions?” A student with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder has many such questions. Traditional classroom rules force him to either figure out such things for himself or go to the teacher for help. Figuring them out for himself seldom leads an LD/ADD student to successful completion of an assignment. Asking the teacher would be fine if the situation didn’t occur so often. Constantly trotting up to the front embarrasses the child and becomes an inconvenience to the teacher.

The questions routinely asked by LD/ADD children can almost always be answered by any good student in the class. By choosing the right neighbor and carefully controlling an adjusted set of rules, the teacher can see to it that pupils with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder have a ready source of information available right there at their elbow.

The teacher, the LD/ADD child, and the neighbor must all have a clear understanding of the special arrangements they’re making to create a “good neighbor plan.”

  1. The two youngsters are allowed to talk openly and freely but quietly during class.
  2. The LD/ADD student is not permitted to pester his neighbor or use the conversations as an excuse for socializing.
  3. The “good neighbor” must maintain a cooperative, understanding attitude.
  4. To make sure that the children understand the difference between a “good neighbor plan” and a partnership, the teacher must establish clear and specific guidelines. The youngsters must know what kinds of questions the LD/ ADD student may take to his neighbor. “What does this word say?” or “Do the answers have to be in sentences?” would probably be allowed. “What’s the answer to this question?” would definitely not be acceptable. The two children also have to understand exactly what kind of help the neighbor may provide. Is he to copy arithmetic problems from the book? Does he supply answers to basic questions such as “How much is 14 take away 6?” Is he responsible for reminding the LD/ADD child about capital letters and punctuation? There must also be a clear understanding of special situations when their talking will not be allowed. Does the policy remain in effect during tests? Does it apply only in one classroom or anywhere in the school?

Most LD/ADD students ask two questions repeatedly: “What’s that word?” and “How do you spell ?” They need to know where to turn for answers to these questions no matter what the situation. Most difficulties can be avoided if the full details are settled at the time the agreement is made.

By the fifth grade, Mike had overcome almost all of the problems caused by his learning disability. In most areas, he was a good student. He was especially patient with himself about his poor spelling. Whenever he got stuck on a word, he went quietly to the teacher to ask for help. But Mike did not deal with his copying problem so effectively. Copying things off the blackboard caused him serious difficulties. Every time he made a mistake, he got terribly upset. Erasing and correcting his errors made him furious. It got to the point where Mike caused at least one ugly scene every day.

In mid-November, a new boy, Tim, enrolled in the class. For no particular reason, the teacher gave him a seat next to Mike.

An outgoing child, Mike took it upon himself to help the new student get into the routine of the class. In hushed tones, he answered questions about the way the teacher wanted things done. He told Tim where to find supplies. Quickly, the two became friends.

Sometime in December, the teacher realized that Mike no longer had problems copying things off the board. He hadn’t had one of his outbursts in weeks. She had no idea what had caused the change in her LD pupil but assumed it had something to do with sitting next to Tim.

One afternoon, right in the middle of a social studies test, the teacher caught Tim handing a note to Mike. Positive that the two boys were cheating, she snatched their papers away, demanded that Mike give her the note, and dragged the two criminals into the hall.

On the scrap of paper Tim had given Mike, there was only one word: democracy. Waving the evidence, the teacher challenged sternly, “Other than cheating, I can’t imagine any possible reason for this note!” Her eyes flashed as she glared first at one boy, then the other. “I will give you gentlemen one minute to explain exactly what this note means.”

Gulping and stammering, both boys tried to talk at once. “I asked him how to spell democracy,” Mike muttered at precisely the same time Tim said, “He asked me how to spell democracy.” Since it seemed unlikely that two children would tell the exact same lie simultaneously, the teacher heard her students out. Their stories fit perfectly. And they clarified several things she had found puzzling.

Mike and Tim had developed their own version of the “good neighbor plan.”

Tim explained simply, “Mike don’t spell so good, so I help him sometimes.”

“And he copies stuff off the board for me,” Mike added. Shrugging, he confessed, “That’s how come I don’t mess up and get so mad anymore.”

The teacher’s broad smile made it easy to see that she approved of the system the two friends had devised. Her curiosity led her to ask her LD student one final question: “And what do you do for Tim in return?”

Before the learning-disabled pupil could reply, his buddy cut him off. “He don’t have to do nothin’ in return. It’s okay. He’s my friend.”

In his own simple way, that eleven-year-old boy stated the whole theory behind the “good neighbor plan”: when given an opportunity, most children will gladly help a classmate without expecting anything in return.

Selecting the right child to act as a helping neighbor can be difficult. It’s often wise to let the LD/ADD student take part in the process. Sometimes, a rotating team of “good neighbors” is most practical. With that system, the LD/ADD pupil has a regular seat, and one desk immediately beside him is reserved for his special neighbor. Week by week or month by month, students rotate in and out of that seat. Regardless of the system used, only students who are willing to be an assistant should be considered for the role. Recruits have the wrong attitude. They tend to see their role as a chore rather than a privilege.

Time limits and schedules

Many children with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder race through life at high velocity; they are hyperactive. Some slow moving LD/ADD youngsters are referred to as hypoactive.

Regardless of LD/ADD students’ preferred pace, time tends to slip through their fingers. Whenever they’re allowed out of the classroom, it’s unlikely they’ll be seen again soon. A two-minute trip to the bathroom takes them five minutes-or often fifteen. For a short errand to the office or library, they’ll be gone twice as long as seems reasonable. Much of this is to be expected and tolerated, but a few tricks can help.

Many teachers impose a time limit on students who leave the classroom for a trip to the lavatory, their locker, the drinking fountain, and so on. This is usually done with a sign-out sheet on which students record their name and the time they left the room. Since most LD/ADD children (of all ages) have a poor concept of time, this standard method doesn’t always work for them. They seem to have no internal “feel” for time. With no mental clock to pressure them to move along, they use up the allotted time on a sightseeing trip through the halls. Those who have a watch and are willing to use it rarely have any skill at figuring out what time it will be when their time is up. More than their classmates, LD/ADD students need something to force them to hurry along on their errands.

The sign-out approach can work for an LD/ADD student if he uses an hourglass, a cooking timer, or a stopwatch instead of a clock. When leaving the room, the student takes the hour-glass or timer from a shelf near the door, starts it running, and places it on his own desk. If he returns before the sand runs out or the bell goes off, he merely puts it back on its shelf and returns to his seat. If he’s late, he suffers some standard penalty. With all types of students in grades one through twelve, this method gives the teacher a way to enforce rules governing how long pupils are allowed out of the classroom. It has two distinct advantages: it’s no trouble to the teacher at all, and it does not single out LD/ ADD children for special treatment. The time limits apply equally to all. For those youngsters who are repeatedly late with the timer, some other system must be devised.

Brian was hypoactive; he was a chronic slow mover. If allowed out of the classroom, this pleasant eighth grader stepped into a time warp and lost track of time altogether.

The bathrooms and drinking fountains were right across the hall from my second-floor classroom. All my students could visit both and be back before our three-minute timer ran out of sand.

All my students, that is, except Brian. I tried letting him use a timer that gave him an extra two minutes to allow for his shuffling pace. I tried having him carry a timer with him so he could see the time running out. I even sent a student with him as an escort. Nothing worked. Always, he came dragging back shame-faced and late.

Much as the other pupils liked Brian, his delayed returns always prompted a few digs.

“Out there watching the girls, ah, Brian?” someone would tease.

“What’d you do, man, use the sink to wash out a few things? “

The jokes embarrassed the youth terribly. They were much worse than any punishment I’d have ever thought of. In desperation, I gave up. Unless it was a real emergency, Brian was not allowed out of the room.

The stalemate continued until a January day when Brian had a legitimate reason for leaving the room and I had an equally valid reason for insisting he be back in no more than five minutes. On an inspiration, I pulled my pocket calculator out of my purse, set its timer for four minutes, and shoved it into Brian’s hip pocket. “When that beeper goes off, you drop whatever you’re doing and run back to this room,” I warned.

The boy grabbed a hall pass and scurried out the door as though carrying a bomb in his pocket. He completed his mission and made it back to class before the alarm even went off. I guess Brian didn’t want the embarrassment of having people see him with beeping noises coming out of his jeans.

It takes a tremendous amount of patience to work around LD/ADD child’s non-adjustable pace. In most situations, the only answers are compromises that work around the problem.

Whenever the teacher takes her students outside the classroom it is necessary to guard against the LD/ADD child’s problem with pace. Like most other youngsters, he pushes and shoves to get to the front of the line. Yet once the group is on the way to its destination, that same LD/ADD child lags. If he’s at the end of the line, he may get left behind altogether. This is particularly troublesome on field trips.

There are no surefire cures for this problem. A sturdy nametag (giving address and phone number for both home and school) is a necessity for young LD/ADD children being taken off the school grounds. A buddy system can also be effective in such situations. It is not wise to let LD/ADD youths be the last one in line at any time. If not kept under a watchful eye, the quick ones dart off to explore, while the slow ones become engrossed in something and stop entirely.

As part of their nonvariable pace, most LD/ADD youngsters have trouble shifting from one activity to another. “It’s time for music.” “Turn in your sentences and get out your dictionary.” “Put away your math and go wash for lunch.” The school day is full of abrupt changes. Some students develop a habit of pleading, “I’m not done yet.” Others just ignore the requested action. LD/ADD students are particularly prone to causing trouble when concluding one activity and beginning another. In the first place, they frequently fail to complete their work within the period allotted. Also, their faulty concept of time makes it difficult for them to gauge how many minutes they have left for a particular activity. For them, the order to turn in their paper comes as a total surprise. No mental timer has made them aware of the looming deadline. If LD/ADD youngsters are not mentally prepared, they balk. Instead of making an agreeable, efficient change from math to reading, they keep right on with math, or begin horsing around, or stare off into space, or get angry and rip up their paper. Orders that come like a bolt out of the blue simply do not produce the desired responses.

The regular use of a five minute warning can work wonders. Within the classroom, a simple “Five minutes left for the health project” can help the entire class get into the right frame of mind for the coming change. On the playground or in the lunchroom, the teacher can signal by holding up five fingers. Even homeschoolers have to deal with activity shifts and need to give advance notice to set the stage. Then, when the moment for the change arrives, everyone knows the time for action is now. No excuses are accepted. The five-minute warning makes it possible for a teacher to impose the added structure needed to get LD/ ADD youngsters to live within some kind of schedule.

Dealing with disorganization

The school day is a procession of varied activities requiring frequent transitions which pose no problem for most students. For LD/ADD children, each task shift provides a new opportunity for the mind to drift. Long after the new assignment has been given and the rest of the class has settled down to work, students with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder can be found staring off into space-without ever having gotten out the necessary materials.

It isn’t a matter of not doing good work. If left to their own devices, LD/ADD students don’t do any work. They never get started.

Traditional methods of dealing with this difficulty can stimulate the child to action, but they rarely keep the situation from recurring. Instead of undergoing a lasting change of behavior, the child learns to wait for others to force him into motion. He doesn’t learn techniques for self-monitoring and self-discipline. He has little chance to develop organizational skills, initiative, and independence.

Both student and teacher are damaged by continual conflict The teacher’s patient optimism wilts, while the youngster comes to view authority figures as enemies.

Standard corrective measures can make matters worse. Many of them deprive the student of an opportunity for real success with the work assigned. Removing the child from the classroom can solve the problem, provided that the alternate location is quiet and well supervised. But that is rarely the case in the cloakrooms, corridors, back corners, and office spaces that are readily available in today’s schools.

Sometimes, in an attempt to force a pupil to get his work done, teachers unintentionally reward him for being unproductive in the normal setting. Teachers should abandon any efficiency enhancing techniques that allow the youngster to get out of doing his work and have a great time while he’s not doing it.

Truly effective solutions come from recognizing the root of the problem and making adjustments there. LD/ADD children are dreamers. That can’t be changed. But it is possible to avoid or alter situations that send them off into the clouds.

A child with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder almost always has trouble shifting gears and getting started on a new activity. A large part of this difficulty can be attributed to the fact that he is so disorganized. He doesn’t get his book out because he can’t find it. Or in the process of looking for it, he discovers some long-forgotten treasure buried at the bottom of his desk. Every time an LD/ADD youngster looks into his desk or locker, he takes a trip to never-never land.

Many problems can be solved by simply keeping the student out of his desk and his locker. His rummaging time can be limited to a five-minute period first thing every morning. Within that time, he must get out everything needed for the entire day. A schedule and a list of daily supplies should be taped close at hand for easy reference. For some LD/ADD children, a materials partner is necessary to help with the process of “getting it together” for the day.

While an LD/ADD child is learning to get control of time and supplies, it is sometimes best to have him keep all books, notebooks, and equipment on an open shelf or in a cabinet within easy reach. This eliminates the need for (and breaks the habit of) desk digging entirely. In extreme cases, a teacher can keep custody of all his materials. That sounds impractical, but it’s actually more efficient than the repeated confrontations that develop when disorganization becomes a chronic problem for a student.

Smart teachers do not allow a child with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder to take textbooks out of the classroom. They see that he has duplicate copies at home for use on homework and projects. It is also wise to monitor the LD/ ADD student’s inventory of school supplies on a regular basis so that pencil and paper are always available for use in class. Ideally, the pupil provides these materials and always has them with him.

Even with careful control, a backup system will be necessary. An old coffee can full of pencil stubs will usually suffice for emergency needs. No matter what measures have to be taken, make sure an LD/ADD youngster never has to leave the room to go in search of supplies. Sight-seeing trips around the building take much more time than can be allowed.

Notebooks are a special source of difficulty. Unless some kind of system is forced upon them, LD/ADD students do their English assignment in their science notebook, leave worksheets at home on the kitchen table, and never have what they need with them in class. A notebook control system is absolutely essential if these disorganized youngsters are going to have the faintest hope of being properly prepared for class. The basics of such a system are outlined below.

  1. For each subject, the child should have a separate spiral notebook with pockets for storing loose papers. Each subject has a notebook of a different color. For severely disorganized types, it is best if these notebooks never leave the schoolroom.
  2. Two pencils should be kept in the notebooks’ storage compartments. As they wear out or disappear, they should be replaced immediately.
  3. A calendar and a schedule should be taped to the inside of the front cover of the notebooks. The student should use these to keep track of the regular routine as well as due dates for special assignments.
  4. A small spiral notebook should be kept on the student at all times. In it are assignments and reminders about the things he’s likely to forget. For young children and the extremely unreliable, the notations should be made by the teacher or a study buddy. As one of the world’s absent-minded types, the LD/ADD child needs to be taught how to compensate for his unreliable memory.
  5. The student should carry a large loose-leaf binder from class to class. He should also take it home every night. It should contain the spiral notebooks for each subject and also provide a safe place for transporting papers, assure a steady supply of fresh paper, and give the student a place to store additional pencils. A calendar taped to the inside of the back cover should help keep track of due dates for projects, book reports, and other long-range assignments.
  6. Other supplies that are absolutely necessary - rulers, erasers, ballpoint pens, a checking pencil, paper clips, etc.- should be kept in a zippered plastic pocket permanently fastened inside the loose-leaf binder.

This notebook control system does not require close cooperation between home and school. A teacher can use it without the help of parents. The family can set it up without involving the school. Either way, it takes at least six weeks of close monitoring to help the student develop the habit of using the system. During this break-in period, the entire binder must be checked daily, night and morning. At this time, missing items should be replaced, inaccurate notations corrected, and important messages made current.

Checks on a calendar in connection with some system of rewards can supply the motivation needed to get the student cooperatively involved. It also helps if the youngster adds personal touches in accord with his own tastes and interests. Stickers, artwork, monograms, and slogans can convert a distasteful form of discipline into a source of personal pride.

Be sure every piece of the binder is clearly labeled with the student’s name, address, phone number, school, teacher’s name, and grade. If misplaced, easily identified materials are likely to be returned.

Many LD/ADD students are highly resistant to setting up such a materials control system, yet they are the very ones who need it the most. If it is imposed by the authority in charge, designed by the youngster, and monitored closely with an enforcement system based on positive rewards, it leads almost all students to develop the desired organizational habits within six to eight weeks. With those few truly scatter-brained youngsters who are totally unable to develop orderly habits, teachers have to monitor the system for the entire year. That sounds like a lot of work - until the alternatives are considered.

If active supervision is not available for the first few weeks of this materials control system, it should not be started. This program can produce the desired behavior change only if the student is provided with the necessary materials and is systematically taught how to use them.

Controlling distractions

Modern electronic equipment offers some amazing alternatives in controlling the distractions in the LD/ADD student’s learning environment.

Ed was in an individualized ninth-grade program with an open-classroom environment. Because of his attention deficit disorder, such a busy schoolroom was not ideal for him. His short attention span and high level of distractibility made it impossible for him to concentrate while other students were conferring with the teacher, using files, setting up filmstrip machines, building models, and so forth. Most of Ed’s class time was spent chatting with his neighbors.

When assigned a page of easy problems, Ed would ask permission to put on a headset and listen to rock’n’roll while he worked. He said the music helped him concentrate. Despite some early skepticism, Ed’s teachers agreed to the arrangement. As long as the youth had rock music blasting through his headset, he was attentive and productive.

Ed’s teachers tried to think of a way to extend his success with concentration into other areas. But the youth could study to music only when the assignment involved easy, routine work. The sense of isolation produced by the headset made it possible for him to tune out distractions. But if he had to read or use language, the music drowned out his inner processing. After trying the headset in English class, Ed complained that he couldn’t hear himself think. The boy’s teachers searched for some kind of music that would allow concentration during reading activities. Several types of soft, repetitive music were considered. Even the selections of Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi suggested by study skills experts proved to be a distraction rather than an aid. Finally, one of the teachers discovered a recording of the ocean. As long as this tape played, the listener heard only rolling breakers and crashing surf. The cyclic ebb and flow sounded so realistic that you could almost taste the salt in the air.

Ed loved it. He found that the gentle rhythms of the sea not only screened out all the distracting sounds of his classmates but also gave him a sense of calm. And he loved what it did for his concentration. Ed’s family got him a Walkman to carry around from class to class. Other students heard about his special background music and began asking to try it out. By the end of the semester, at least a dozen students were using a tape recorder and headset as a means of improving concentration.

Through the use of a headset, the auditory level of a student’s environment can be almost completely controlled. Distracting noises in the classroom can be masked by neutral, non-disturbing sound. Although many types of music produce the masking effect, research has shown that classical music, particularly Bach, actually enhances the brain’s processing capacity. When selecting the music for a classroom Walkman or portable CD player, it’s not a matter of matching the student’s personal taste; the goal is to find the music that does the best job of building concentration.

Computers offer an even more powerful aid to overcoming distractibility and short attention span. Since they are so visually stimulating and offer tactile and kinesthetic involvement, they can rivet a student’s attention to the screen and get him immersed in instruction. Youngsters with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder often have a strong talent for computers. The languages and methods of processing make sense to them in world of written language does not. For many LD/ADD pupils, sitting down to mouse or keyboard triggers the “hyperfocus” mechanisms that make them get totally absorbed in whatever activity is on the screen. Since it produces a state that is the extreme opposite of their usual classroom distractibility, it can be helpful in all academic areas.

Avoiding social problems

Any student who takes more than his fair share of the teacher’s time … any pupil who ruins the peaceful atmosphere of the classroom with strange or disruptive behavior … any child who gets away with ignoring rules, schedules, and assignments … any youngster who keeps the entire classroom in turmoil is resented and rejected by his classmates.

Thus, prevention must be the teacher’s first line of defense against the LD/ADD child’s social problems. Through careful classroom management and all the special adjustments, the teacher must help children with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder succeed with their schoolwork. If they can do their math, they won’t have the tantrums that make other children think they’re weird. If they can finish their assignment on time, the others won’t grow restless and angry because they’re constantly being kept waiting for this one slow worker. Everything that makes it possible for LD/ADD students to function satisfactorily within the classroom makes them more acceptable to their classmates.

While using this indirect approach to achieve long-range goals, teachers need to be on guard against issues that require firm, direct intervention. “I don’t want to sit next to her.” “I don’t want him on my team.” “Does he have to be on our committee?” Statements like these hurt, but LD/ADD youngsters often feel a stronger level of rejection than is intended. As long as there is no name-calling or open ridicule, the issue is best treated as a social snub. For the offender, the routine lecture that a classroom is not a social club is appropriate. Then the matter should be dropped.

Rejection that includes name-calling and cruel teasing needs to be treated as a major offense. Just as a teacher does not allow anyone to use ethnic slurs in referring to minorities, she must not tolerate children calling an LD/ ADD child “stupid” or “retard.” Such name-calling calls for strong, immediate corrective action.

Teachers need to keep in mind that children mirror the attitudes and behavior of the adults around them. If the teacher hounds and scolds a child constantly, the students in the class tend to do the same. If the teacher shows a lack of patience, understanding, or respect for a student, the other children follow her example.

Meg came to the LD resource room with a small group of her classmates from Miss Johnson’s fourth grade. The freckle faced youngster was energetic, cooperative, and eager to learn. She had the short attention span typical of LD/ ADD children her age. The girl acted just about like the other youngsters who came with her from Miss Johnson’s class. But the other children treated Meg as though she were different. They criticized her constantly.

“Meg, stop tapping your foot.”

“Meg, quit jiggling the table.”

The little girl’s classmates often corrected her for some small disturbance even when I felt she had done nothing wrong. The situation was very puzzling.

It was likely that Meg’s homeroom teacher knew why the other children picked on her. But Miss Johnson and I couldn’t seem to get together for a conference. While waiting for the meeting date we finally agreed upon, I kept watching for clues that could explain this group’s strange behavior.

A day or two before the conference, as the class wrote a dictated paragraph, Meg did something that irritated Leonard. (It was so slight that I didn’t even notice!) The little boy slapped his pencil down, scowled at Meg, and snapped, “Can’t you see I’m trying to get my work done? You just stop all that disruptive behavior.”

“Disruptive behavior?” I said to myself. “Since when does a fourth-grader talk like that?” As I stared at the boy who’d just used such an unexpected expression, the realization dawned: “That’s an adult expression. He heard that somewhere.” Suddenly, the whole picture became clear: the children treated Meg the same way their teacher did!

At our meeting, Miss Johnson was very open about her feelings toward Meg. Her voice edged with frustration, she told me what her days were like. “All day long, it’s ‘Meg, get back to work,’ ‘Meg, get back in your seat,’ ‘Meg, quit pestering Melissa.’ I get so sick of trying to make that kid behave I could just scream.” Miss Johnson stopped abruptly, looked earnestly at me, then asked, “Have you ever had a student you just plain didn’t like?”

“Yes,” I said. “Every few years, there’s one that just rubs me the wrong way.” Grinning, I added, “But I prefer to call it a ‘personality conflict.”’

Miss Johnson was too upset to appreciate my attempt at humor. With a heavy sigh and a look of shame, she concluded, “Every day on the way to school, I hope Meg will be absent.”

Children adopt attitudes similar to those of the adults around them. Thus, to improve the relationship between a child and his classmates, the teacher must start by changing her own relationship with the youngster. It is the teacher who takes the lead in developing an atmosphere of acceptance toward an LD/ADD student.

Any person who does not recognize the talents as well as the weaknesses that make the LD/ADD child different will find it difficult to be supportive. The classroom teacher involved with a student who has a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder is faced with a three-step process: first, she must learn to understand and accept the child; then she must develop strong positive expectations of success for the youngster; and finally, she must lead the class to do the same. The key is in developing a firm belief that this child, too, can grow into a happy, productive adult.

Stevens, S.H. (1997). Classroom Success for the LD and ADHD Child. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher.
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