Teaching Students with ADD & ADHD

Thembi Shears

In the last decade there have been more and more children diagnosed with learning difficulties and behavioural conditions than ever before. Two of the most common ‘labels’ given to students these days are Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I imagine that most teachers out there have had at least one phone call from a parent enquiring about piano lessons for their child with one of these diagnoses! Receiving this call can be quite daunting for those of us that don’t feel we have enough knowledge on the topic to teach that child, but it needn’t be that way. As teachers, we are always working with children with a wide range of learning needs, and we adapt our teaching to suit each individual. Teaching students with ADD or ADHD is no different — with a little research, the flexibility to adapt your teaching style, and the patience you already possess, you will be well on your way to giving that child a wonderful musical learning experience.

What are ADD and ADHD?

ADD and ADHD are characterised by: Inattentiveness — poor concentration, forgetfulness, poor organisation and no sustained attention Impulsiveness — acting without thought, blurting out answers, and accident prone Hyperactivity — constant fidgeting, talking too much, and an inability to stay seated ADD is diagnosed when the main characteristic is inattention. ADHD is diagnosed when the three characteristics listed above are combined, with a tendency towards hyperactivity. It is important to remember that neither condition is related to lowered intelligence.

Teaching Tips

1. Give clear instructions

It’s amazing how many times we think we are giving an instruction when we’re actually making more of a vague comment, for example: ‘I think it would be better…’ or ‘Isn’t it about time you…?’ Your student probably won’t think it would be better to work on their scales, and that it isn’t about time they stopped playing that game! It is important to use short simple statements, such as: ‘Please play me F major now’, or ‘Come and sit here on the floor and play this game with me’. It is also useful to avoid changing your wording when repeating an instruction. This way it will be perceived as the same instruction, and not confused as something new.

2. Recognise and praise desired behaviour

It’s important to notice when the child is doing the right thing, and praise that behaviour. It might be as simple as sitting quietly while they listened to you speak, or moving quickly to the next activity you’ve asked them to do. Provide rewards consistently and often — this could be in the form of verbal praise, sticker charts, small prizes, team points etc. Be sure to always ask the parents before giving any kind of sweet rewards as many students with ADD or ADHD are kept away from colours, additives, and preservatives to help manage their behaviour.

3. Arrange the environment to facilitate attention

This is as simple as minimising distractions. Limit the number of people in the room or waiting room, to provide a quiet environment for the child to focus in. My students focus much better with no-one else in the studio, so the parents don’t stay and the following students know not to come inside until we’ve finished. Avoid teaching right next to a window where neighbourhood dogs / cats / birds will be ready and waiting to steal the student’s attention away from you!

4. Use active response instruction

This is the big one! Get your students moving around and doing different activities for short bursts of time. You will find their concentration is really good on something they are interested in, and their behaviour is much better if you have a variety of activities in a lesson. I find 5–7 minutes per activity usually works to keep things moving along. Using manipulatives is great for all students to develop conceptual understanding, and really helps students with ADD and ADHD who need to move around more. The Blitz Book of Theory Games by Samantha Coates has some fantastic games for a wide range of levels. There are crosswords, puzzles, word searches, and lots of card games, including my all-time favourite ‘Beat It’, a fantastic rhythm and memory game that my students never get tired of. There are also plenty of childhood games that you can adapt to have a musical focus; it can be as simple as asking the child to identify a note or answer a question in between turns of tic-tac-toe, or creating a musical egg-and spoon race. There are thousands of great ideas for games online if you spend a little time searching and reading through teaching blogs.

5. Foster self-esteem

Students with any kind of learning difficulty or disability are often labelled in that way and they can start to absorb that as part of their identity. They might see themselves as ‘the naughty child’ who is always in trouble and ‘isn’t very good at learning’. As private instrumental teachers we have the most wonderful opportunity to turn this around! At piano lessons my students with ADHD don’t see themselves as ‘the naughty child’; in fact they aren’t disruptive or difficult to teach at all. They are all delightful children who love their piano lessons and are achieving success.

Having one-on-one time with an adult who believes in them, has the freedom to teach the way that suits their needs, and helps them succeed is invaluable in the life of a child who might not be having those experiences at school. As a past classroom teacher I know it’s impossible to spend as much one-on-one time as a child may need when you have 30+ other children who need attention too! As instrumental teachers we have the chance to really make a difference, and I think that’s what excites me the most.

More from Thembi Shears

Teaching Students with ADD & ADHD

In the last decade there have been more and more children diagnosed...
Read More