Expert tips on teaching kids with ADHD…

KarensPictureKaren Sunderhaft is a nationally recognized teacher, author and ADHD expert. We had the opportunity to pick her brain for ideas on teaching kids with ADHD a little while back and thought “back to school” time would be the perfect time to share her tips with a new audience.

Karen has been a teacher for 21 years. She has been spending time learning, writing and speaking about ADHD since 1999. After completing an undergraduate degree in Elementary Education and Philosophy at Boston College and receiving two awards upon graduation. Karen earned a special education degree with a concentration in learning disabilities at Northern Michigan University.

Over the years, Karen has taught at prominent private schools such as Laurel School and University School in Shaker Heights, Ohio and Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Delaware. Karen currently teaches at Kenston Middle School in Ohio.

For three years, Karen ran the academic learning center for the Cleveland Clinic’s 8 week summer treatment program for children whose primary diagnosis was ADHD.  She has been educated by some of the most important people connected to the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD and learning disabilities. Some of these people have included Dr. William Pelham, Ned Hallowell and Mel Levine.

For four years, Karen was also one of only two teachers asked to be part of the ADHD Experts on Call, a national call-in campaign to provide general advice and referrals regarding ADHD, where she and I had the opportunity to serve together.   She has been a regular contributor for ADDitude Magazine, a national magazine for and about families with ADHD, since 2003.

In addition to Karen’s professional contributions to the field of ADHD, she volunteers as the coordinator of the respite outreach offered through her home church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio that Key Ministry was honored to lend a hand in developing. Here’s our interview with Karen…


C4EC: Any ideas for the volunteer Sunday School teacher or small group teacher who has a couple of kids who can’t seem to sit still, keep their hands to themselves or stop talking during the lesson/group?

Karen: What seems to work for some teachers in our Sunday School classes is what I call “front end loading” your efforts. You need to take the time at the beginning of the year to set up some classroom rules and expectations so the rest of the year just flows peacefully and successfully….at least most of the time.

I believe in always beginning the year with a group conversation to create some simple, but clear rules. As the teacher you should have a few rules that are most important for you to keep order, but allow the class to generate the main list. Try to reword any comments so they stay positive. For example, instead of writing down John’s suggestion of, “don’t shout out answers”, you could agree and write down, “raise your hand to speak”. Create this list and then have everyone in the room sign it….including the teacher.

Our church classes are usually held on Wednesday or Thursday afternoons from 4:45 – 5:45 and from 6:00 – 7:00, so you can imagine how hard it is for my ADHD friends, who are just coming off of their medicine, to keep interested, engaged and focused. It becomes even more important for this time together to be fun. In the spirit of keeping it fun, try to set up some type of simple reward system to give positive, consistent feedback for when you see your students following the rules. This will allow the kids who really want to follow the rules, but sometimes can’t, to know exactly which behaviors get rewarded.

One of my favorite teachers had a stop sign with the big green circle, yellow circle and red circle on a poster board. She had each child’s name on a clothespin. Every one started the class on the green circle. If someone started to break some of the pre-established rules, then they may get a gentle reminder from the assistant, but if that didn’t work, then their clothespin name may move to the yellow circle. Now…there are two ways for this student to go…if they can get it together, then their clothespin can move back to green, but if things get worse it moves to the red circle.

This system only makes sense to the kids if they know the consequences for when the clothespins move. At the end of class, everyone on the green circle gets a small piece of candy, but those on yellow may get a sticker and those on red may have to have a talk with the teacher and parent. Do what will work for your students and families…but try to keep it fun and positive.

I forgot to mention the most important part, my favorite teacher had a secret weapon… ASSISTANT. If your church classes can be taught by two people…..then I highly recommend it. Having one person to teach a lesson and one person to go around and assist students, by helping them with a kind word or a gentle redirection, keeps the whole class moving in the right direction.

As noted before, keep the same general routine that works for everyone. Perhaps the time together begins with a quiet, settling coloring activity. Native Americans believe that by coloring from the outside in, it can bring focus and clarity. By coloring from the inside out, it can bring creativity and openness.

  • Change in location is the easiest way to get attention
  • Teachers can move to the back or side of the room
  • Go outside when possible
  • Switch classrooms
  • Mini Field trips….even around your church grounds or to see the inner workings of the building
  • Surprise the group with a piece of music or artifacts
  • Have students present learning to one another
  • Guest speaker
  • Switch it up
  • Overall – provide a rich balance of novelty and ritual. Novelty ensures attention getting, ritual ensures predictable structures for low stress

The most important thing to remember, that if you or a student has a not so successful day, then remind yourself (and them) that next week is another time and a new chance to try again.

C4EC: What are some helpful hints you’d share with children’s pastors or youth pastors for effectively communicating to kids who have ADHD when they’re teaching in a large group setting?

shutterstock_112057619Karen: My first suggestion is to involve children in the teaching and learning process. No one really learns something just by listening. As a teacher, I often remind myself that to be more effective I need to NOT be “The Sage on the Stage, but rather the Guide on the Side”. Standing up and lecturing to a group is not as effective as talking a little and then giving a task to the group to help them engage in the learning process.

Perhaps setting up a play about a passage or a story and allowing members of the group to play a part or to offer feedback, such as a picture or a discussion allows the message to penetrate more effectively. Even the latest brain research has a formula for how much time should be spent listening and how much time should be spent processing information. By processing information I mean “using it” in a way that allows a learner to move from just listening to something to truly understanding it.

First, much of what is learned cannot be processed consciously; it happens too fast. Second, in order to create new meaning, we need internal time. Meaning is always generated from within, not externally. Third, after each new learning experience, we need time for the learning to “imprint”. Harvard studies suggest that cramming more content per minute virtually guarantees that little will be learned or retained. In fact it leads to more time re-teaching.

  • Change the activity to allow movement if possible. 12-15 minutes is how long a teenager can pay attention to a single activity. (Adults are 30 minutes)
  • 5-7 minutes of direct instruction for grades K-2
  • 8-12 minutes for grades 3-7
  • 12-15 minutes for grades 8-12

Some ideas for processing include the following…

  • Group work – Make a poster or build something together
  • Reflection – verbally to a peer or in a journal
  • Individual work or project
  • Drawing
  • Summarize and review

C4EC: What suggestions would you share with pastors or church leaders who want to design ministry environments where kids with ADHD will have great experiences? Lighting, sound, use of color, room decorations? What’s the right balance between fun and engaging vs. too much stimulation for kids with ADHD?

SUopenhouse067Karen: I love the church I belong to. Holy Angels in Bainbridge, Ohio has plenty of windows and natural light. The pews are comfortable, without the kneelers and the room is large with four big seating sections. There is a small water feature in the center that is soothing, but otherwise there are simple decorations year round and only a few extra plants and decorations for holidays. The homilies, which takes the Bible teachings and relate it to everyday experiences is beautifully done week after week. Father Dan always seems to start with a witty or profound story that allows each one of us to see how it relates to our own lives. In the middle of his homily he refers back to the Bible teachings and clearly states the message that we need to take away with us for the following week. Finally he ends with another story or pertinent joke, or an example of God’s words working in our church.

The best part of course is the rockin’ music that goes along with the terrific, meaningful homilies. There are three masses to choose from….8:00, 10:00 and 12:00 on Sunday. We always have music, but at the 10:00 mass, the little children leave during the main homily and are taken downstairs to the nursery, for their own special homily or story. Before they leave the room, they are encouraged to run up the aisle to the priest so that he can bless them and their teachers during this short time. It allows their little legs (kids as young as 3 and as old as 1st grade) to move and for them to either draw or color while listening to a story downstairs, where they can be a bit louder. Sitting still for an hour is very hard for a child with ADHD, but knowing that there is a break during that whole time, for both parents and children, helps to make the mass more enjoyable for everyone. If your child is too young or afraid to leave you, then I would come with a bag of tricks.

C4EC: Your family is active in a Roman Catholic church. In most Catholic churches, kids with ADHD would be expected to attend Mass (worship services) with their families. What suggestions would you have for parents of a child with ADHD who want to have a meaningful experience at church, but have kids who struggle with self-control when they’re bored in worship services designed for adults?

shutterstock_304063100Karen: Parents can put together a “Bag of Tricks.” This is the same type of bag I bring on airplane rides. Remember what they say there…..give yourself the oxygen first before administering to your child. Think of this bag as being filled with little trinkets of oxygen and dispense one at a time as needed.

The bag, and its contents, will change over the years, but either way it should be filled with some items that don’t make noise, are new and engaging and include something to hold your child’s attention for bursts of time. The bag should only come out during these special times. In fact you can use puffy paint to have your child decorate their special bag. This makes it more meaningful for them.

Everyone’s magic bag may be different, but mine includes paper and pencil for drawing, silly putty, stickers, small figurines, small books (some churches have their own basket of children’s church books). My favorite books are those with open the flaps. They are great for younger kids. Basically I fill this bag with anything that I can find at the dollar store that fits the criteria for “quiet and engaging” items. Depending upon your church a mini bag of cheerios or gold fish might be good too.

There may be some of you out there who believe that your child should sit still and listen attentively to the homily or sermon, but I would set the goal of asking your child to try to find one thing that they either heard or saw at church that they really liked. Set this expectation up ahead of time, so the child knows what will be happening. I am a big believer in helping the children establish and expect a routine from experiences, so there are no surprises. Then have them share that with you on the ride home one thing they learned. I believe that even though they may be drawing…..they are still taking in the sights and sounds around them.

C4EC: Many churches expect kids with ADHD to memorize Bible verses, prayers or worship songs. Since kids with ADHD frequently struggle with memory and recall, do you have any pointers for parents or Sunday School teachers to help?

Karen: Set it to music. There is so much research out there about the benefits of using pneumonic devices to remember something.

C4EC: There’s a growing “family ministry” movement, in which church leaders see their role as a support, not a substitute for parents in teaching kids about matters of faith. What advice do you have for moms and dads who want to instruct their child in the family’s faith, but are worn down from the struggles to complete schoolwork common among kids with ADHD?

Karen: PRAY: When my first child was born I went to a mom’s group through my church. I will never forget the one comment the speaker shared. She said that she prays for her kids’ safety and guidance from God, but she also prays even more for the people who will come in contact with her child throughout their life. What an interesting concept, to pray for my daughter’s best friend, or my son’s future wife. How many times can I tell my son to wear a jacket when it is cold, but as soon as his best friend’s mom suggests he wear a jacket, he responds as if it is the first time he heard this brilliant idea. This is one piece of advice I always like to pass on.

The other thought I have is something you have heard before. You are your child’s first teacher and your actions speak louder than words. You are a role model in your faith.

Try to do one activity a month that gives back to others and talk about that at home. Whenever I make a meal for a sick friend or someone that had a baby we talk about it or deliver it together. I am grateful for the BREATHE events I help run four times a year at my church. My entire family (ages 9, 13 and 14) joins me to help out wherever they can.

shutterstock_70300438PRAY. We pray before meals, even when out in public, or when friends come over for dinner. We pray when we see an ambulance speed by or we pray together when someone is sick. We pray for strength and guidance as we struggle with school work, jobs or friends. We pray to give thanks for a great day, a great friend or a special event.

Family conversations about God will eventually happen on their own, but only when the parents start the praying and doing in God’s name.

C4EC: So why should parents of kids with ADHD bother going through all the hard work and effort to make it to church each week and to worship with others?

Karen: Check out this great quote that was passed through me by email:

A churchgoer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. ‘I’ve gone for 30 years now,’ he wrote, ‘and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all.”

This started a great controversy in the “Letters to the Editor’ column, much to the delight of the editor. It went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher:

“I’ve been married for 30 years now. In that time, my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this…they all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today! When you are DOWN to nothing…..God is UP to something! Faith sees the invisible, believes the incredible and receives the impossible! Thank God for our physical AND our spiritual nourishment!

It is the same with everything…you may not remember the exact words of this blog, but I hope that you will come away with a firm feeling of commitment or resolve to do one thing differently. Be a warrior for God and your family…..both your family at home and your family at church.


shutterstock_302633579We encourage you to check out Key Ministry’s resource page on ADHD. You’ll find links to Dr. Grcevich’s blog series on ADHD and Spiritual Development, a very helpful lecture explaining differences in brain functioning in persons with ADHD and links to resources from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Share with a friend!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in ADHD, Families, Hidden Disabilities, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Spiritual Development, Strategies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Expert tips on teaching kids with ADHD…

  1. Pingback: Children & Youth Resources for Faith Formation | kayebledsoe

  2. The green, yellow, and red circle (stoplight for behavior management) is a form of public humiliation and would most likely cause unwanted behaviors. This is a terrible practice.


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