Emotional Regulation for Kids With ADHD


Six brain-based strategies to help kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder build confidence, engagement, and focus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 11 percent of children—that’s 6.4 million kids—in the United States ages 4–17 were reported by parents to have a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as of 2011. Dr. Russell Barkley, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and an expert on ADHD, says that this disorder is primarily about emotional regulation and self-control and is not just about inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Emotional regulation, which is foundational to social, emotional, and academic success, is underdeveloped in these young people. Barkley emphasizes that ADHD arises from neurogenetic roots and is not a knowledge or intelligence disorder.

This year, I am working with the Indianapolis Public Schools and co-teaching in a fifth- and sixth-grade classroom. In class, I have students who are significantly challenged in terms of paying attention, focusing, and regulating their emotions. Each day I see how they struggle emotionally, socially, and academically, and observe how they can begin to wither away in deep feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty if they don’t have a sense of purpose and connection. Below are a few brain-aligned strategies that we’re implementing in the district. I have found that these strategies, which focus on the strengths and interests of these struggling students, can have a profoundly positive impact.

1. Whole Class Discussions: It’s very unsettling when students see another student struggle and do not understand why that student is struggling. At the beginning of the year or grading period—or simply when behaviors and learning as a class go awry—we have the opportunity to address the challenges and strengths of various learning and emotional disorders with the entire class. Invisible disabilities are often met with fear and anger from other students because of the unknown or a simple misunderstanding of their classmates’ emotional, social, or academic challenges. Just as some of us need glasses to see clearly or take insulin to regulate blood glucose levels, others need an oxygenated supply of movement, brain intervals, or space and time to regulate after a 10- to 20-minute instructional lesson. Holding class discussions about the neurodiversity of human brains helps all students to understand each other.

2. It Takes a Village: Bringing in adult community members who have experienced ADHD, anxiety, or other attentional challenges is a wonderful way for students to feel connected and hopeful about their future and plans for success. When I invited young adults who have been challenged with these disorders into our classroom, they shared their personal and professional journeys, which deepened the sense of community, understanding, and acceptance of all learning styles and challenges. A motto that needs to be embraced is: “Everyone gets what they need.”

3. I Noticed: Homemade “I Noticed” sheets are great tools for reinforcing all that is going well moment by moment even when you’ve had moments of adversity. Students who struggle with attention and focus need this constant feedback throughout the day to help them track how they are learning and to know that the teacher is present and aware. All students love homemade sheets—they show that the teacher has taken time and effort to help them feel and be successful.

4. Brain Stories: Children and adolescents who struggle to pay attention sometimes don’t feel accepted or successful in school. Yet, beneath many of the challenges of neurodiversity are facets of your students that are not always shared during content instruction—personal stories that highlight these students’ strengths, gifts, and feelings.

Psychiatrist Dan Seigel says, “What is shareable is bearable, and what you can name, you can tame.” A great way to recognize these students is to have them share “brain stories”—personal experiences, strengths, interests, and feelings. You can further engage them by giving them a choice as to whether they want to create their stories in narrative or picture form. Younger students may begin to showcase their lives through pictures and artwork; older students may want to add sections, revise current categories, and change the format as they see their life journeys unfolding. Brain stories can be created throughout the semester or academic year and posted on a weekly or monthly timeline.

Much like an Individualized Education Program, the brain story will accompany each student throughout his or her school years, though you can invite students to modify, rework, and share their stories over time.

5. Homework for the Teacher: One of the best brain-aligned strategies I have implemented with all ages is doing homework for them on the weekend. Each Friday, I select a couple of students who are in need of affirmation and who have struggled to meet a few of their goals. I usually know their interests and likes, and so I ask, “I have some time this weekend and would love to learn for you! What would you like for me to research this weekend? What would you like to know more about? I will bring my work to you on Monday!” The excitement, the feelings of connection are palpable, and each time, I see more effort from these students than I did the weeks prior to this invitation.

6. Chunking: Chunking or condensing assignments and instructional time with frequent feedback is an excellent way to build on small successes. Students diagnosed with attention challenges may require a smaller list of tasks to complete within a structured, shorter period of time. As an example, I’m working with a second-grade student diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety who was literally throwing tantrums and disrupting the class several times a day when he began feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and unsuccessful. We have now chunked his assignments and written those on colored sticky notes. When he arrives in the morning, he has two assignments to complete that are clear and easy to accomplish. When he completes those two assignments, he is given a brain break for a few minutes and then moves on to the next task. We have seen amazing improvement with his ability to pay attention and to remain focused and inspired with these shortened assignments and tasks. We will continue to  build and lengthen these assignments over a period of time with the renewal of time spent on something he loves and enjoys.

Brain Intervals

Brain intervals have two purposes. They provide novelty and and increase interest when implemented after a student has worked on an assignment for a period of time. A young person’s attention span is limited, and following a period of direct instruction and independent work, students with ADHD need to step away with a brain interval that is interesting and engaging. Here are some ideas to support brain intervals:

  • Reading a favorite book/comic
  • Drawing or designing art for the classroom or main office
  • Computer time and/or watching motivational videos
  • Playing a brain-aligned video program such as Brain Pop

Teaching Good Study Habits, Minute by Minute


Nobody said that raising an adolescent was easy, and schooling one is even more of a challenge! Parents are taking on a lot of school responsibility, and let’s face it — things are different than they used to be. How are parents supposed to know how to handle the homework load without some guidance?

Take studying, for example. If you are a parent of a struggling or resistant learner, you’ve probably heard more than one person suggest, “She just needs to study more.” Most kids think this means filling in a study guide or rereading a chapter. But many don’t learn by writing or reading. Their strengths lie in the visual, kinesthetic, musical, or social realm. How, then, are we to help our children develop their studying skills?

The task does not have to be daunting. In fact, it can actually be simple and effective!

Getting Started

Determine when tests will happen.

Use school websites, email, planners, etc. to help you and your adolescent pinpoint an effective way to get tests on the calendar.

Set a goal.

Work with your student to determine how many days of studying he needs, and make a session-minute goal (one minute per grade level) and a target for him to study twice daily. An eighth-grade student will set the timer for eight minutes each session, a tenth-grade student for ten minutes, and so on.

Determine the study material.

Notes, study guides, worksheets, or quizzes from the chapter or unit are all good choices. Textbooks are easily accessible, but study material from them may be difficult to identify.

Ask and answer.

Have your adolescent ask and answer her own questions, or for those of you with social students, you can join in and ask the questions. If she gets through the material before the time is up, start over!

Do it again.

Set aside the same time increment before bed, and repeat the entire exercise.

If you do the math, a sixth-grade student will study twelve minutes every day for five days, and will have put 60 minutes of no-tears studying into his pocket!

Minute-by-Minute Study Strategies

But is the question-answer strategy really the best way to study? No single way works for everybody, as each child has a different set of strengths and preferences when it comes to internalizing information. Here are some other ways to use this time (also provided as a downloadable PDF to print for your students):

1. Flashcards

Turn those questions and answers into flashcards and have your adolescent quiz herself. The simple act of flipping the cards around and putting them into piles of “mastered” and “needs practice” may be enough to keep an active kid moving. Some kids are motivated by timing themselves. Flip those flashcards around, have her read the answer, and try to reproduce the question for a bigger challenge.

2. Categorizing

Use the flashcards to organize the information by categories, put them in some kind of order, or match them up in pairs. The idea is to organize them differently each time so that your student can make more than one connection in his brain for the information.

3. Word combining

Language lovers won’t mind creating sentences with vocabulary. If the test is vocabulary-heavy, start by either writing or speaking the sentences with one word in each and then moving to two words, then three, etc.

4. Song lyrics

Ask a musical or rhythmic adolescent to take the lyrics of her favorite song and rewrite it to include as much of the required information she can. This may take multiple sessions to accomplish, but once it’s done, she can sing it over and over again.

5. Picture notes

During the study session, have a more visual adolescent draw pictures of his notes on flashcards, paper, or a whiteboard, and then describe them.

6. Talk-through

Many adolescents are highly social. If yours is, too, have her go through flashcards or a study guide and explain each aspect in as much detail as possible without reading from the printed information.

7. Picture walk

Have him use the visuals provided in the textbook, online text, worksheets, notes, etc. to explain information either out loud or in writing, depending on his preference.

8. Mnemonic devices

Have her rhyme or create sayings to help her remember information. Creating acronyms or sentences with the first letters of words can also be fun for students who like to play with language.

9. Oral visualization

Read a portion of the notes or worksheet and have your student describe what comes to mind visually.

10. Perspective talk

Talk or write about the material, pretending to be somebody or something else.

11. Superhero letter

Have a word-smart adolescent write a letter to a superhero explaining the material and why the information should be important.

Ultimately, studying comes in dozens of forms, and it’s important to help your adolescent figure out what’s going to work for him or her. Whatever her strengths, whatever his level of comfort, start there. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it painless. And watch what happens when studying becomes a familiar routine — and when students see the fruits of their efforts.

Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice



When my daughter was three years old, I taught her the word “stereotype.” She was just beginning to string words together into sentences, had determined that pink was definitely not her favorite color, and asked (demanded, actually) why all the “girl stuff” was pink and the “boy stuff” was blue. Because there’s no three-year-old version for a word describing why colors are gendered in our society, I figured that planting the seed might yield fruit soon enough. And somewhat surprisingly, I was correct.

Who’s Different and What’s Fair

As a society and within our educational institutions, discussions about bias, diversity, discrimination, and social justice tend to happen in middle and high schools. We’ve somehow decided that little kids can’t understand these complex topics, or we want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible (even though not all children have the luxury of being shielded from injustice).

However, young children have a keen awareness of and passion for fairness. They demand right over wrong, just over unjust. And they notice differences without apology or discomfort.

Racial identity and attitudes begin to develop in children at a young age. Two- and three-year-olds become aware of the differences between boys and girls, may begin noticing obvious physical disabilities, become curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and may also be aware of ethnic identity. By the time they’re five and entering kindergarten, children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong and are able to explore the range of differences within and between racial/ethnic groups. In terms of bias, by age three or four, white children in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe show preferences for other white children. Further, current research suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to prejudice and racism, tend to embrace and accept it even though they might not understand the feelings.

The good news is that bias can be unlearned or reversed if we’re exposed to diversity in a positive way. Harnessing young children’s desire for fairness and using it as opening to discuss bias and discrimination is not a hard leap, but one that needs to be made explicitly and with instruction. They are also not afraid to comment on observed differences. Decades of research indicate that even if parents and adults are not talking about race or other differences, children still notice differences and prejudice. If we choose not to teach or talk about it, children’s notions about race and differences will go unchecked and likely become further entrenched in their minds.

It’s also important that adults in children’s lives do not perpetuate the idea that we should be “colorblind” to racial differences or shush them when they notice someone with a disability. Sometimes adults do this out of their own discomfort with talking about differences, or because they think noticing differences somehow makes you biased. We want to encourage children to notice differences because they do so naturally, yet at the same time, honor people’s identities without judging or discriminating based on differences. In other words, noticing people’s differences is natural, but when adults assign judgments or value to these differences, bias can develop in young children.

5 Elementary Strategies

Elementary school is a time ripe for these discussions. Provided that teachers have the right tools and resources and use developmentally appropriate language and activities, teaching about these concepts can be rich and engaging for children, laying the groundwork for more sophisticated understanding when they move into the tween and teen years.

Here are five concrete ways of bringing discussions about bias and diversity into the elementary classroom:

1. Use children’s literature.

There’s a wealth of children’s books that can be read aloud and independently to approach the topic of bias, diversity, and social justice. Whether it’s about people who are different than your students (window books), an affirmation of their identity (mirror books), or one that exposes bias or shares stories of people who stood up to injustice, reading books is a core part of the elementary classroom curriculum and therefore a seamless way to address the topic.

2. Use the news media.

Find topics and news stories that bring forth these themes, discuss them in the classroom, and build other reading, writing, social studies, and math lessons around them. Relevant news stories that highlight bias and especially those where someone stood up to it and justice prevailed — like the nine-year-old boy who was banned from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school because it was the source of bullying, or the story ofMisty Copeland becoming the first African American appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater in its 75-year history — are terrific teachable moments.

3. Teach anti-bias lessons.

We know that all educators face a plethora of daily demands. But because children’s social and emotional development is a key part of the elementary curriculum and because much of the teasing, name-calling, and bullying is identity-based, it’s helpful for the classroom climate to set aside a time every week for an explicit lesson on this topic. Social and emotional skill development lessons are the foundation, and then teachers can move to lessons on identity, differences, bias, and how bias and bullying can be addressed individually and institutionally.

4. Give familiar examples.

Take advantage of children’s interest in books, TV shows, toys, and video games, and use them as opportunities to explore diversity, bias, and social justice. Whether it’s about toys and gender stereotypes, a New Jersey girlwho was tired of seeing books only about white boys and dogs, or discussing a new line of dolls with disabilities, you can provide openings for children to see how bias takes place in media and the everyday objects that they use.

5. Explore solutions.

Re-think the concept of “helping others” (through service learning projects or other volunteer opportunities) to include discussions with children about the inequities that contribute to the problem and consider actions that can address it. For example, while it’s useful to provide food to homeless people, we want to deepen the conversation to convey a social justice perspective and a wider lens with children. Therefore, discuss the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people, learn about unfair housing policies, and reflect on solutions that will reverse the problem in a lasting way and encourage students to take action.

Start Early

Recently, several prominent national education organizations (including theNEA, AERA, AFT, and NCTE) have called for addressing equity in schools and society, specifically recommending that we need to highlight the “systemic patterns of inequity — racism and educational injustice — that impacts our students,” and that educators and school leaders “receive the tools, training, and support they need to build curricula with substantive exploration of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.”

We need to begin this process with our youngest hearts and minds in order to have a lasting impact. What are your thoughts? How do you approach social justice issues with elementary students? Please share in the comments section below.

Strengthening Executive Function Development for Students With ADD


What are the root causes of Attention Deficit Disorder in our children and youth, and how do we address these challenges? According to the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of children in the United States age 4-17 (6.4 million) have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011.

Dr. Russell Barkley, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and medical expert in ADD, shares that this disorder is primarily about emotional regulation and self-control. It is not just about inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Emotional regulation, which is foundational to social, emotional, and academic success, is underdeveloped in these youth. Dr. Barkley discusses five executive skills, centered on emotional control, that are deeply affected by ADD. He emphasizes that the cause of this disorder arises from within neurogenetic roots that “effective” or “ineffective” parenting do not touch. ADD is not a knowledge or intelligence disorder. When we study the inability of many children to control emotions and regulate behaviors, we begin to address the specific organic components of ADD and the social repercussions affecting many students at all hours of the day.

The brain is a social and historic organ that performs, behaves, and learns in the context of relationships. People will forgive your academic mishaps, but negative behaviors are often viewed as personal afflictions and intentional. The following strategies, designed to strengthen the five executive skills, address these negative behaviors supportively and constructively.


Young people with ADD often show an inability to create a pause, or a moment of self-restraint between stimulus and reaction while weighing the consequences of their impending reaction. To assist students in creating this pause, give their brains the opportunity to make associations with color, visuals, and concrete objects. Tangible items can be symbolic reminders for students of all ages. Here are examples of signaling an intentional pause:

    • Flicking a red rubber band bracelet on our wrist or placing a red ball cap on our heads are two practices that teachers could model and repeatedly share when a pause is needed before making a hurried emotional or academic decision.
    • Accompanied with the tangible item, teachers can help students identify words that are analogous to waiting and hesitating. Stop, halt, think, rest,breathe, float, and tread could be posted in specific areas of the room with pictures and images to add meaning.
  • Students could bring in an object from home that reminds them to stop, pause, and wait. These personal objects could be placed in a “red corner,” a highlighted area in the classroom where they are seen as reminders. Seeing, saying, and experiencing meaningful and personal reminders can effectively create associations and metaphors that the brain desires and needs for personalizing new responses.


Children need to understand how past experiences and reactive decisions have resulted in a negative impact. Dr. Barkley describes ADD as a lack of hindsight — and therefore foresight — to visually see past experiences that did not go well! A lack of hindsight prohibits us from viewing the relevant past, which means that we are unable to see what might happen in the future.

Teachers can address this by having students create a visual or written story about a recent experience. There are a variety of options for implementing this exercise. The following questions might spur a story starter and reflection:

  • Who are the characters in this story?
  • What is their challenge?
  • What were the rising actions, climax, and solutions?
  • What were the patterns or repetitious behaviors of the characters in the story?
  • How would you create or design a different ending?


This skill is developed through childhood beginning with audible talking that moves inward. Without the voice in our head, we are left in a deep void of confusion, feeling disconnected from choices and consequences.

As an activity, identify self-talk when experiences go poorly, while developing coping strategies through class discussion and reflection. Students can write their challenges on colored cards and toss them into a container. They then draw cards and become Problem Solvers, creating Pinterest boards that display a variety of improved strategies to select as social and emotional anchor charts for improved learning and behavior.


Through this executive skill, youth feel the connection between their emotional responses and ability to self-motivate. This is profoundly lacking in students with deficiencies in emotional regulation and self-control. Here are two approaches to try:

    • Noticing is a form of feedback that is not evaluation or praise, but rather purely informative, indirectly saying to the student, “I am present and understand.” Noticing assists students with frequent feedback and is a validating mirror for small motivational steps. When we begin to noticeeverything — new shoes, a smile, a haircut, following a procedure or direction — we affirm the process.
  • Motivational documentaries are powerful stories that promote emotional connection by igniting mirror neurons in our brains to promote perseverance and motivation. They spur great conversations, questions, and discussions that students can apply within their own lives. The emotional lessons from these documentaries could inspire student-designed Snapchats and shared Vines for discussions, increased positive emotion, and modeling.


The fifth executive function embraces problem solving, cognitive flexibility, and empathy. To visualize a problem from a different perspective, we need to empathize, see possibilities, and talk through a challenge, which can motivate us to discover a new way of learning and relating to others. The Mind’s Playground incorporates Pause, the Mind’s Voice, Mind’s Heart, and Mind’s Eye. Combining these skills gives us an incredible opportunity to be a part of our students’ brain development.

Have you used these or similar practices for teaching students with ADD? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

Making Friends With Failure


AUGUST 26, 2013

Image Credit: iStockphoto

No one likes failure, the F-word, no matter how you sugarcoat it. But failure is a part of life. Sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes you don’t get what you want. Stuff happens. But if we recast these situations right, we learn to create a new normal, to persevere, to learn to be more flexible, or to redirect our energies.

Using the F-Word in School

There is a major disconnect between schools and the real world on the notion of failure. School teaches us there is only one answer for every problem. And if we don’t get it, we are a failure. This dissuades students from trying — they fear failure. We need to teach students how to make friends with failure.

flipped turtle 

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Failure is hard for everyone, but interestingly, it’s particularly hard for high-achieving students. They don’t know how to deal with this unfamiliar territory. It kills their spirit because their performance is so linked to their self-esteem. I’ve seen this firsthand as an Ivy-League professor, and it isn’t pretty. Some high achievers don’t deal with failure well. It can be so bad that some universities have decided to do something about it. In addition to the usual dorm counselors that can help students adjust to college life, Stanford University has created the Resilience Project, where prominent people, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, tell their stories of failure. While there is limited access to this website, it shows how important the skill of embracing failure can be.

We need to give our children more opportunities to build a relationship with failure. In my estimation, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is a key way to do it. In STEM, failure is a fact of life. Experiments don’t work out, the data doesn’t look right, or someone knocks over your experiment. There are plenty of places to learn persistence and resilience. We can also learn how failure is instructive to the design and innovation process. Science and innovation are based on trial-and-error (which is just a glorified way to say “fail a lot”). If children have to learn about failure, I would choose a setting where the stakes are not so high, and that would be with STEM.

One cure for the fear of failure is to rebrand it. As I say in my book Save Our Science, “Scientists fail all the time. We just brand it differently. We call itdata.” If you learned something from the experience, you did not fail. By rebranding failure to something as harmless as data, that failure loses its sting. Whatever you did was all part of a fact-finding mission!

Rebranding Failure

Schools have this failure-thing, the F-word, all wrong. They focus on getting the answer, but it is the questions and the mistakes that are actually more instructive. It’s in these spaces where we learn. I often hear students preface their question with, “This might sound stupid, but . . . ” Students fear sounding dumb — they fear being viewed as a failure. Shouldn’t it be OK to ask questions in a classroom?

We have to take the classroom back and make it a sacred space where asking questions is OK. And the instructor has to present vulnerability as well. If an instructor doesn’t know the answer, he or she must be brave enough to say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.” Education’s focus on the right answer and the grades has made students afraid to ask questions. Deborah Stipek, Dean of Stanford’s School of Education, writes in Science that schools incubate the fear of failure, which causes stress and anxiety to perform, which do not enhance learning.

This is ironic, since children are innately risk-takers. If there is a curb, they will try to balance on it. If there is a shiny object, they will reach out for it. This is how they discover the world. Failure and risk-taking are how they learn. However, that sense of discovery and wonder is squelched in the classroom. Testing removes our desire to take risks. We need to bring risk-taking back.

We need to teach children great stories of failure. Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different materials before he found the right one for the light bulb filament. Failure? No, that’s data — lots of it. Or as he put it, he learned 9,999 ways that it didn’t work. To defuse the F-word, we should start Failure Clubs in our schools. At the meetings, students would report what they learned from taking a risk. We should award merit badges that would encourage children to take a risk, and we should ask them, “How did you fail? And what did you learn?”

To succeed, we must make friends with failure. Failure makes you a better, kinder, stronger and wiser human being.

Now, get out there and fail!