Why is it so challenging with ADHD?

“Telling a child with ADHD to concentrate harder or to stop daydreaming is like asking a child who is nearsighted to try to see farther when he’s not wearing glasses.” – Nelson J. Dorta

This quote beautifully sums up the misconceptions surrounding ADHD learners.

Instilling the “just try harder” attitude may be doing more harm than good for students with ADHD. Because ADHD is a hidden learning difference, many people – including parents and educators – may mistake their ‘laziness’ as a personality trait or attitude towards learning. As such, we simply think that these learners need better discipline or better parenting in order to fix their academic shortcomings.

To help our learners achieve their full potential, it is essential to understand the facts of ADHD that are backed by evidence. 

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood and can usually be diagnosed as early as four years old. It is an inheritable condition but early intervention can impact the severity of the condition in later ages.

People with ADHD display a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivityimpulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

Research has shown that ADHD is associated with the development impairment of the executive functions – also known as the self-management system of the brain (Barkley, 2011).

Based on Barkley’s model, ADHD could be understood as the inability of individuals to use their executive functions for the purpose of self-regulation and goal attainment. In life, we would then observe ADHD individuals struggling to delay responses and acting impulsively without considering the future consequences.

In individuals with ADHD, they would struggle in these areas where executive functioning is vital:

Apart from executive functioning deficits, individuals with ADHD may also struggle with emotional and motivational deficits.  

ADHD has been shown to disrupt the intrinsic motivation that is required to drive goal-directed behaviour. As such, ADHD learners will benefit greatly from external sources of motivation when trying to perform tasks. Some external rewards may include a behaviour chart, a fun activity after the tasks, allowance, time with friends/family, screen time, sweet treats, and positive reinforcement (feedback).

In order for a diagnosis to proceed, there are four requirements to be fulfilled:

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition (DSM-5), there are 3 categories to consider:

  1. ADHD with inattention presentation (* At least 6 symptoms for children up to 16 / * At least 5 symptoms for those aged 17 and above)
  2. ADHD with hyperactivity / impulsivity presentation (* At least 6 symptoms for children up to 16 / * At least 5 symptoms for those aged 17 and above)
  3. ADHD with combined presentation
    • If enough symptoms of both ADHD presentation (inattention and hyperactivity / impulsivity) were present for the past 6 months

DSM-5 – Symptoms of ADHD

In addition to these symptoms, learners with ADHD may also face (i) sensorial and motor issues as well as (ii) social communication deficits. Learners with sensorial and motor issues often display hyper or hyposensitivity to light, sound, touch, temperature, smell and taste. They experience poor motor control. Students with ADHD often struggle to read and interpret social cues accurately, which sometimes leads to arguments and conflicts with peers in the classroom. These disruptions could affect the entire class’s learning experiences. While these are not official symptoms mentioned in the DSM-5, it would help educators and parents/caregivers gain a more holistic understanding of ADHD symptoms for better management.

Impacts of ADHD

Learners with ADHD experience more challenges in the learning process as compared to the average student. Due to deficits in their executive functioning, these children often experience poor working memory and struggle to recall the studied information for tests and exams. The symptoms of ADHD (such as running around, leaving their seats inappropriately)  also makes it challenging for them to keep up with the lessons. Should an ADHD child go undiagnosed and receive no appropriate interventions, it may lead to poor workplace efficacy in the future.

Sadly, ADHD does not simply affect a child’s academic development. It also brings about mental health issues such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), personality and mood disorders, anxiety, and even depression. When the learners constantly fall behind their peers and achieve less than what they aimed for, it erodes their confidence and gradually they might develop low self-esteem. Parents and teachers who are not aware or lack good understanding of the condition may reprimand them for their lacklustre performance and further affect their sense of confidence.

In addition, children with ADHD struggle with poor social skills which can affect the quality and quantity of friendships. They are quite likely to be the subjects of bullying without them realising it. Moreover, the symptoms of ADHD demand more time and attention from the parents. This can be especially taxing for the dual-income family dynamics and result in strained parent-child relationships.

Strategies to manage problem behaviours arising from ADHD

With increased research and awareness on ADHD over the past decade, more parents and educators are now equipped with the right knowledge of the disorder and appropriate intervention methods.  Two main frameworks and guiding principles which are found to be effective in guiding the management of students will be highlighted here.

(1) ABC Framework

This framework uses a systematic way to analyse a behaviour by identifying the sequence of events related to the behaviour. The goal of using this framework is to minimise the likelihood of the problem behaviour(s) occurring by identifying the antecedents in a timely manner. It also helps educators reflect on their choice of consequence – is it desirable or undesirable? Desirable consequences will effectively extinguish negative behaviour and produce the intended positive behaviour which can be effectively maintained. Instead, undesirable consequences will be ineffective in maintaining the intended positive behaviour and consequently, ineffective in extinguishing negative behaviour.

Once the ABC Framework has been clearly mapped out, the strategies can be applied to manage each specific behaviour.

These strategies are grouped into three areas:

  1. Proactive = planning/preemptive steps to minimise chances of behaviour occurring
  2. Active = intervening at an early stage to stop minor behaviour from escalating
  3. Reactive = responding to behaviour in the moment

More efforts should be placed on implementing proactive strategies. This requires a consistent effort from the educators to apply the ABC Framework and sieve out the antecedents before acting on the consequences. In a busy classroom, It is often ‘easier’ and ‘faster’ to think of a response to manage a behaviour. However, we might be missing out on the multitude of factors that could be affecting the child and the behaviour might repeat itself.

To formulate these strategies, educators and parents/caregivers can refer to the Seven Golden Principles of Behavioural Management.  The beauty in these golden principles is that they create supportive and conducive learning environments for children with ADHD. It is vital to note that consistency in implementing strategies aligned with these principles is key to reinforce positive behaviours and extinguish negative unwanted behaviour effectively.

(3) ADHD-guided Strengths Framework

In this framework, it reminds educators and parents to identify the ADHD characteristics that explains the misbehaviour. Listing down the ADHD traits involved in causing the behaviour is important as we will then adjust our management strategies to address those traits effectively. For example, ADHD students often have weak working memory. This means that they struggle to recall instructions and past consequences when faced with a similar situation. As such, managing behaviours by implementing strong consequences/punishments might not be effective for them.

Apart from listing down the ADHD traits, it is equally important to list down the students’ strengths. Knowing the strength of students can also help educators approach the child or their behaviour in a way that would leverage on their strengths instead of putting the spotlight constantly on their negative traits.

In conclusion, with greater awareness and understanding, coupled with the knowledge on appropriate strategies, ADHD can be effectively managed. Utilizing the frameworks suggested here can bring about better monitoring and supervision on students with ADHD such that goals can be achieved more adequately.

The content of this article is based on the SkillsFuture Credit-Eligible course “Supporting Children with Attentional and Hyperactivity Issues” course delivered by DAS Academy in collaboration with the Social Service Institute.

You may apply for the course at https://www.dasacademy.edu.sg/skillsfuture-courses/


Article written by:
Joyce Chan, DAS Educational Therapist, RETA Associate Member Plus
Hani Zohra Muhamad
, DAS Educational Advisor and Lead Educational Therapist, RETA Fellow









Barkley, R. A., & Murphy, K. R. (2011). The nature of executive function (EF) deficits in daily life activities in adults with ADHD and their relationship to performance on EF tests. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 33, 137-158.