ADHD in the Classroom: Strategies to Make the Most of a Class (High School and College)

To Alicia Maggi: I still think of you when I feel proud,
wondering if you would be too.

Some say that we cannot finish anything; I say we don’t waste our time on anything we don’t like. Our awesome brains need happy things; exciting things and reward! But the classroom… It doesn’t seem to be the best place to look for that, right? Classes can result tedious and the reward (the degree) could seem far away. So, how about turning it into a cool place where we could instantly feel rewarded?

Whether on primary or superior education, the classroom is the same: inside four walls (with windows calling us to chase birds and squirrels) we need to stay quiet, focus on the speaker’s speech instead of their odd choice of outfit, and print in our minds a knowledge that – many times – seems boring, useless, too easy for our royal attention or way to slow in the delivery.

Those were my challenges, and these were my ways to overcome them: great teachers who realized I needed a push; breaks! certain accommodations and finding a quickly reachable goal that would make feel awesome.

“Teacher, Make a Plan for My Brain”

I had a plan in High School: “Why would I waste my time on studying something I don’t like and that I’ll never think of again? I’ll just do what’s necessary to pass.” But, one teacher discovered my lame strategy, crushed it, and probably changed the course of my life.

She was my history teacher, Alicia Maggi, the tallest woman I’ve ever met, who’d wear huge Tutankhamun earrings and talk about history as if it were her only passion. One time I got a very poor grade on a test, and she wrote on it – with a striking green ink – a big “sixty something percent” and a long note which read, basically, “Why, Laura; Why; Come see me after class.” 

So I did, and she told me, “Do you know why I wanted to talk to you? Because you can do more; why do you settle for this?” I understood what she was saying, … but there was actually nothing I could do; and I guess she realized that too, because she did it for me:

Every morning, for a year, she would enter the classroom, greet the class, sit at her desk – dead silent -, open her black leather notepad (while we would all start to sweat), raise her sight and say, “María Laura.” I’d stand up, praying I could focus on at least one word of her question, and I could manage to come up with “something.” Me being summoned, every single day, was so evident that it became the joke of the class.

Back in the early 90s, Alicia did her best, probably thinking I was a lazy girl with potential; I tried to answer to her encouragement, but it was hard, so hard; an ADHD brain working with nothing but willpower, can lead to a devastating frustration… however I did get through her class because she’d make it fun; listening to her was like watching the coolest History Channel documentary…and, honestly, I just wanted to make her proud.

These days, we can tell our teachers we have ADHD, and they can develop for us an IEP (individual education program) [1]

Put Me on the Front Seat

I used to pay so much attention… in the teen magazine I’d have hidden below my desk, talking and passing jokes in little pieces of paper, hand to hand among “those twelve in the back.” After many visits to the Mother Superior’s office, saying, “Sorry, I won’t bring them again; by my fault, by my fault, by my most grievous fault,” magazines were: gone; and since I needed to close my mouth and pay attention, I was brought: to the front.

Little they knew (or much did they?) that – one way or another – I would have to talk; and so a new version of me was born: that one who always has her hand up. Since that first year of High School and throughout every single course and career I attended, I sat on the first row, willingly, because I knew it would:

  • Put me on the spotlight, keeping me from talking to other people or chasing squirrels with my sight;
  • Force me to pay attention… at least some;
  • Push me to participate, to raise my hand, which would give me another benefit: getting rid of my doubts, right there, so I wouldn’t have to lose my precious royal time studying at home.

Seating a student where there are fewer distractions [1], it’s been always a must for teachers to keep students quiet; but, for those of us with ADHD, is not only helpful but necessary.

In the US, there are two laws that govern special services and accommodations for children with disabilities: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 [2]

I’ll Set a Goal to Raise My Hand (And Make It Fun!)

Does raising hand seem something that could intimated you (or your child)? If so, here are a couple of things to bear in mind.

First, “We are in the classroom, to learn” (Mind-blowing, right?) We don’t have to have the right answer, not even the right question! We are there, to learn. A professor once said to my class, “There’s no stupid question;” I’m so grateful for that. The learning process is not only about acquiring knowledge, it’s also about learning how to get that knowledge. Teachers hold the wisdom, and it’s our job to squeeze their brains by any means. 

Second, our ADHD brain holds some special powers: speed, creativity and an “out of the box” way of thinking. During High School, I used to come up with questions that teachers would answer by saying, “Good one, but we’ll see that in three months” (that was my hyperactivity processing data at speed light) and, “Oh… Ok… That’s something we should discuss” (out of the box!) 

As I became aware of this during my college years, I used to get ready for the classes only to come up with the oddest question to ask the next day; it was fun! (Sorry teachers; we do need our fun time)

Needless to Say, “Give me break!”

I attended a High School that instructed me to become an educator, so I experienced my own learning process as I was learning also “how to learn and how to teach;” there they taught us the human brain can hold its attention for 40 minutes before beginning to drop, and they put it on practice: we used to have 10-minutes breaks every other 40 minutes, religiously, and for me it worked like a charm.

At University, however, professors were always in a rush to cover the curriculum of the day, because “there’s so much to cover and so little time!” (I wonder if this happens in other countries…) We did complain about it; it’s their job to make a schedule that fits the content! But one could guess the answer we received. Therefore, I’d take my own breaks; countless times I raised my hand to say, “Could we please stop for ten minutes?” and all the class would sing along, “Yes! Please!” (Eventually my classmates began looking at me with a, “Do it, do it now!”)

To this day, I set a timer to write or study, and to take breaks. The IEP and 504 Plans, also mentions, “Allowing breaks or time to move around” [2]

To Conclude

We can find pleasure and reward in the classroom; I did it without knowing I had ADHD, encouraged by one good teacher who held my hand and wouldn’t let go; I did it by listening to myself, acting accordingly, asking for what I needed, and by making my learning process fun, as it should be! You can do it too.

These days are good for us because the Law and Institutions are beginning to realize the importance of giving us extra help; however, there are still myths and ignorance, so it’s up to us to keep our head high and make to perfectly clear that we are not lazy; in fact, we’re the opposite! With proper guidance, we can reach the goals that we are imposed, and even go further!

The learning process is like a puzzle; teachers give us the little pieces for us to put together; it may seem endless, boring, but once we focus on it, once we see the whole picture by zooming in and out with our hyperfocus, we’ll surely end up arranging the pieces to create a puzzle no one imagined was there.

Alicia Maggi handling me my Bachelor’s Degree. Argentina, 1994


[1] HASSAN, Shirin (MD) 2017. “ADHD and School” URL: [Last Visit: December, 2019]

[2] CDC. 2019. “ADHD in the Classroom: Helping Children Succeed in School” URL: [Last Visit: December, 2019]

About Laly York

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