Creative solutions for students with ADHD

Military School Cadets Reading in Library

The faculty and staff at St. John’s Military School in Salina, Kansas have adopted creative solutions to helping boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) learn in an environment that best meets their educational needs. The individualized attention, structured routine, and emphasis on physical activity that are the foundation of the St. John’s environment, have made the school an ideal place of learning for boys with ADHD. With a proven technique for transforming reticent boys into strong leaders, an increasing number of parents whose sons struggle with the educational and social complications of ADHD are turning to St. John’s to help their sons build confidence and establish a foundation for success.

ADHD is most often diagnosed in male children. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), from 2012 – 2014, 14.1 percent of boys ages 5-17 were diagnosed with ADHD, compared to only 6.2 percent of girls. While boys with ADHD tend to exhibit more externally-focused symptoms, such as demonstrating hyperactive tendencies, in general symptoms of ADHD include trouble concentrating, staying organized, and remembering details.

For boys with ADHD the traditional school format that requires students to sit attentively through long lectures poses an almost impossible challenge. According to a study of male high school students published in the U.S. National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine, adolescents with ADHD experienced significant academic impairment in high school compared to their non-diagnosed classmates. They were observed as experiencing overall lower grade point averages and higher rates of course failure. Teachers in the study also reported that ADHD students turned in a lower percentage of assignments, were more likely to be absent or tardy, and were over eight times more likely to drop out of school.

“We are meeting with an increasing number of parents whose sons have been diagnosed with ADHD,” said St. John’s Director of Domestic Admissions Major Robert Forde. “Their sons have been underachieving in the public school system, but not because of a lack of ability. They are simply struggling in their current classroom environment and it’s causing a lack of self-esteem and self-discipline. Our goal is help give those young men the support they need to build their confidence and show them that they have unlimited potential.”

To help meet these goals, St. John’s has developed a four-pronged approach to helping boys succeed, which includes lower student to teacher ratios, a more structured learning environment, an emphasis on engaging learning activities, and individualized support.

For boys with ADHD, the lower faculty to student ratio at St. John’s makes a significant impact on their ability to remain focused and engaged in the classroom. According to Pam Kraus, a chemistry teacher at St. John’s, smaller classroom sizes allow her to provide the individual attention cadets with ADHD need to gain the most out of each lecture.

“In a classroom of only ten students if I see a cadet zoning out, it’s obvious and I can draw him back in,” said Kraus. “It’s not as easy to do that in a classroom of thirty.”

Understanding that young men tend to focus and absorb information more effectively when instruction is provided in smaller segments, St. John’s structures its classes into 45 minute periods. While many public schools have transitioned to block scheduling, which asks students to focus on a single topic for up to 90 minutes, St. John’s understands that young men learn more effectively when given more frequent mental and physical breaks.

Daniel Jones, a sixth grade teacher at St. John’s, understands the benefits of breaking-up lecture periods with physical activities. “I call them ‘brain breaks,'” said Jones. “They’re sixth graders. They need more time to move around. If I can tell they’re losing focus, I’ll take them outside and we’ll play ‘Red Light, Green Light.’ I’ve found these breaks make them more focused when we return to the classroom.”

Pam Kraus has adopted a similar, more active approach to learning in her chemistry classroom.

“I do everything I can to make each lecture relatable,” said Kraus. “If we’re talking about molecules, I let the cadets build models using gumballs, marshmallows, and toothpicks. There is always a way to make a concept relevant, and it truly makes a difference in their comprehension.”

According to Major Forde, it’s not just the in classroom instruction that is making a difference for cadets at St. John’s.

“We provide a structured environment,” said Forde. “They have study hall during the day, and study halls in the barracks. They can receive tutoring from their peers, and they can attend tutoring sessions with their teachers. They learn that there is no excuse for not completing an assignment because there is always someone they can ask for help who care about their success.”

Daniel Jones has also seen how structured classes benefit boys with ADHD.

“We follow a daily routine that is posted and entered into their agenda,” said Jones. “The cadets always know what to expect relating to class work for the day. Also, if a cadet needs help with an assignment, I’ll communicate that to his study hall teacher, or I’ll go the barracks after dinner to give him extra help. Soon the cadets learn that they can do the work, and they start to do it confidently.”

According to Forde, possibly the greatest facet of St. John’s that impacts cadets’ academic and personal growth is the military school environment.

“At St. John’s we teach young men the value of teamwork,” said Forde. “They soon realize that they have an opportunity to be part of something greater than themselves. They realize that their individual success impacts the group’s success. It builds confidence and self-esteem. Boys enter our school struggling academically and they leave as confident leaders with plans for their future.”

For Pam Kraus, it is this transformation that is the most rewarding part of her career.

“I had a student arrive at St. John’s who was struggling academically,” said Kraus. “After two years he graduated with straight As and a goal to pursue Chemistry in college. Now he has a realistic goal of becoming a pharmacist. When parents see their son who had been drifting finally make strides, it is incredibly rewarding.”