When we are doing something we like to do, we all have a difficult time stopping the activity and moving on to something new. It is as if the orchestra leader for our executive function loses his place. He appears to have a difficult time knowing when it is time to do something else, change the pace, the rhythm, or the tone. Smooth voluntary shifting and control seems impossible.

As teachers, we are often aware what activity we want to do next, and how we want to move our class onto our next teaching topic or experience. But somewhere along our way, we seem to leave some of our students behind. We don’t do it intentionally, and they do not linger because of belligerence or willfully defiant behavior. Their ADHD brains have mechanisms that interfere.

Students with ADHD have a difficult time sensing the passage of time, and once in focus, even if on the wrong thing, have an even more difficult time voluntarily putting activities aside and shifting gears. The more highly stimulating the activity, the better they are at keeping their focus, therefore, moving onto other activities and subject matter becomes difficult to impossible.

Many of us with ADHD have the compulsivity to do just one more thing before moving on. It makes us late for appointments, angry when distracted, and irritated with ourselves and others when forced to move on without finishing. Therefore, shifting gears is one of the hardest things for the ADHD brain to accomplish. Yes, neurological documentation exists to explain why this is true, but I’ll leave that to the neurologists at Johns Hopkins and Massachusetts General to explain.


So, what are we as teachers supposed to do to get the ball rolling, or maybe even to help it to stop? The first step is awareness. Knowing that all of your students are not on the same page and working at the same pace is a given.  I don’t need to make you aware of that. Next, is to identify those who always seem to be lagging behind. But the most important key is to know what triggers these students to pay attention!

Let’s begin by analyzing how we can get students to shift out of one activity and be ready for the next. Many tricks we use will help the whole class to focus and know when to finish. A total class approach is the best strategy, as we do not want to single out the student that habitually is not ready for change.


1. Call out: 5 minutes until math class, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute.
2. Ring a bell at: 5 minutes until reading class, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute.
3. Play soft music, preferably classical, to indicate a winding-down time. Increase the volume as time draws near. Stop the music abruptly as a final clue.
4. Use a metronome to denote time.  Speed up at intervals, with a super blitz speed and stop at the end.


1. Blink the classroom lights at prescribed intervals.
2. Have a paper stop light that moves from green, through yellow at a 5  minute signal. 
   • The Yellow moves through 3, 2 minutes.
   • Red comes on at the last minute signaling the student to put things away.
3. Note the time left on the board. Count down as time progresses to the final finish.
4. Post time-left-to-finish cards on an easel at the front of the room. Use time sequences that match the age of the students and complexity of the course.
5. Set up a large Time-timer that has a red wedge indicating the time remaining. The triangle reduces as time passes until no red is visible.  The benefit of this timer is its silence.


1.  Stand next to the first student. Motion for the student to stand at his desk, but to keep working. This sequence begins about 3-4 minutes before transition. 
   a. Each student’s goal is to stand and finish the task they are working on, and then begin to put their material away. 
   b. Student 1 becomes the clue for Student 2  to do the same.  As a chain reaction, each student stands and finishes.  
   c. When it is time to insist upon final completion, have Student 1  put his hands on his head, indicating he is ready for something new. As before, each student repeats the behavior.
   d. This exercise takes a bit of rehearsal until the students know the routine, but is fun, nontraditional, and the kids love it.
2. A simpler form of the above activity is for a bell to ring, and all students stand, finish, and put away.
3. Another adaptation is to use one of the other verbal or visual prompts and have the finished students sit upon their desks or stand when their tasks are completed.
4. Assign a prompting partner. When a child is not focusing well enough to be aware of the many cues you are giving, help him to select a non-threatening partner. The partner must have guidelines, rules and limits, as the intensity coming from the bright, accomplished student may seem as bossy and maybe even intimidating. Selections must be made carefully.


What if you really want the student to finish the task before changing to another activity? Sometimes it is so difficult to get students started on a task, you want to take advantage of the momentum.

1. Make special arrangements with the student to let him know he can continue.
2. Give some students the option to continue on if they feel they need more time. Students raise their hand requesting more time when the count down begins. 
3. Give the child something tangible, like a post-it-note with OK written on it to let the child know he or she can continue. The drifting mind may forget he has been given the extra time. Or, the insecurity developed over time makes him sure you didn’t respond.
4. Use other similar responses to connect and communicate, “go ahead and finish”  to your students.


What if the follow-up activity is to move or leave the room?

1. Tap on the first desk in a row, to line up.
2. Whisper to a student by name—this is made easy by having each student’s name on a card, and you can shuffle these so the order is always random.
3. When students enter the room, give them a number written on an index card, shuffled again to make them random.  This number can be used as line placement, indicating who answers first, a way to jumble partners and many other events.  As the student’s number changes daily, everyone gets a chance.

If the end of the activity includes turning in material remember that:
1. Systems of passing in papers should be routine and predictable.
2. Often inattention to details and lack of focus in the ADHD brain also includes being physically present, but completely unaware that it is time to turn in papers. 
   a. By the time the student becomes aware it is “paper time”, or “homework return” time, the moment is gone. 
   b. Shuffling into the desk, book, backpack becomes a scramble of anxiety.  Papers that become wadded as they are shoved into desks, pants, backpacks are impossible to tell one from another. 
   c. Anxiety raises, and the ADHD mind shuts down, retreats into safe territory and decides the paper can’t be found. 
   d. Again a partner can be a great asset. 
   e. Standing up to hunt, having help hunting, having a silent partner that gives out positive vibes, instills confidence that the paper can be found and reverses the negativity of the situation.
3. Teachers each have their own strategies for turning in papers.  The more organized the better for all. 
   a. Bins at their certain place in the room can be sorted by subject, child, or even down to the level of assignment. 
   b. Some teachers have students initial a chart when they turn in papers such as homework.
Sometimes, mini movement breaks help youngsters to keep focus. Scheduled activities are programmed to help students sift gears positively.  When organizing this approach, it is important to have a built in list of rules and requirements as to how to return to task.


Homework—have we done it or not?

1. It is hard to believe that someone can actually spend two hours on an assignment, have two or three meltdowns, and finally finish the work, get it into the backpack—only to forget to turn it in.
   a. First of all you have to understand that once an assignment is completed, or even stopped, it has been addressed and moves completely out of the ADHD line of focus and is stored in Neverland!
   b. It isn’t that the student doesn’t care, but when the assignment has been thought about, if even briefly, it is often “considered” done. 
   c. If this action has created pain, and the situation is especially emotional, it is removed off radar. Therefore, with the fleeting attention it has been given, the impulsivity to move on to greater and better, more stimulating activities, the original task is long forgotten. 
2. Oh, I’m not making excuses, the work needs to be done and turned in to prove its existence. However, knowing how the neurological system works, gives us a clue as to how we must proceed. Knowing the system, we need to analyze how to repair these nonproductive behaviors.
   • Organizational skills are abominable.
   • Sense of timing is offbeat.
   • Inattention supports lack of focus on detail and a seeming lack of concern about performance.
   • Impulsivity interferes with the ability to carry through to completion.
   • Social skills and the focus on responsibility is delayed.  Often students with ADHD are a third behind their peers in maturity.
3. Okay, how do we repair the system? The earlier in the day a homework assignment is requested, the higher the possibility it will be turned in. As a rule, homework must be turned in at the same time, in the same way, at the same place each day. 
      • All of this helps—think consistency + consistency + consistency.
Consider other ways to turn in assignments:
      • Via email
      • Faxed to the school office
      • Filled in online
4. Is this too much handholding? The object is to create a support system, but at the same time to encourage the student to be responsible for turning in his own homework assignments. A certain amount of points are given for physically turning in the assignment; 10 points, for example. Lesser points are given for backup material emailed, faxed etc.; say, 5 points.  Or, start with faxed in material and add points if the paper gets to school.  You need to play “let’s make a deal” with the parents. Points can then be used for rewards.  Rewards are given at home, partnering home and school. Remember, punishment for trying, stops trying. Reinforcement, especially when unexpected makes the student feel better and work harder.
5. Have parents monitor the time it takes the student to do homework.
   a. When did they sit down to the task?
   b. When did the student actually begin?
   c. How long did the student work before stopping or “hitting a wall?”
   d. What emotional responses happened?
   e. How long a break did the student take?
   f. How much was accomplished?


Parent-teacher communication on homework and similar issues often means that  teachers and parents view the task in completely different ways, including the amount of struggle, the ability to perform, the student’s ability to work independently on his or her own, and the ability to understand the material. Communicate, communicate—remember that some of the adults involved may be having some of the same trouble shifting gears as the students.

The Homework Autopsy chart is easy for a parent to fill out and reveals information to share between parent, student and teacher. Fill in a Homework Autopsy to determine what is really going on during homework.


The next issue becomes how to get a student started on an assignment during class.

Frequently we introduce an assignment, give clear instructions, note the page, which parts to read, the questions to answer, the time the assignment should take and when it will be due. 

Feeling confident we were as clear as could be, we gaze over our class watching the eager beavers dig in and begin. 

Oh, but alas, there is one, maybe two or three, whose eyes glaze over like a deer’s in the headlights, not ready or able to begin.  How do we get them to simply start.? Some strategies I’ve found helpful include:

1. Clustering slow starters in an area where you can move easily from one to the other.
2. Leaning close, note where the child is stalled.  Many times they haven’t even put their name on the paper. 
   a. Start with a whisper – “Put your name on the paper.”
   b. “Read the first part of the instruction.”
   c. “In your own words, what does it tell you?”
   d. Many times a few seconds of prompting gets through the stall, allows  the fog to lift and facilitates the initiation to understand the directions.
3. Taping an index card on the student’s desk with a list of steps is helpful. In order to encourage activity, put a paper clip on the card that can be slid down the list. The student has a constant reminder as each step is passed. The list should be specific to the area of instruction. Short simple key words should prompt action.
4. If the instructions are quite lengthy, give the child your list. Even a two-step sequence  is difficult for some students.
5. Instructions may be written on the board, but this still creates difficulties for some. Many youngsters with organizational difficulties also have shifting problems when looking from the board to the paper. They become lost and often have to reread the material over again each time they look up. They often forget what they have done, or what they are to do next. This is a result of their poor short-term memory. A list beside them brings the focus closer and makes success more easily attained
6. Verbal rehearsal helps many youngsters. Being able to hear the directions reinforces them into their short-term memory. Listing the steps as 1, 2, 3  helps to distinguish and differentiate the steps. Speaking aloud and describing  his  performance reinforces the action in the student’s mind and helps him maintain focus.

Well, this might not be all there is to it, but I hope you’ve at least remembered some of the techniques you have let slide, or you believe may need to be retried. So, get into your old Model T, crank that shaft and get it going. You’ll feel so much better, your relationship with your students will soar, your communication with parents will become solid and meaningful, and everyone’s attitude about learning will change as success comes within reach.

Here’s to success,