I’ll never forget Paul.
He was one of the most charming kids in my elementary ESL class and also one of the most challenging. He was a third grader at the time, and I was an inexperienced teacher. At least as far as teaching at the elementary level.
I hadn’t exactly signed up to teach the class, not at first anyway. There was a miscommunication in my hiring process (I’ll tell you about that another day) and when I thought I would be teaching middle school and high school ESL, I was teaching second and third grade. I felt plenty comfortable teaching English, I had been doing it for years already. But teaching kids? That was another story.
I didn’t even have a degree in education. I had earned my M.A. in applied linguistics from a state university back home. In the course of my studies, I had had some classes on teaching and testing methods, syllabus design, and other ESL specific education classes, but I hadn’t had anything about classroom management, and I certainly didn’t know much about teaching kids with special needs.
I don’t know if Paul had an ADHD diagnosis, but I do know one thing. He could not sit still. At any point in the day, I could look over and see Paul bouncing in his seat, playing with his pencil, or getting up and moving when he wasn’t supposed to. I would get frustrated. He would get frustrated. I spent more than a few afterschool hours in tears that year. I was thankful for Paul’s cheerful outlook on life that made him such an enjoyable student even if he challenged me in ways I hadn’t been challenged before.
I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with my new elementary classroom experience, and I would have really appreciated some advice on how to give Paul and myself the best third grade ESL experience possible. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any.
I have had a lot more teaching experience since then. I think if I had Paul in class now, things would go a lot different than they did so many years ago. And if me now could talk to me then, I’d have some practical tips I could have put to use.
Lots of different people find themselves teaching an English as a second language class. Many have had plenty of instruction on education, and they’re already great teachers for all of their students. But that is not always the case. So if you find yourself in a situation where you are teaching kids with special needs like me, in particular kids who exhibit some of the symptoms of ADHD, here are some suggestions that you can implement in your classroom.
4 Tips for Giving Special Needs Kids the Best ESL Experience
Have a Quiet Area Set up in the Classroom
A quiet area is a place where students can take a time out from classroom activities when they are feeling overwhelmed. And they’re not just beneficial to kids with special needs. When you have a quiet are of your classroom, you’ll find that all of your students take a moment there from time to time. It’s easy for any language student to feel overwhelmed. All day in English can be exhausting to speakers of other languages, and even more so for students who have challenges on top of the language barrier. You can designate an area as simple as an empty desk for kids who just need a few minutes to themselves. Keep the area clean and clutter free, and make sure students know it’s not a place to go when you are disinterested in class but a place for when you feel overwhelmed and need a moment to clear your mind. If you are feeling particularly creative, give it some natural lighting and a comfortable place to sit. You might even find yourself drawn to your quiet area!
Don’t Presume Your Special Kids Are Less Intelligent Than the Other Members of Your Class
I’m not sure what it is about human nature that makes us assume that someone different from us is automatically less intelligent. You’ve probably been warned against that as an ESL teacher already. Lack of fluency does not mean lack of intelligence. But that goes for your special students, too. Just because a child has a hard time sitting still or because it takes longer for them to complete a task does not indicate anything about their level of intelligence. So don’t talk down to them or treat them differently than other students. Do be patient and give them more time to follow directions and complete tasks when necessary, a good rule in any ESL classroom. Encourage friendships among your students too. Overall, treat your students with respect, and the other members of your class will take a cue from you and do the same.
Give Instructions One at a Time
It can be hard for kids with ADHD to follow directions, especially when they contain multiple steps. ESL students can struggle with that, too. Slowing you instructions down can be a big help. Instead of listing five different things to do in a sequence, give one thing. Then let students complete it before instructing them in step two. If you feel this will hold back students who aren’t struggling, write your directions on the board with numbered steps and teach your ADHD kids to follow one instruction at a time. Keep to your system, and everyone will be on task.
Make Sure Students Are Writing down Their Homework and Important Dates
Many ADHD students will forget to write down their homework or will leave it home after completing it. That’s why it’s important that you help your students get a system in place for writing down what you expect from them outside of class. Keep a running list of homework assignments for your students each day where everyone can see them. Then before they head home, make time for students to write their assignments in their homework log. Read each assignment aloud as students write it down. Also, make sure students are grabbing the books and materials they will need to complete the assignment before they walk out the door. You might even want to consider matching up your ADHD students with a homework buddy, a fellow student who will compare backpacks with him or her and who your student can call later with questions about homework. Don’t be afraid to post daily homework on a website, voicemail, or blog either so parents can access it too.
These are four little things you can do to help your ADHD students that can make a big difference in their school experience.
These steps will not only help your ADHD kids but everyone in your class, so by helping your special students you will be helping everyone else, too. If I had a chance to do things differently in my first classroom, I would, but time waits for no person. So I hope you can benefit from my struggles and give your ADHD students a great English learning experience today.