Simple Ideas for Teaching Teamwork to Children with ADHD

parenting kids with adhd

Teamwork and learning. How do you use one to teach the other for kids who have problems with both? It's a dilemma for parents because ADHD students can lose focus when working in groups. Here are simple ways to collaborate with your child's teacher and approach the problem.

Benefits of Teamwork

It's no secret that some teachers shun cooperative learning out of fear that students will become rowdy and won't learn. It's also no secret among educators that ADHD kids struggle with the three C's (cooperation, collaboration, communication), skills necessary for effective teamwork.

Yet these 'soft skills'--once accepted as beneficial though unplanned outcomes of schooling--are now regarded as crucial to help kids develop as learners and as members of society. If your child's teacher has avoided cooperative learning methods in the classroom, take a look at what some experts say your child is missing:

  • A learning intervention particularly suited to ADHD students who veer off topic, fidget, talk nonstop, and cannot remain seated.
  • Academic skills, such as how to reason and retain information, better than those of students working on their own.
  • Engagement in learning, by knowing how to self-monitor progress.
  • Positive peer relationships, particularly with classmates, that make learning easier and days at school less stressful.
  • Success in higher grades, since college professors say soft skills help students thrive in academia.
  • Peer relationships, a common problem for ADHD kids who are shunned by classmates and have trouble making friends. The negative social relationships these kids experience in school are associated with later problems, such as delinquency, academic underachievement, unemployment, and even substance abuse and psychological maladjustment.
  • Better careers. Teamwork has been identified by American companies as one of the top three skills employees should have.

Boys working at a table

Start by Setting Goals

As the parent, you will need to collaborate with your child's teacher on ways to integrate teamwork in the classroom. At home, you can prepare her for group learning in class. Remind her that the teacher is still in charge, even when kids work with peers. Explain that teachers establish goals and parameters to remind students that teamwork isn't an excuse to let loose in an unstructured activity. This means her teacher may tell students what they're expected to learn, what resources they must use, how they should approach the assignment, and how much time they have.

Parents and kids can model goal-setting during homework sessions. Both parent and child take on the role of a class member and use the assigned homework in place of a typical classroom group activity. The parent might assume the role of the team member designated to interpret the lesson's instructions for the group. For example, you might say, 'This lesson is about the Civil War. We have to read the story and discuss it as a group, then write down three ways the war changed people's lives. We have one hour.'

It's important to explain to your child that goals aren't just for learning material. They also set the stage for accepted behavior. Explain that working in a group requires students to act a certain way, just as students must behave a certain way when sitting in class during a teacher-guided lesson.

During homework sessions, parents might prop up a white board containing a list of accepted behaviors for teamwork. The list can remind kids that speaking politely, raising hands to address the group, and paying attention when others speak are behaviors they should follow as team members in class.

girls reading

Another homework activity for building team skills is for the parent to encourage the child to reflect on the role-playing. Ask your child what he liked and didn't like, whether the peer-interpreted lesson instructions helped, and what part of the role-playing he would like to use during team sessions at school.

Divide the Whole into Parts

Ease your child into teamwork learning by breaking homework assignments down into parts. It's a strategy recommended to motivate ADHD kids who can't sustain efforts, especially when a subject seems overwhelming in scope. As the Child Development Institute explains, tackling small sections of a large project makes learning easier for students who fidget and frustrate easily.

You might try modeling the behavior. Show your child how you would divide an assignment into individual steps, such as re-reading directions with a peer, paraphrasing main ideas, and brainstorming answers. Describe the work you would do with each step and encourage your child to repeat those steps during group sessions in class.

Consider Your Child's Seat in Class

Your child's class members should focus on each other. Ask your child's teacher about the seating arrangement when kids are in groups. Then, suggest she try pushing two desks together or seating students at a round table. As educational expert Sandra Rief explains in ADDitude magazine, such nonverbal communication facilitates teamwork: 'Students who see eye-to-eye are likely to share materials, encourage each other's contributions, and work productively.'

If you role-play classroom group activities with your child, make sure to position desks and chairs so that you and your child face each other.

Encourage Balanced Groups

Although not a member of the group, your child's teacher plays the most critical role in determining its success. After all, she is the one who must perform the balancing act that goes into creating the groups.

Parents should make sure their child's teacher evaluates each student's strengths and weaknesses. You want to make sure the teacher avoids creating groups composed entirely of either strong students or those with learning deficiencies.

students drawing at table

David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, directors of the Cooperative Learning Center of University of Minnesota, describe the kinds of complex decisions teachers must make. For instance, will Karen's strong reading skills but weaker writing ability complement David, who would benefit from a reading partner but has few problems with spelling or grammar?

The wrong decision doesn't just affect the group but the individual ADHD learner, as well. As principal Mary Tavegia explains to Edutopia, 'The teacher must ask 'What, developmentally, do we expect of kids at this age? What can I expect of this particular child?' You don't take a student who has trouble communicating and set him up to fail by making him the group's discussion leader right off the bat.'

Keep the Focus on (Structured) Communication

The goals of any classroom learning will always be to impart knowledge and accommodate students with different learning styles. But don't lose sight of another big picture here: that ADHD kids can improve their weak communication skills by working with peers who are more comfortable and adept at articulating their thoughts.

The well-known and pretty straightforward collaborative teaching method known as 'think-pair-share' suits group learning activities. It's a method particularly suited to homework sessions after school.

'Think-pair-share' can work with almost any school subject. For example, you and your child can each read a poem that's been assigned for homework. Then, each of you can compose a writing prompt that suits the poem's subject and that members of the child's classroom team might want to write about. You and your child should then share these suggested prompts.

Explain why you believe your prompt is thought-provoking and have your child do the same. Tell your child he can use this 'think-pair-share' approach with almost any classroom group activity. If he is unsure how to do that, model another 'think-pair-share' using a typical homework assignment and showing how you would adapt it to group learning in class.

By Michele Vrouvas
February 2017

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