November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

How Librarians Help Kids With ADHD Thrive

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When it comes to integrating kids with special needs, classroom teachers have developed strategies. Still, Instructing this population, particularly students with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can sometimes be challenging because the work takes place alongside lessons and activities during an already busy day.

Librarians, of course, can relate: many face similar issues, but often with less time allotted to accomplish their goals. Seeing kids just once or twice a week for a single period makes it hard to break through and engage their students with special needs.

Kate Powers, a librarian in her third year at James M. Quinn Elementary School in Dartmouth, MA, definitely feels the time crunch. “I find that it can be tough to give some of my kids the consistency they need,” she says. “I usually see them once a week for 30–40 minutes, and it’s hard to make solid connections.”

Children with ADHD often have trouble with restlessness, staying in their seats, and listening quietly, explains Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental/behavioral pediatrics at Northwell Health’s Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Long Island, NY. “They may also have a shorter attention span for things that are not of interest to them and may not read quietly if they’re not engaged with the selected book,” he adds. Also, because approximately one third of kids with ADHD also have a learning disability, it means that some are below their grade level in reading ability.

Ashley Waring has a unique perspective on this group, as she has had personal and professional experience with ADHD. “Even though these kids struggle with impulsivity and transitions, I still want to make the library a place where kids with ADHD feel valued and appreciated for their ideas, energy, and curiosity,” says the children’s librarian at the Reading (MA) Public Library.

Both Powers and Waring have valuable information to share when it comes to teaching kids with ADHD in their libraries. Here’s what they’ve learned and how you can incorporate the same techniques.

Ease the transitions

Because library sessions are so short, it’s important to get kids settled quickly. “It helps a great deal when I warn my students with ADHD about upcoming shifts,” notes Waring. She’s also sure to make eye contact first. “This way, I can tell if the child is paying attention to what I’m saying before I even start to speak,” she says.

Break down tasks

Lots of kids need specific instruction when it comes to completing tasks in school, but those with ADHD may have additional trouble organizing their thoughts and actions. Issuing a vague statement about “cleaning up the LEGO bricks” can seem overwhelming and thus be ignored. Instead, give specific direction. “I like to point my students toward individual pieces and piles so they can focus and be successful,” reports Waring.

Seat with care

Sometimes it’s all about where a child is positioned. Adesman notes that it’s a good idea to move a student who has trouble paying attention to a spot that’s closer to the teacher. “This is a smart because it allows the librarian to gain the attention of the child before she gives instructions, and it may shift the kid away from others who could be distracting to him,” he explains.

Introduce fidgets

Fidgets, or toys that encourage kids to self-regulate by helping to focus their attention, are a must-have in the library, according to our sources. “Fidgets such as stress balls give kids with ADHD something to do with their busy hands while their brains and ears are focusing on what the teacher is saying,” points out Waring.

Use incentives

Little motivators can make a world of difference, says Powers. “For some reason, there are a couple of kids in my classes who just love….cleaning up the library….and straightening the books,” she explains. Smalls jobs can help a child feel more involved and important. Other ideas include helping younger students, shelving returned books, and organizing materials.

Reward good behavior

“I’ve learned to praise good behavior, sometimes emphatically,” shares Powers. Her school uses Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which allows teachers to reward good behavior with a plastic coin. Students put this special disk into their class rocket and when the rocket is filled, the class can choose a reward, such as pajama day or a movie event. “I give out coins whenever I see students really trying to control their behavior,” adds Powers.

Ask for a hand

One boy Waring taught had trouble remembering to raise his hand when he wanted to speak. “I told him I understood how hard it was to do this, but I really wanted him to try,” she says. The next time the group met, Waring reminded him about her request, and she called on him every time he raised his hand. “I made a point to praise him and to tell his mom, and that social praise was enough to keep him focused on this particular behavior in our class.”

Speak with care

Words matter, especially to a kid with ADHD. “Do all you can to make sure the child you’re working with doesn’t feel ‘in trouble’ or ‘bad’ because of his behavior, even if it’s disruptive,” says Waring. Kids with ADHD are at greater risk for low self-esteem, social issues, and even substance abuse later on in life.

Allocate funds

Keeping space in the budget for specific materials that might be helpful to kids with ADHD, including ebooks and audiobooks, is highly recommended. “I used BookFlix from Scholastic, and it’s worth every penny,” notes Powers.

Be patient

Working with kids in general can occasionally fray the nerves of the most experienced educators, and the ADHD population is no different. “Exercise as much patience as you can, because some of these students are really struggling,” urges Powers. “Many times these kids are also reluctant readers, so I always try to have an array of books that will capture and hold their interest,” she says. Hitting upon the right topic (dinosaurs or volcanoes, say) can mean the difference between a child who drifts and one who’s engaged—and learning.


Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a Manhattan-based reporter who writes frequently for Parents.com and Everyday Health.

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  1. Christina Vercelletto Christina Vercelletto says:

    Thanks, Lynette! The link has been updated.