Create a safe and supportive learning environment for students with ADHD by following these simple strategies.

People with ADHD can struggle to focus and be prone to emotional outbursts. But, as psychotherapist Colin McGee explains on the Singing Teachers Talk podcast, teachers can foster a nurturing learning environment in the studio or classroom in several ways.

“The good thing is that what works well for a person with ADHD works well for everybody,” says Colin, who works for the ADHD charity ADDISS. “You don’t have to do anything special, you just need to be aware and consistent.”

ADHD symptoms

About five per cent of the population has ADHD (which stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder); however, only about one-fifth are diagnosed.

Symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty paying attention.
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Impulsive behaviour.
  • Sometimes overshare information.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Can be quick to anger if they become emotionally triggered.
  • Children with ADHD might seem younger than their peers emotionally.

ADHD and singing

When a person with ADHD gets triggered, they can become emotionally overloaded or “emotionally flooded”.

“When angry or upset, they can get in a panic attack state where their whole breathing changes,” Colin says. “It goes from the lower abdominal area up to the top of the chest, which tightens everything.”

When in this highly emotional state, their ability to process and hear is affected, and their throat can feel dry – physical symptoms that are particularly problematic in the context of singing. 

So what can teachers do to help singers with ADHD thrive? Here are Colin’s tips.

1 Use visual and sensory aids 

People with ADHD tend to be visual/kinesthetic learners, so incorporate movement, touch or visual elements into lessons. If you give a student practice exercises to do at home, use video or images to explain the activity.

2 Keep it simple 

Don’t overload a student with information or instructions. “I would start by talking about two things,” Colin says. “And when you get through those two things, introduce another couple of ideas.”

3 Avoid saying ‘don’t’ 

Use permissive language. “Instead of saying ‘don’t stand like that’, try ‘I wonder if you could stand in a relaxed way?’. That way, you’re giving them permission to change rather than a ‘you must do this’ command that can create an oppositional reaction.”

4 Use positive reinforcement

People with ADHD respond positively to praise; a simple thumbs up or nod can reinforce that they’ve made a good choice. 

5 Be wary of distractions

“In a classroom, I would not put a child with ADHD near a window, sink, musical instruments or an open door with people walking past because their attention is just going get sucked into what’s going on around them,” Colin says.

6 Avoid stark lighting

Dim the lights a little, as people with ADHD can be light-sensitive.

7 Use descriptive praise 

“If a student does something you like, don’t say ‘that’s good or that’s nice’,” Colin says. “Everybody’s definition of good or nice is different, so be specific. For example: ‘I liked the sound you’re making’.”

8 Break your lessons down

Spend ten to 15 minutes focusing on an activity and then change things up with a movement break. “That puts fuel in the tank so they can focus for the next 10 to 15 minutes,” Colin says. Aim to build up a student’s level of focus gradually over time to 20 minutes and then 30 minutes.

9 Be student-led

“It all comes down to the old adage: if you do something and it works, do more of it. If it’s not working, stop it.”

Learn more

Listen to the full podcast interview with Colin McGee to discover how to help singers with ADHD.