Working with ADHD: A Checklist for Success!

My student Adam is a brilliant 9-year old, with an encyclopedic memory, the ability to solve a Rubiks cube at lightning speed, a natural affinity for music . . . and ADHD. During our first year, Adam was a delight to teach. He was polite, responsive to coaching, and cooperative. However, this past year, Adam’s progress slowed to a halt when we became locked in power struggles lesson after lesson. His independent spirit and perfectionist tendencies made it impossible for him to take even the mildest of musical suggestions from me. He began refusing to perform the practice steps that would help ensure mistake-free learning, but would then become extremely frustrated when a mistake inevitably crept into his playing. I became utterly distraught about the lack of cooperation in our lessons – we were just not on the same page!

Over the summer, I felt determined to find a way to improve the quality of our lessons. After several conversations with his parents, I found a strategy that has helped tremendously:  creating a checklist (click on the previous word to open the document) detailing exactly what will happen during each lesson. This checklist is waiting on the piano before Adam enters the studio, and remains there throughout the lesson for our reference.  As each item is completed, Adam checks it off.   The structure, order, and predictability provided by these lists free us to have productive and enjoyable lessons once again. Here are some guidelines I have used in planning and developing these checklists:


1. Establish a Routine

Adam knows that when he comes to his lesson, he will enter the studio, set his books on the piano, place his new assignment sheet in his binder, and sit on the bench ready to play. This helps prevent him from becoming distracted when he enters the studio so that we can get right to work. When his lesson is over, he knows it’s his responsibility to pack up his own things and quietly leave the studio. These details are included on the lesson checklist every week.


2. Use the Plan to Manage Time

Following the checklist makes our lessons much more efficient. Adam can see from the moment he walks in exactly how many items we need to work through, and this creates a sense of urgency and purpose. Whenever he has a lapse of focus, simply reminding him how much time we have to complete the remaining items on the list brings us back to the task at hand. I’ve been amazed at how much more we have been able to accomplish during each lesson.


3. Be Specific

Specific details and clear, concise directions are key. Like many children, Adam takes most everything quite literally. It’s important that the checklist spell out exactly which practice steps we will perform for each new piece, or precisely what to listen for in working to polish a review piece.


4. Transfer the Source of Instruction and Critique

One of the greatest sources of contention in our pre-checklist lessons had been Adam’s unwillingness to perform practice steps, as though I were insulting his intelligence by suggesting that he tap and count a new piece before playing it. Somehow, putting these practice steps in writing removes me from the equation, and the practice steps simply become “the way” a new piece is learned. When we begin a new piece, we consult the checklist to see what needs to be done.

Similarly, accepting musical suggestions directly from me had become upsetting to Adam. Including a question on his checklist regarding how a piece should sound provides the same guidance, while removing any sense of personal critique. I always refer to myself in the third person on the checklist, as if the plan has come from some outside source.


5. Give the Student Ownership

Adam loves reading the next item on the checklist aloud and telling me what we’re going to do next. The lesson becomes student-directed, which is just what he needs to feel successful. Once we’ve completed an item, he handles writing the check marks, which heightens his sense of accomplishment as we progress through the plan. Finally, it feels as though we are working as a team to complete the lesson plan – each check mark is a small victory, and consequently, we both leave our lesson feeling positive.

 .   .   .   .   .

Creating these checklists requires more time and careful planning, but the reward is well-worth the extra effort. After our first few successful summer lessons, I thought the problem was resolved and that we probably wouldn’t need the checklist anymore. However, as soon as Adam came in, he called me out and persistently asked for the checklist! Our lesson that day was noticeably less productive. I was not meeting him where he was, but where I wanted him to be, or thought he should be. Since then, I’ve made sure to prepare a checklist for each lesson, and I’ll continue to do so for as long as is necessary. I have a feeling he’ll let me know when it’s time to move on to a new strategy . . .

What strategies have helped you meet students where they are to improve the quality of your lessons?

4 thoughts on “Working with ADHD: A Checklist for Success!

  1. It’s so exciting when you can find a way to make it all work! I had this happen last year with an second year ADHD students….add to the power struggle an inability to sit at the piano for more than a minute. So last fall I had tried writing a checklist on my whiteboard and as each item was completed she got to get up, walk over to the whiteboard and erase it….giving her a short break from the sitting. She felt in control again and has been a joy……year three is going great!

  2. Thanks for sharing the success of your new strategy. I’m sure it will be of great use to many other teachers. I would only caution that a year from now, a completely different strategy might need to be devised. Good luck!

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