Two Conditions, One Struggle: Teaching Students with ADHD and Dyslexia

 ADHD Weekly November 1, 2018

The child struggling with words and sounds also seems distracted. Is she having trouble decoding the words or has she lost her attention for the task? For the teacher, it can be puzzling to work with a student who is struggling. The educator’s challenge may be in identifying whether the student is struggling with a learning disability such as dyslexia or if the difficulty is related to ADHD—or both as coexisting disorders.

“You have to figure out what this child needs,” says educational consultant Joan Teach, PhD. “It doesn’t matter what the child comes to the plate with, the teacher’s first job is to take a really good look at what the child brings. How many different things are going on with this child? What does the child bring that is good? And what are the things in his way?”

Co-occurring ADHD and dyslexia have shared challenges

Dr. Teach is president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Georgia and a former member of the CHADD board of directors. Throughout her career she has worked closely with students affected by ADHD and dyslexia and related learning disabilities.

The frustration of trying to work out a word can become enough that a child loses interest and seeks new stimuli rather than sticking with the task, she says.

“Too often our kids with ADHD need a tremendous amount of stimuli to take information in,” says Dr. Teach. “But trying to stay still takes all of their attention and they don’t have anything left for the academics. Perhaps in the dyslexia there’s a tremendous amount of directionality there that is not working.”

Sometimes students have approaches in their academic plans that are designed for dyslexia, but are difficult to use for a child with co-occurring ADHD.

“Those programs are designed to be one-on-one, but educators end up putting students into groups of five,” Dr. Teach says. “It’s better than groups of 25, but you don’t have someone there to guide your hand. Any child that has attention or impulsivity or any kind of neuro-difficulty like that, has to have someone there to put them into the right space.”

Working overtime to keep up with other students

According to the International Dyslexia Association:

Dyslexic children, like children with ADHD, may have difficulty paying attention because reading is so demanding that it causes them to fatigue easily, limiting the ability to sustain concentration.

People with dyslexia and those with ADHD both have difficulty with reading. The dyslexic person’s reading is typically dysfluent, with major problems with accuracy, misreading both large and small words. The person with ADHD may also be a dysfluent reader, but his or her reading is not characterized by misreading words. The ADHD reader may skip over punctuation, leave off endings, and lose his or her place.

The dysfluency of both the ADHD person and the dyslexic reader may negatively impact comprehension. Both may avoid reading and derive little pleasure from it. Both the person with dyslexia and the person with ADHD typically have trouble with writing. The typical dyslexic writer has significant problems with spelling, grammar, proofreading, and organization. The ADHD writer often has difficulty with organization and proofreading.

Neither ADHD nor dyslexia affects a student’s intelligence. Many students and their parents find getting help to be a struggle because a student can be doing “well enough” by working two or three times as hard as her classmates just to keep up. When a teacher intervenes and helps to support the student through an accommodation program, the student’s innate ability can shine through.

“I firmly believe most of these kids are extremely bright,” Dr. Teach says. “They just operate a little differently.”

Tailor your strategy to your student

What can educators and parents do to support a student with coexisting ADHD and dyslexia?

“Know the student,” Dr. Teach recommends. “And then try a strategy and see if it works. And if that strategy doesn’t work, try something else. Keep trying different strategies, because each child’s configuration of strengths and weakness will be different. What works for Suzy might not work for Sam. If a strategy works one time and not the next, accept it. We’re not the same each day. Keep the interventions going. If something worked a little while ago, go back to that. Our kids respond well to variety.”

Dr. Teach says that the educator’s role is to find out what the student needs by working closely with the student rather than applying a one-size-fits all program.

“If people would stop, look, listen, get to know and interact, it would so much better,” she says. “I would love every teacher to approach every child, that if they could have in their mind the question, what is making this child act this way? And be really concerned about that.”

Being aware of the symptom of impulsivity and how it can affect a student’s self-esteem is also part of the approach, she adds.

“The real compulsion is they blurt out the wrong answer,” she says. “It can be embarrassing with the low self-esteem. The kid tries to answer too quickly. Or they listen to the directions only halfway. It’s a disaster looking for a place to lay down. You can only be wrong so many times before you either run away or fear makes you a frozen popsicle and you don’t know where to go. Or you completely fall apart and you’re so angry that you get into a fighting situation.”

Dr. Teach suggests educators ask their students what strategies they prefer, to allow them some choice and input in the strategies used. She recommends they focus on the individual student’s strengths, rather than where a student struggles. By building on successes, students are more able to take on challenges in areas of study that are harder for them, she says. Additionally, parents and teachers need to use newer technologies to help students—including computers and online tools, recording lectures to listen to later, and audio textbooks that students can listen to while doing the assigned reading.

Educator Resources:

Join the discussion: How do you help your students with co-occurring ADHD and dyslexia?