By: Erin Parkes, PhD

Based on the statistics, if you’ve been teaching music for any length of time, you’ve probably had more than a few students with ADHD. People with ADHD often have difficulty focusing, are easily distracted, make careless mistakes, and have difficulty staying organized. They may also have difficulty regulating their emotions and be quick to frustration or have angry outbursts. There are plenty of articles out there with fantastic ideas on how to adapt music lessons for students with ADHD—things like taking frequent breaks, front-loading the lesson with the most concentration-heavy material, and using kinaesthetic learning. This is all good! But I want to take a look at adapting for ADHD from a different perspective…

There are a lot of factors at play in ADHD, and increasing research out there to inform us on what is happening in the brain and nervous system that influences ADHD symptomatology. There is no doubt that ADHD has a biological basis—there are physiological differences between a neurotypical person and someone with ADHD. One of those differences is in the optimal zone of arousal, a concept that is critical to understand in teaching any student with exceptionalities, but particularly those with ADHD. In a nutshell, all of us have a zone of arousal in which we function best. Some of us need a lot of stimulation around us to be able to concentrate (for example, people that like to work in busy cafes, or need to have music on while they work), while others concentrate best in a quiet environment. We’re all trying to get ourselves into our optimal zone all the time—when you fidget in a boring lecture, you’re trying to give yourself stimulation to stay alert. On the flip side, when you get home after a long and overstimulating day, you may do something like take a bath to calm yourself. We all have our optimal zones, but for the most part, we can function within a wide range of stimulation, and we’re able to self-regulate when we start to get over- or under-stimulated.

A person with ADHD will differ from others in two ways. First, there is a more narrow range in which they can function optimally, and it’s usually with high stimulation. This is why people with ADHD are constantly seeking stimulation—they’re just trying to get themselves into their optimal zone! It just so happens that their bodies are wired to have an optimal zone that is higher than most. Second, people with ADHD often struggle with self-regulation. This means that they have a hard time giving themselves the right amount of stimulation to be in their optimal zone. Usually, what happens is that they are seeking stimulation but give themselves too much, and then end up over-stimulated. This can lead to a fight or flight reaction, and is often the cause for the emotional reactivity we can sometimes see in students with ADHD.

As music teachers, we have a natural advantage since music can be calming or stimulating. This makes it relatively easy to help a student get and stay in their optimal zone within a music lesson. The trick is to be aware of the needs of your student and to find ways within the lesson to meet those needs. If you don’t provide the stimulation then your student will seek it out, and this is where behaviours that are viewed as disruptive often occur. If you’re providing the stimulation along the way, the student will have less need to seek it out and you’re more likely to get through the lesson with your student on-task and ready to learn. Every student is different, but here are a few ideas:

  • Start with an opening activity that provides some stimulation to get your student into their optimal zone before tackling anything that requires a lot of concentration, like working on their repertoire. This could be a movement game, rhythm activity using percussion instruments, a welcome song with a backing track that is loud and fast—just to name a few!
  • Take breaks away from the instrument to work on musical concepts. Move to the floor or desk, use tactile aids, or have the student move to the music with their whole body (incorporating stability balls is a fun way to get in a lot of stimulation!) 
  • If you are working on a slow or calm piece, try to sandwich it between activities with a lot of sensory stimulation.
  • Provide a sensory aid to help your student get the stimulation they need while playing their instrument (wiggle seats are fantastic!)

Most important is to remember that many of the ADHD behaviours that are often seen as problematic are just the student trying to get themselves into their optimal zone for learning, and that’s a good thing! By incorporating these suggestions and being attuned to your student’s needs for sensory input, you’ll be able to help them get there.

If you’d like to learn more about teaching students with ADHD and managing the sensory needs of all of your students, check out some of our other resources: