Criticism is a relationship wrecking ball—especially for students with ADHD.

Title text: Criticism is a relationship wrecking ball-especially for students with ADHD. Background image is a black metal wrecking ball swinging into a red brick wall, leaving a giant hole.

By Dr. Tim Grivois, Executive Director

Students with ADHD are almost sure to demonstrate behaviors that don’t work well in classrooms designed for neurotypical students. Add to this anxiety, rejection sensitivity, and demand avoidance—conditions that seem to be ADHD’s toxic best friends—and criticism becomes an unhelpful strategy. 

However, if you’re an educator doing your best to lead a classroom or a school, managing behavior is the least enjoyable part of your day. Constantly managing interruptions, fidgeting, and lost assignments are understandably frustrating. Instead of responding to symptoms of ADHD with criticism, consider how responding with curiosity might be better for you and your students with ADHD.

Criticism is a relationship wrecking ball. 

Criticism is a relationship wrecking ball because criticism focuses on pointing out flaws and shortcomings rather than offering helpful feedback. When school adults criticize students, it erodes trust, creating an atmosphere of negativity and insecurity. This constant judgment makes connection, warmth, and belonging difficult.

Take a look at the examples below. You’ll get the most out of this part if you read the ‘criticism’ section in the tone of an understandably frustrated school adult and then read the ‘curiosity’ section with a purposefully warm and helpful tone. (Note: I have heard each criticism said out loud to students in actual classes.)


ADHD SymptomCriticismCuriosity
Frequently interruptingYou are interrupting again, and it is my turn to talk.You seem excited to share. Can you wait until I’m done with the lesson?
Losing / misplacing itemsOf course, you’ve lost the worksheet! Look at this backpack!Oh, you’ve lost the worksheet? Do you think it’s in your backpack?
Out of seatIt’s time to sit down and listen. No one should be out of their seats right now. Do you want to listen at your seat, on the floor, or at the standing desk?
Not starting on independent work.It’s been ten minutes and nothing is on your page. I need you to get started.Looks like your brain needed a break! Do you need me to explain the first part again? Maybe a timer to keep on track?

Curiosity solves problems.

Students with ADHD are going to interrupt, lose things, get out of their seat, and lose focus during long periods of independent work time. It’s part of their diagnosis. So, instead of making symptoms of ADHD a daily catastrophe, how might we design our classrooms so that the problems students experience with ADHD are solveable? When we respond to symptoms of ADHD with criticism, we elevate the problem; when we respond with curiosity, we uncover solutions.

ADHD symptoms do not work well in classrooms designed for neurotypical students, and the behaviors we might see are understandably frustrating for school adults. However, curiosity holds students accountable to behavioral expectations while maintaining a warm, helpful tone.

How to start…

The best way to start responding to symptoms of ADHD with curiosity is to think of a student with ADHD that you know you will interact with during the week. What are you always telling them to stop, start, do more of, do less of? Write down the words you usually say.

Then, write down the curious words you want to say instead. Memorize them, and tape your curious words somewhere you can find them easily. Most important, when you use your curious words, celebrate the fantastic educator that you are because your curious words transformed how a child experienced learning!

Check out our introductory pricing on “Creating Inclusive Classrooms for Students with ADHD” here!

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