Learning motivation and engagement expert Professor Andrew Martin has identified practical ways to support teachers working with students who have ADHD and anxiety by addressing the threat and fear of failure these students experience at school.

Dr Andrew Martin, education psychologist and a keynote presenter at the upcoming Student Services Conference, is a specialist in learning motivation and engagement.

Through his more recent research on the learning risk factors for students with additional needs, including ADHD and anxiety, the University of NSW academic has identified some more effective ways for teachers to support students with complex needs.

The premise starts with how students with ADHD and anxiety manage the threat or fear of failure and the teacher’s confidence to put in place practical strategies to support them, Professor Martin says.

“Many students can pick new concepts up quickly and so you don’t often see the process by which they learn. For these students the reality of the threat of failure is not so apparent for them.  But for students with ADHD, students with high anxiety, students with other challenges … it provides a very sharp focus on understanding failure dynamics.”

Professor Martin commented, “For all students, failure and fear of failure and self-confidence are relevant issues but for some students they’re very salient in their academic lives.”

An initial response to the risk of failure in their early years of school starts with greater effort and diligence to overcome the problems arising from their special need. However, without the heart of the problem being dealt with and their core need not being met, over time the student will respond in more problematic ways – avoidance, giving up or self-sabotage (procrastination, time wasting and mucking around in class). Similarly, their self-belief is eroded which leads to more learning barriers.

“Over time these students come to doubt themselves. They lose confidence in their capacity to do their school work and when confidence starts sliding so does persistence, effort and enjoyment and any other learning and achievement.”

So how does a teacher help these students to stay courageous and constructive when their self-confidence nose dives and when poor performance becomes a big part of their lives?

Professor Martin says the key is to disentangle the complexities of the student’s needs, and if possible gain quick wins to establish early confidence, and sometimes before more major and ongoing learning strategies are set in place.

“Disentangling the key issues before you roll out any strategies is critical because that will direct the traffic on what you deal with over the medium to longer term, what you deal with immediately, and where you need outside help,” he says.

This begins with teachers understanding the precise nature of the student’s needs because each will have different motivational implications. A student with ADHD will have motivation and engagement issues around self-management, organisational skills, time management and impulse control.

“When we know these things, there are very clear strategies on how to assist with that in terms of time management, in terms of breaking tasks down, having a to-do list – all of these are very practical strategies,” he says.

Similarly, with anxiety, a teacher can address the factors around performance and assessment that may underpin the anxiety. For example, leading up to an assessment they can reduce some of the unknowns of the assessment, such as by providing practice examples.

“Developing a study plan can also reduce some of the pressure. In addition, on the day of the test, teachers can emphasise the importance of being task focused not mark focused,” he says.

“It’s about taking the heat out of the performance scenario and helping students learn to manage it effectively so that it doesn’t impair their functioning,” he says.

Further, if not managed and implemented well, highly competitive environments can exacerbate anxiety and be defeating for students with ADHD.

At the Student Services Conference, Professor Martin will address growth-oriented approaches to educating all students, including those in highly competitive contexts. For example, personal best (PB) goals can retain the energising properties of competition but have students see themselves as their own benchmark—this makes success more accessible to more students.

“You’re looking to improve on yourself rather than beating other students.”

It is also a reality that students with one condition can also have other underlying conditions. For example, a student with ADHD may also exhibit learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia or dysgraphia. Students with anxiety may also struggle with depression. Students with a “comorbidity” of conditions often need even more support.

Professor Martin finds that teachers who understand that students with special needs benefit from more time to do things, and require more flexibility, patience and creativity, tend to meet these students’ educational needs and optimise their educational outcomes.

Student Services Conference:
Support for Students with Academic, Behavioural and Mental Health Needs