Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Challenges and Subjects – this link takes you to challenges and subjects associated with ADHD

Brief description of Disability

Inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity are the main characteristics of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As a student’s academic success is often dependent on their ability to attend to tasks and tutor expectations with minimal distractions, a student with ADHD may struggle within the typical HE academic environment. Activities associated with acquiring necessary information for completing tasks, completing assignments and participating in discussions with their tutors and peers are all activities that can potentially be problematic for the student with ADHD.

As students with ADHD may experience difficulties with the structured environment of a tutorial or lecture or focusing on their assigned work, they may need adjustments to the learning environment to help them remain focused on the task in hand. Students may need to be questioned about where they prefer to sit within the learning environment to help them to focus on what is being said, they may also benefit from working closely with another student who can help them to develop their cooperation skills or, if space permits, work in separate learning areas, away from other students. Different students will find different scenarios work better for them and open communication with the student about this is essential.

Detailed description of ADHD

ADHD is one of the most common disorders of childhood and adolescence and is characterised by impulsivity and hyperactivity and/or inattention. The characteristics are not seen to the same degree in all people diagnosed with the disorder and healthcare professionals recognise that there are 3 main combinations of characteristics:

  • Some people have predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type.
  • Some have predominantly inattentive type.
  • And some have a combined type (this makes up the majority of ADHD cases.

Hyperactive or impulsive behaviours may include: fidgeting, having trouble interacting quietly, interrupting others and always being ‘on the go’. Characteristics of inattention may include: being disorganised, being forgetful and easily distracted and finding it difficult to sustain attention during tasks or learning activities. These behaviours are usually first noticed in early childhood, and they are more extreme than simple misbehaving. Whilst ADHD behaviours occur to some extent in all of us, the difference between ADHD and normal behaviour is the degree of the problem and the difficulties it causes. Individuals with ADHD show this behaviour to a significantly greater extent and severity.

Students with ADHD are starting to outnumber students with psychological disorders in US universities, although their numbers are still small in the UK. ADHD remains controversial, in that although it is recognised as a specific condition, there is often the feeling among staff that it is not so much on the increase as being massively over-diagnosed. Whatever the reality, students who have a condition that is, or is similar to, ADHD frequently do pose major problems for staff dealing with them because they often experience serious difficulties with their studies.

The current situation

Psychological difficulties are, in some ways, the hidden disabilities of the veterinary medical colleges and of universities in general. Students may often decide not to disclose their difficulties and this one must respect. At the same time, whether they disclose their difficulties or not, the effects of having a psychological difficulty can remain and may have an enormous even if hidden impact on others.

Official figures for students with psychological difficulties can sometimes be low or nonexistent. The result is that senior staff are sometimes led to assume that the problem does not exist within their institution. The reality is that many faculty staff are dealing with a problem which officially does not exist.

Individuals with ADHD may exhibit behaviours that cannot be explained by any other psychiatric condition and are not in keeping with the individual’s age and intellectual ability. Mood swings and social clumsiness are common. Parents and tutors may report that these individuals often misread the accepted social cues, saying or doing inappropriate things. Social difficulties often hit a peak in primary school and start to ease in secondary school, although in adolescence any remaining insecurities make the normal social uncertainties of this age even greater.

ADHD is most commonly noticed around the age of 5, and according to medical guidelines, it affects 5% of school-aged children with the male to female ratio in diagnosed ADHD prevalence being at least 4 to 1. The observed prevalence of ADHD in boys and girls is skewed by the fact that characteristics of hyperactivity and impulsivity are more common in boys, whereas girls with ADHD more commonly have inattentive characteristics. Research suggests that 80% of children diagnosed with ADHD continue to experience characteristics during adolescence and 67% continue to have the characteristics into adulthood.

Some of the characteristics associated with ADHD can be seen as positive attributes that students bring to their academic experience. These can be summarised as follows:

  • An ability to see the big picture and good attention to detail.
  • Creativity and inventiveness.
  • Risk-taking can produce important discoveries.
  • An ability to process information and make broader observations.
  • High levels of energy.
  • Good negotiation skills.
  • Intuitiveness and reactivity.
  • Ability to hyper-focus.

Characteristics Impacting on Learning and Teaching

Potential areas of difficulty for students with ADHD may include:

  • Inattention – disrupted by their own thoughts or daydreaming, moving quickly onto a new topic of conversation before finishing the current one and producing work that is of variable quality.
  • Impulsiveness – an impairment of internal speech, finishing other people’s sentences and/or interrupting.
  • Short-term memory – poor note-taking ability, poor hindsight and forethought leading to an inability to learn from mistakes or draw on previous experience.
  • Independent adaptive functioning.
  • Mood swings – ranging from restlessness and fidgety behaviour to procrastinating (affecting coursework and revision for examinations).
  • Poor organisation and time management.
  • Risk-taking.
  • Problem-solving.
  • Interpersonal relationships and emotional functioning – students may appear sociable but friendships can be superficial.
  • Issues associated with medication – this can affect sleep patterns.

Potential challenges to the achievement of learning


External resources