Teacher's knowledge of ADHD and empathy is crucial for a student with ADHD success
Teacher's knowledge of ADHD and empathy is crucial for a student with ADHD success

Part 1: Teacher’s knowledge of ADHD, wellbeing and empathy

Childhood is a crucial window of opportunity to implement and prioritise protective factors that change the trajectory of a child's quality of life.

Teaching degrees have changed very little over the last few years in the area of neurodivergent education. Most teachers finish their tertiary education with only a few hours on the bare basics of neurodevelopmental differences.  

Our understanding of ADHD and how it presents in children has improved significantly and with it diagnoses have increased. Today, a teacher can expect a cohort of students made up of approximately 5-10% of children who have a suspected or a diagnosed neurodivergence. 

Evidence collected over the years show that children with ADHD are at a higher risk of lower academic achievement and dropping out of school, peer rejection and victimisation, and low self-esteem. Childhood is a crucial window of opportunity to implement and prioritise protective factors that change the trajectory of an individual with ADHD and their quality of life. 

Primary school is a time of big developmental milestones and the educational environment is particularly important in a child’s positive outcomes. Our children spend approximately six hours a day at school, and in that time they receive more than instruction on the curriculum, they also learn to relate to peers and build relationships. 

Teachers are our children’s guides and trusted adults at school, and play a crucial role in shaping their educational and social experience. 

Behaviours as a result of executive function challenges

As children move through primary school, they face more challenges including increased academic demands, navigating complex peer relationships and social acceptance. At the same time, parents and teachers become less involved and provide less support. It is usually during this period of increased expectations and reduced support that ADHD symptoms become more obvious. The wheels fall off as students are expected to use their executive functioning skills to plan and organise themselves, self-monitor and evaluate progress towards long-term goals.

Executive functioning delays in inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and working memory are part of ADHD, and can result in externalising behaviours that are often categorised as disruptive and oppositional. 

Teachers who don’t understand ADHD, especially in the context of executive functioning, may resort to using punitive measures for behaviours that are a direct result of a student’s disability. 

Executive dysfunction in a child can look like this in the classroom:

  • Regularly interrupting other students and the teacher
  • Touching items and peers at inappropriate times and without permission
  • Constantly moving even when told to keep still
  • Reacting with aggression when feeling offended or frustrated
  • Easily distracted by other students, noises and the things happening around them
  • Getting upset when they are frustrated 

The above ‘behaviours’ are a symptom of impaired Inhibition, which refers to our ability to ignore unimportant stimuli like noise, and regulate our movements and emotions to suit the environment and our goals.

Cognitive flexibility, our ability to think flexibly about a situation and look at it from different perspectives, can also be affected and may look like this:

  • Very black and white thinking which impacts problem solving
  • Having difficulty seeing things from the perspective of others 
  • Getting into altercations with peers and teacher over rules
  • Becoming oppositional when asked to transition between tasks

Working memory, our ability to keep important information in mind so that we can plan and organise, and holding what happened earlier to relate it to what comes later, is greatly reduced by ADHD. A teacher will only see a student who:

  • Constantly loses their belongings
  • Makes careless mistakes in their work and forgets to answer questions
  • Doesn’t follow instructions
  • Is told not to do something and does it anyway

Empathy and knowledge of ADHD are intertwined

For many parents, including myself, whose children have had a teacher who understands ADHD, it is clear that they are more likely to be empathetic to behaviour challenges and therefore respond with sensitivity. Results of several studies show that empathy contributes positively to educational interventions by increasing a teacher’s understanding of children with ADHD in various situations. Empathy is a foundational component of a strong and trusting relationship especially between a teacher and a neurodivergent student.

Teacher’s who lack the knowledge and understanding of ADHD are more likely to believe that negative behaviours are wilful and in turn will use direct punishments or withdrawal of rewards in order to extinguish unwanted behaviours. Keeping children from lunchtime and recess breaks is a common consequence for breaking rules or negative behaviours, further dysregulating a child who needs movement to stay regulated and excluding them from social opportunities. These students return to class heightened and the cycle of behaviour, teacher stress and conflict begins again.

This circular problem of behaviour and punishment puts increasing stress on both teacher and student and compromises a positive relationship. 

The importance of a teacher’s wellbeing

There is a growing body of research that shows that a teacher’s wellbeing is related to a student’s behaviour and their educational achievement. Evidence indicates that the behaviour of students with ADHD is impacted by:

  • How well teachers and students with ADHD get along
  • How teachers feel about ADHD
  • How teachers can handle their own feelings
  • A teacher’s teaching methods

When teachers feel good and understand what causes ADHD behaviours, they can better help their students. The research also highlighted the importance of teachers looking beyond a child’s challenges and seeing their good qualities and potential and being motivated to teach them.

Teachers who find themselves with negative and ambivalent emotions about a student with ADHD usually experience higher levels of stress. Some of the contributing factors include burnout, lack of access to supervision, access to additional educational support in the classroom, too many students in a class or a lack of understanding or misinformation of the symptoms of ADHD.

Positive student and teacher relationships is important for both parties

As our children become older they also become more aware of how they are perceived by their peers and teachers. Over time, the negative messages wear away at their self-confidence and trust in their safe adult at school. School refusal, which is not so much refusal as a child’s inability to cope in a school setting, becomes a reality for many students with ADHD. Without connection and safety in the classroom, children are not ready to learn nor are they willing to go to school, further impacting their educational outcomes. 

The quality of a student and teacher relationship is of particular importance for students with disabilities and at risk of academic failure. Positive relationships are shown to be associated with academic achievement, self-efficacy, prosocial behaviours and relationships with peers.

The evidence across a number of studies highlight the importance of positive teacher-student relationship and a secure attachment of students with ADHD. A good relationship is linked to: 

  • Better emotional regulation, social competence, lower crime rates, and a willingness to accept challenges in students with ADHD
  • Higher levels of the teachers’ personal accomplishment over the school year and the professional and personal self-esteem 
  • Quality of a teacher’s wellbeing

Teachers’ rejection of students with ADHD is a risk factor for not only academic failure, but also peer exclusion and rejection, leading to low self-esteem and loneliness.

Tips & strategies on helping teachers help your child

The pressure of the education department, increasing paperwork and increasing expectations have left teachers very little time to do what they love: teach. Instead they are swamped with administrative tasks and without the skills to effectively support a class of students with different needs.

As a parent, you have very limited direct influence on a teacher’s wellbeing, but you can provide them with resources about ADHD and with strategies on how to support your child. Research shows that teachers’ knowledge of ADHD is linked to confidence in their ability to effectively teach children with ADHD, create an inclusive classroom and manage behaviour. Knowledge helps to increase empathy, which is crucial to a positive student and teacher relationship. The Supporting Students with ADHD teacher’s booklet is perfect for time poor educators, it covers the most important aspects of ADHD and it provides a range of practical strategies that can be easily implemented.

You can also give them a strengths based lens with which to see your child. No one knows your child as well as you do, so use that to your advantage. Fill out the About Me student template and the strengths at school spreadsheet to help teachers connect with your child in a positive way and show them that they are more than the sum of their challenges.


  1. The Effects of ADHD Teacher Training Programs on Teachers and Pupils: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis – PMC
  2. Effectiveness of Educating Program on Knowledge, Attitude, and Performance of Primary School Teachers Toward Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder | Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences | Full Text
  3. Exploring Teachers’ Knowledge and Attitudes Toward Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Its Treatment in a District of Turkey – PMC
  4. Do Children With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms Become Socially Isolated? Longitudinal Within-Person Associations in a Nationally Representative Cohort – PMC
  5. Full article: The impact of teacher factors on achievement and behavioural outcomes of children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): a review of the literature
  6. Ambivalent bonds, positive and negative emotions, and expectations in teachers’ perceptions of relationship with their students with ADHD – PMC
  7. Non-pharmacological interventions for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) delivered in school settings: systematic reviews of quantitative and qualitative research.
  8. The Protective Effects of Social Factors on the Academic Functioning of Adolescents with ADHD – PMC
  9. Effects of Teachers’ Knowledge and Empathy on Educational Intervention for ADHD: Focused on the Mediating Effect of Empathy.
  10. The 3 areas of executive function
  11. Executive Functions – PMC
  12. ADHD symptoms and the teacher–student relationship: a systematic literature review


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