Part 2: Teachers influence social inclusion of students with ADHD

Children with ADHD are approximately four times more likely to be rejected by their peers relative to typical children

As I dug deeper into all the things that can change the course of the life of a child with ADHD, unsurprisingly school came up. There is a lot to say in this area so I’ve broken up the information into three parts. Part one focused specifically on educational outcomes for ADHD students. In this article we look at the role of teachers in supporting a critical protective factor for a child with ADHD – friendships and social inclusion.

What you need to know about how ADHD impacts relationships

Humans are by nature social beings, so it’s not surprising that good relationships are at the core of our emotional wellbeing. Many children with ADHD, and other neurodivergent kids impacted by executive dysfunction, can find it difficult to navigate social situations. 

Executive functions are not only required for learning and achieving goals, they are also essential components of building great relationships. There are three main groups of executive functions: inhibition, cognitive flexibility and working memory; and all three operate together and influence each other to complete tasks. 

The challenges that children have in social settings arise from executive functions that are not yet fully developed, rather than purposeful disrespect or malicious intent. Some examples of where executive dysfunction may get in the way of developing friendships include:

Inhibition – low inhibition impacts our ability to ignore unimportant stimuli like noise, and regulate our movements and emotions to suit the environment and our goals. This may look like:

  • Interrupting friends when they are talking – “If I didn’t say it I would forget.”
  • Constantly moving and accidently breaking friend’s stuff or invading their personal space. – “It was an accident, I never meant to get that close.”
  • Reacting strongly when feeling offended or frustrated – “I hate them. I asked them to play, but they said I had to wait.”
  • Impulsively saying things without thinking that can be hurtful to others – “I was just being honest about the drawing.”

Cognitive flexibility
– it’s more difficult to solve problems efficiently when our brain gets stuck on a thought or idea and has trouble processing additional information to make a decision. This may look like:

  • Struggling to shift attention from a topic when a conversation changes – “I want to finish what I was saying.”
  • Having difficulty seeing things from the perspective of friends – “But yesterday she said she would lend me the book and now she’s saying she needs it.”
  • Getting upset with peers when they change or ignore rules – “It’s so unfair, I didn’t agree to that.”

Working memory
– we need to keep important information in mind so that we can relate what happened earlier to what comes later, and use that to plan and organise. This may look like:

  • Losing things that they have borrowed from friends – “I thought I left it at home.”
  • Ignoring game rules because they can’t remember what was agreed – “I thought I was on your team.”
  • Forgetting their friend’s birthday and other important details  – “I’m sorry I didn’t realise it was a secret.”

The statistics are heartbreaking, with researchers finding that children with ADHD are approximately four times more likely to be rejected by their peers relative to typical children. 

Primary school teachers can significantly change the course of the life of a child with ADHD for the better. Understanding the neurobiology of ADHD, how it can present and how it affects students’ learning and social interactions is critical for a teacher. This knowledge empowers teachers to create inclusive learning environments, which are fundamental in preventing students with ADHD from feeling isolated, judged, or having low self-esteem.

First things first – Laying the academic foundations for inclusivity

Students with ADHD can feel disabled at school, and this is because the classroom environment and the education system have been designed for the neurotypical majority. Neurotypical simply refers to brains that process information, communicate, regulate movements and emotions in what is considered to be a standard or typical way. Being neurodivergent, the opposite of neurotypical, comes with challenges because many of the societal constructs are not flexible enough to support a different way of thinking, learning, communicating, processing stimuli and moving.

When a child with ADHD has accommodations and adjustments that support their physical and cognitive functioning, they are more likely to participate, meet expectations and succeed in all facets of life. Positive experiences in the classroom translates to peers seeing a student with ADHD in a positive light. Although most parents are strong advocates, students still rely on their teachers to implement tailored success enablers that foster equity in a class cohort. 

A teacher’s role in addressing stigma and fostering acceptance

A disability is a high risk factor in students feeling marginalised. Hidden disabilities, like ADHD and learning differences, can be harder to understand because there are no obvious physical differences. Instead, students may struggle academically or behaviourally, making them more vulnerable to social rejection, exclusion and bullying. 

How teachers deal with behavioural symptoms that are a direct result of a student’s unsupported disability can influence how their peers see them. A teacher who believes a student is being purposefully disobedient or disruptive will discipline to extinguish the behaviour rather than identify and address what triggers the child’s response. Over time, peers begin to form a narrative based on what they observe in the classroom and start to associate students who have trouble meeting expectations with negative labels. This in turn confirms the stigma children have about ADHD and further risks the exclusion of peers with ADHD.

A teacher’s knowledge and empathy is then crucial in how they interact, support and discipline students with ADHD, but also how they educate the whole classroom on sensory differences, communication styles, learning disabilities, etc. Above all, students should learn about diversity from a positive perspective that accepts and celebrates the variety of brains and bodies that make up our communities and classrooms.

Inclusive classrooms facilitate social inclusion

Teachers are agents of change, they have the power to influence, educate and cultivate positive connections. Inclusive classrooms promote social inclusion because it is where teachers model and set the precedent for how students:

  • Accept and value diversity
  • Form and maintain respectful relationships
  • Address and resolve interpersonal issues
  • Support and collaborate with peers

Research shows that being socially accepted can protect students’ grades and academic performance, especially for those children who struggle with paying attention. Peer relationships not only improve mental wellbeing they can also support academic success through sharing of resources like notes and study techniques.

When a teacher creates an environment that fosters positive peer relationships they are also directly and indirectly improving a child’s academic outcomes. It’s not surprising that students who feel accepted by their peers tend to feel more connected to school. 

There is no doubt that parents need to continue advocating for their children, but at the same time they need to advocate for teachers. We expect a lot from our educators because they are instrumental in our children’s academic and social success, but they need access to the right resources to do this effectively. 

In part 3 we discuss some of the strategies teachers can implement to create more inclusive classrooms.


  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
  13. School factors associated with school refusal- and truancy-related reasons for school non-attendance | Social Psychology of Education
  14. The relationship between bullying, learning disorders and psychiatric comorbidity – PMC
  15. Factors Associated With Bullying Victimization and Bullying Perpetration in Children and Adolescents With ADHD: 2016 to 2017 National Survey of Children’s Health – PMC
  16. Inclusive classroom norms, children’s sympathy, and intended inclusion toward students with hyperactive behavior
  17. Competitive classroom norms and exclusion of children with academic and behavior difficulties – ScienceDirect


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