National Writing Project

A Writing Activity to Help Students with Attention Disorders

By: Judy Willis
Date: November 2006

Summary: Neurologist, author, and middle school teacher-consultant Judy Willis devised a strategy to reproduce what learning feels like for those with attention disorders. She writes about her classroom's results and describes how teachers might replicate the lesson themselves. This article received the Association of Educational Publishers Distinguished Achievement Award.


Stupid is what she called me and that is what I am because I never know the answer the teacher wants, even though all the other kids know and put their answers on their papers or raise their hands, sometimes waving them so violently that even if I have a spark of an answer, the tornados their hands make blow out my spark before it can ever take hold and become a flame that would become an idea that might be worthy being added to their conversation, which by now has already gone on to some other subject and passed me by, with my extinguished spark now only a cold ash that proves to me how stupid I am for even believing that I could think of something to say when every teacher has told my parents that I'm either stupid or lazy, and they know how much I try, even if it keeps me up past their bedtime, to write an essay or poem that no lazy person would work so long at, leaving me no choice, because she said I was either lazy or stupid, and although I wish I could say I'm lazy, if that is my only other choice, I guess I have to agree that I am stupid.

Does this read as if it could have been written by one of your students challenged with a different way of relating to his or her world? I wrote it in response to a prompt in a workshop. The task was made easier with the instruction to write it as a run-on sentence. As a neurologist and classroom teacher, I have worked with patients and students of all ages with ADD, ADHD, OCD, and the rest of the alphabet soup of "disorders" affecting focus and attention. (From this point on, I will not be distinguishing between the various attention disorders. I will refer to them all as ADHD. They each have their distinct differences, but from the standpoint of a classroom teacher, the strategies I will suggest are generalized enough to be appropriate for almost any condition where focusing and maintaining attention is problematic for students.)

Students with ADHD are not lazy, zoned out, or ‘empty-headed.’

Teaching is my second career, following a medical career as a neurologist. For fifteen years I practiced adult and child neurology with PET scan neuroimaging and brain mapping as part of my diagnostic tools. When I returned to the university to obtain my teaching credential and Master of Education degree, these neuroimaging tools had become available to researchers in the field of education.

The information is now here so teachers can build on professional skills in the art of teaching by incorporating strategies confirmed as beneficial through neuroimaging of the brain during the process of attending and learning. The technique I used benefits students with ADHD because their classmates experience and come to understand their challenges.

Raising class awareness and empathy results in these students' increased inclusion in the classroom community. This enhances their positive attitudes and lowers their affective filters. When that happens, information passes more successfully through the emotion centers of their brains into the processing and memory storage regions. In other words, when students with ADHD feel comfortable, they are more successful learners. When they learn more effectively and are engaged in the lesson, their defensive, distracting behaviors are reduced and the whole class benefits.

Writing the paragraph reproduced at the start of this article increased my empathy toward students with ADHD. With modifications, a similar exercise was successful in raising the empathy of my students for their classmates with ADHD. The activity begins by simulating what it feels like to try to focus when one has an attention deficit.

The ADHD Experience

Our brains receive information through the senses, and not all sensory input is equally valuable. The brain must sort out the input, determine its value, and selectively focus attention on the sensory information it determines to be most important at the moment or for future use. Children with ADHD often have difficulty distinguishing which pieces of sensory input from their environment are the ones to which they should attend.

They called out questions and made guesses but I stood silently and didn't respond.

Another way to think about this is to consider what attention deficit really means. It is not truly inattention, but rather attention in many different places simultaneously. Students with ADHD are not lazy, zoned out, or "empty-headed." Their brains on neuroimaging scans are not like those of people who are drowsy, mentally retarded, or sedated by medication. In ADHD, the brain's metabolism is often normal or high, because it is responding to an excess of sensory input. It may be wandering, but it is not oblivious.

To reproduce a similar brain state, I brought multiple sensory stimuli to my middle school classroom. There were two radios tuned to different stations. A tape recorder played sounds of street construction and the playground at recess. Candles were lit in several places; I periodically turned the lights on and off; and a bird in a cage was brought in right at the beginning of the exercise.

The students were excited and even agitated with the changes in the classroom. They were not anxious because there was a sense of community and safety already established during the first months of school and they had previously experienced my strategies of using novelty and surprise to start some lessons. They called out questions and made guesses but I stood silently and didn't respond. After one minute I gave them the signal to sit quietly (turning a rainstick) and they did quiet down enough to hear my instructions.

I explained that they were to do their best to ignore these distractions and focus their attention on the math class I was about to teach. There were more questions, but I told them I wouldn't answer any until the lesson was over. I then taught the class a new lesson about a math concept they had never studied that was not in their textbooks. It was an activity that demonstrated what happens when a number is raised to the zero power.

I first reviewed what they knew about exponents such as 3 squared or 2 cubed (to the third power). I taught the new-to-most information that any number to the power of 1 equals the number itself. For example, 12 to the first power remains 12 and 6 to the first power remains 6 because you are starting with only one of that number and not multiplying it by itself at all.

The new-to-all information was that any integer with the exponent of zero equals one. The lesson included showing them the mathematical proof and also a hands-on demonstration where they see how many times they can fold a piece of paper. They see that each fold increases the number of divided sections exponentially, but when they unfold it so it is folded zero times, there is only one single paper. Thus, no matter how many folds there are to begin with (how big the original integer is) when you raise it to the zero power (no folds) you have one paper.

The lesson needs to be one where the students are on even ground, so they cannot use previous knowledge to comprehend the material. Instead of math, the lesson could be about words and phrases in a language none of the students know, or a page from an unfamiliar book could be read aloud and students asked to write as much of it from memory as they could.

Letting Students Respond

Now you can know that I'm not trying to be bad and sometimes everything just gets all jumbled.

At the conclusion of the lesson, with the distractions still present, I asked my students to write a summary of what they had learned. They were to put in their own words how the paper-folding activity demonstrated that any integer with the exponent of zero equals one. To simulate the discomfort students with ADHD often have about asking for clarification when they think all their classmates already understand the lesson, the students were not permitted to ask questions.

That restriction against questions caused more agitation and emotion than even the introduction of the distractions. Students initially called out the expected "That's not fair," "But I don't understand," "You always explain, why not now?" and "Will we be graded on this?" The students with ADHD did not complain about the no-question policy.

Next, the distractions were removed and students were given the prompt to write for up to ten minutes about what it felt like to have that distraction-filled math lesson and then to summarize how they felt about not having the opportunity to ask for help and clarification. They were given an additional optional prompt to reflect about a time they were different from those around them (for reasons such as clothes, accent, blended family, illness, physical challenge, finances) and how it affected them. Several responses follow:

Stacy wrote,

I thought we were going to have some fun game with all the crazy things going on so I didn't really try to listen very hard to the math lesson. When I saw that it was a real lesson and Dr. Willis wasn't fooling around I tried to pay attention but I just didn't get it. I felt frantic and hated it.

Ray wrote,

I didn't know if this was for real or not. Especially with the bird and candles and stuff. When you got serious with the lesson I could hardly hear you and I really wanted to just turn off the noise. I felt dizzy. I finally put my fingers in my ears and just tried to watch what you were doing and see what you wrote on the board. It's a good thing you wrote on the board so I could at least see the numbers that I could write about. I still didn't really get the math and I don't want to feel like that ever again.

Students shared the responses they wrote in pairs, and then volunteers shared their writing with the whole group. I had spoken in advance to the two students in the class with ADHD—just before class so they would not be tempted to tell classmates. They were comfortable with the exercise and my reason for doing it. They both agreed that I could talk to the class about ADHD and they would write how they felt about the activity.

I explained to the class that the exercise was to show them how it felt to be so distracted by sights, sounds, and feelings that it was very difficult to focus in on the lesson. I compared part of the brain to a filter or strainer. I told them that each person's brain has a different filter and some brain filters let in all the stones. I poured a mixture of stones, pebbles, marbles, and sand through an open tube (empty paper-towel roll). Then I poured the mixture through a strainer such that only the sand fell through.

We had a question-and-answer discussion that I introduced by saying,

Today you felt what it would be like if your brain didn't have a very helpful filter and all the distracting pebbles and marbles came in along with the sand you needed to focus on. What would it be like for you to feel like that in class all the time? Imagine if the sound of the clock ticking or the birds outside captured so much of your attention that you couldn't focus on the lesson and missed important information.

Eventually the discussion got around to one of understanding and then empathy for people who had filtering systems that didn't work as well as those of other people, and students began asking how they could help.

Neither of the ADHD students spoke up in the discussion at first, but after hearing the supportive comments of the classroom, they both offered to read their reflections.

One read,

It was news to me that so many kids got nervous when we couldn't ask questions. I know I'm not big on asking questions because I think you might have already answered the question and I wasn't listening so it was my fault. Now I know that there are times that everyone has questions even when you did explain it so I won't be so afraid to ask questions.

He then spoke these words to the class: "I feel good about you guys and it sure sounds like you understand what it is like for me to focus. You have never been mean to me about it, but some other kids have. Just now you can know that I'm not trying to be bad and sometimes everything just gets all jumbled."

The second student wrote,

You probably all know that I go to the office for medicine and that I'm a hyper type. I'm not embarrassed because you are my friends. Dr. Willis told me before class what we'd be doing and I thought it would be pretty cool to have this whole math class given to show things about my mind. I think I'm working on my focusing and I think I will feel better about asking questions now if I'm really confused.

This experience was a cementing bond for the class as their empathy and understanding of ADHD grew. After that, students became allied with me in helping their attention-challenged classmates and were even proactive in asking if their help was needed. It was no longer a challenge for me to pair students in partner work with classmates with ADHD. They understood their challenge and were much more patient and thoughtful.

Students with ADHD often have fears about what is wrong with them that are much worse than the reality. This lesson, planned carefully—perhaps with consultation with a school's learning specialist—can improve their self-concepts. In addition, the empathy and class cohesiveness grows. The power of experience and writing helps ADHD students and their classmates gain more understanding and compassion about learning differences.

About the Author JUDY WILLIS, a neurologist, a teacher at Santa Barbara Middle School, and a teacher-consultant with the South Coast Writing Project, California, speaks nationally about the neuro-logical basis of learning. Her articles connecting neurology and education have been published in numerous education journals. Her book for teachers, curriculum developers, and administrators, Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher, was published in 2006 by ASCD Press and will be followed in May 2007 by a book of strategies for teachers of inclusion classes, and later in 2007 by a book for brain-research based strategies for the teaching of reading. Dr. Willis can be reached at

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