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Small classes, individual plans aid students with ADHD

Karen MacMillan, co-executive director of the Foothills Academy in Calgary: At least half of the school’s students have ADHD.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

While any good school should be concerned with tailoring its educational experience to suit each child, large class sizes and limited resources don't always allow for the ideal scenario.

For schools that specialize in teaching and supporting students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, though, this is especially important, and it can be a huge relief for parents when they finally discover a school that fully understands their son's or daughter's condition.

"When parents come here, they've often made this decision to move their kids into the private system because the other systems have failed them and their kids," says Karen MacMillan, co-executive director of the Foothills Academy in Calgary.

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The academy, which specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities and ADHD, has 285 students from Grades 3 to 12. One of the defining features of Foothills is its small class sizes, ranging from 12 to 14 students per class, with a teacher and an educational assistant for each.

ADHD, which is defined by spells of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, is the most common psychiatric disorder found in children, affecting about one to three children in every classroom, according to the Centre for ADHD/ADD Advocacy Canada.

Ms. MacMillan says at least half of the school population at Foothills has ADHD, but the attention each child gets ensures that an educational strategy is geared to each student.

"One of our big focuses is on helping identify everyone's strengths and weaknesses and strategies that work best for them, so that individualization is huge," she says.

Foothills places a great emphasis on movement and learning, including an early morning physical education class that allows students to burn off some of the extra energy that many children with ADHD have. Regularly changing activities, chunking them together and providing clear breaks are other important tactics, according to Ms. MacMillan.

The school also puts in place a rewards-and-consequences structure, so students can benefit from good behaviour in the classroom with things such as social time or personal time on a computer.

To make students as comfortable as possible during lessons, Foothills provides aids such as fidget toys, cushions and exercise balls to allow them to customize their learning experience.

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"You'll see if you walk into any of our classrooms that different kids are using different strategies and that flexibility really allows them to find what works best for them," Ms. MacMillan says.

Identifying each student's strengths and weaknesses, and then building on that, is another important factor, and that is equally important on the non-academic side, ensuring that every student has something in which they feel competent.

"If you're a kid who struggles in every subject, you're just going through your day feeling very challenged and uncomfortable," Ms. MacMillan says.

As a result, each teacher also runs a club or sports team. One student contacted a teacher over the summer, saying that yo-yoing had become an interest and that the student wanted to form a club as a result.

"So we started a yo-yo club this year and that's just so typical of what happens," Ms. MacMillan says.

Clubs and activities are also an important part of what Rosseau Lake College does to support its ADHD students. A day and boarding school catering to fewer than 100 students from Grade 7-12 in Rosseau, Ont., Rosseau Lake has one faculty member to every seven students to ensure students get the right amount of interaction with teachers.

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While Rosseau Lake doesn't specialize solely in accommodating students with ADHD, it does have several students with the disorder. However, the school's Future Forward program, which looks at the learning preferences of each student, provides the benefits of an individualized educational approach.

Under the Future Forward program, each assignment doesn't necessarily require an essay, although each student is taught how to write a well-structured essay, but instead students are offered choice.

"So someone who is maybe strong as a speaker, with verbal skills, which often goes hand-in-hand with ADHD kids, we tap into that strength and allow them to use that strength," says Cheryl Bissonette, student services lead at Rosseau Lake.

Every student also has a teacher/mentor who stays with that student throughout their time at the school. There are also tutorial periods built into the schedule for extra academic support, and the math and science teachers will offer extra help during the lunch hour for students who require extra attention.

With its location on the shores of Lake Rosseau, the school also takes advantage of its scenic surroundings by building outdoor learning spaces, including one in Lady Eaton's Garden, named for the wife of the department store magnate, who previously owned school property.

"We want lots of movement, lots of activity, no longer traditional teaching," Ms. Bissonette says. "The teacher is not the holder of knowledge, they're the facilitator and the guider and the coach."

Ultimately though, Rosseau Lake's approach is all about giving students greater self-awareness and coping skills to manage their lives.

"It's important for any student, whether they have ADHD or not, to understand what their personal strengths are," Ms. Bissonette says. "We also have to help students recognize their weaknesses so they can accommodate for them, and then when they leave us are able to advocate for themselves."

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