Managing students with ADHD or ADHD behaviors in cooperative learning groups


Middle and secondary school teachers don’t need a researcher to tell them about the benefits of cooperative learning. They’ve seen for themselves that cooperative learning often results in academic gains and increased motivation.

But the presence of disruptive students in their classrooms, who don’t interact well with their peers, often deters teachers from using cooperative learning more often, says a recent study in The Journal of Educational Research.

Among the questions the study wanted to answer were: Does cooperative learning improve or exacerbate the behavior of children with hyperactivity and impulsivity?  And how does their behavior affect the behavior of other students?

In this study of 22 same-sex triads given 2 tasks to complete, the authors found that cooperative learning groups did not improve the behavior of students with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and that teachers’ concerns were well-founded. Furthermore, those students had a detrimental effect on typical students, especially boys, in the groups.

Half of the triads included one student with ADHD symptoms. A surprising finding is that triads with students who had ADHD were more successful at solving the 2 problems, the researchers report. Triads with a member with hyperactivity and inattention had an 88% success rate while students without a member at risk for ADHD had  a 17% success rate.

“This finding could indicate that when tasks are interesting and performance does not tap into learning difficulties (e.g., mathematics), students with hyperactivity and inattention can make a contribution. However, this novel finding needs to be replicated.”


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Behavior in cooperative learning groups

Students with ADHD symptoms engaged in negative verbalizations, bossiness, off-task comments and off-task motor behavior (running around the room, standing on chairs, etc.) while in cooperative learning groups. They displayed most of their negative behaviors during nonactive wait times, which means reducing wait times (e.g. waiting for turn to speak) might be one way to intervene with these children, the authors write.

More significant were the effects on the behavior of those students without ADHD symptoms. Students in triads with a child with ADHD symptoms exhibited less cooperative behavior and more negative motor behavior (watching and waiting instead of participating) than in the comparison triads, the authors report. Boys tended to have more undesirable motor behaviors and the girls more undesirable verbal behaviors.

Cooperative learning groups with disruptive children are a challenge for teachers, but this learning activity could also be seen as an opportunity to identify students with ADHD and to intervene in helping them develop social skills.

Intervention could be as simple as instruction in or reinforcement of cooperative behavior, specifically related to waiting (e.g. turn taking, active listening, leadership rather than bossiness), the authors write.

Changes in the behavior of the peer groups may be needed to affect changes in students with ADHD. Targeting typical students, especially boys, to encourage them to manage their behavior in the group may be more productive than appealing directly to students with ADHD symptoms, the researchers write.

Interventions should also be gender-specific: Overall, girls displayed more cooperative behavior than boys. But girls tended to “act out” with verbal behavior while boys acted out with motor behavior. For girls, group-learning situations may be a better way to identify ADHD than in a purely academic context, the authors write.

Participants in the study were 10-14 year-old students in grades 4-8 from 26 classrooms in 2 rural and suburban elementary and 4 public middle schools. Teachers were asked to nominate students without learning or emotional disabilities who exhibited characteristics of inattention and hyperactivity and to randomly select students within their classes who did not exhibit these characteristics.

Students who displayed characteristics of ADHD were rated by their teachers using Conners’ Teacher Rating Scale-Revised:  Short Form (CTRS-R: S; Conners, 1997). Using this criterion, a total of 16 participants (6 boys, 10 girls) qualified. Fifty nominated students without hyperactivity and inattention served as comparisons.

The student triads worked cooperatively with no adult interactions on 2 tasks separated by 5 minutes:  a motor-response task, egg drop and a verbal response task, a modified version of Crack the Case (Milton Bradley, Inc., 1993).  Students listened to prerecorded instructions played at the beginning of each task with a printed copy for students to follow along.

For the egg-drop task, the students had to build a cushion that would catch an egg without it breaking using materials provided (i.e. string, popsicle sticks, Styrofoam bowl, paper cup and masking tape).  For the verbal-response task, students had to ask yes or no questions to solve a mystery. Four clues were provided for the first 2 cases and 3 clues for the remaining mysteries. Triads were successful at this task if they solved 3 or more mysteries.

Observers recorded  positive verbal and motor behaviors (cooperative verbal questions, answers or statements and giving, sharing or rough play) and  negative verbal and motor behaviors (negative or off-task vocalizations or noises, ignoring others, watching, disruptive behaviors).

Although there may be ways to improve cooperative learning, we have concluded that educators’ perceptions of difficulties during cooperative learning could explain their natural tendency to exclude students with hyperactivity or inattention from group experiences and also explain why educators use cooperative practices less frequently than they think would be desirable,” the authors write.

“Social behavior in Cooperative Groups: Students at Risk for ADHD and Their Peers,” by Sydney Zentall et al., The Journal of Educational Research, Volume 104, 2011, pps. 28-41.

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