Spotting Hyperactive Behaviors in Your Classroom

Hyperactivity is like pornography, hard to define but you know it when you see it. B. Keogh, 1971.

Unless you’ve had a hyperactive child in your classroom, it is hard to know exactly what to look for. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, published by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM III-R) identified 14 criteria for Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. These are listed, starting with the most discriminating criteria and working down.

  1. Often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat
  2. Has difficulty remaining seated when required to do so
  3. Is easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
  4. Has difficulty awaiting turn in games or group situations
  5. Often blurts out answers to questions before they have been completed
  6. Has difficulty following through on instructions from others (not due to oppositional behavior or failure of comprehension)
  7. Has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
  8. Often shifts from one uncompleted activity to another
  9. Has difficulty playing quietly
  10. Often talks excessively
  11. Often interrupts or intrudes on others
  12. Often does not seem to listen to what is being said to him
  13. Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities at school or at home
  14. Often engages in physically dangerous activities without considering possible consequences (not for the purpose of thrill-seeking).

You may know a number of children whom these behaviors describe. This is not surprising: hyperactive children do not do anything different from other children. According to the DSM III-R hyperactive children are discriminated by four qualifications:

(a) they do more hyperactive behaviors; they must fit at least eight of the 14 criteria

(b) their hyperactive behavior is considerably more frequent than that of most children their age

(c) it lasts for a longer period of time–at least six months

(d) their hyperactive behavior starts before the age of seven.

How do hyperactive children behave differently in the classroom?

The hyperactive child you see in your classroom is different from the hyperactive child his parents see at home. School presents a unique blend of social interactions, learning tasks, and structure, which place several limitations on hyperactive children’s behavior. I have presented three scenarios which demonstrate hyperactive behaviors common to the classroom.

Scenario #1–It’s P.E. class and you’ve decided to do circuit training with your students. You set up five stations and divide your class into five groups. You ask them to spend 10 minutes at each task, and then move on to the next one. As you’re supervising, you notice that Wally is never with the same group for longer than one minute. He’s flitting from one station to the next, and not getting anything accomplished. You call him over to see if he’s clear on your instructions. He doesn’t appear to be listening to you. His eyes are darting all over the gym. You decide he needs some assistance, so you help him practise the tasks at each station. Given your individual attention he has little problem sticking with his activities.

Several of Wally’s behaviors illustrate how hyperactive children pay attention:

(a) short staying power

(b) doesn’t follow directions

(c) flits from one activity to the next, never getting anything accomplished

(d) gives the impression he’s not listening

(e) concentrates longer when given individual attention.

In addition, hyperactive children may occasionally lock into activities for surprising lengths of time; however, these are typically activities which they are motivated to do.

Scenario #2–You are giving your class a reading test. As you hand out the questions, you notice Frank jabbing his hand into the air. “Can I have mine now?” he whines. “It’s no fair, they get a head start.” Not wanting to create any waves before your test you give him a question sheet, turned face-side down, along with specific instructions not to start until everyone has a sheet. You go back to where you left off. By the time you get back to Frank he has already answered two questions. You ask him if he remembers what you told him two minutes ago. He whimpers, “Yes, but I couldn’t help it.”

Frank demonstrates impulsive behavior in two ways:

(a) his inability to wait his turn for the question sheet

(b) not being able to stop himself from answering the questions, an action he clearly knew was wrong.

Scenario #3–It is five minutes before recess and Kim is literally squirming in his seat. What started out as restless fidgeting first thing this morning has evolved into a full-body fish motion. The buzzer goes off and Kim races to the cloakroom, putting on his brakes just long enough to grab his jacket. Five minutes later you spot Kim tearing around the playground. At first glance he looks like any other child, but after watching him for a few minutes you notice a difference. While the other children are focused on one play activity, Kim is wasting his energy on several activities, all of which lack focus and direction.

Kim displays excess energy in three of his behaviors:

(a) problems sitting still in his seat

(b) overdrive actions in the classroom

(c) tendency to squander his energy in nonfocused activities.

In addition to the behaviors cited from the DSM III-R, hyperactive children may have a number of related problems:

–clumsiness or a lack of coordination

–temper outbursts

–unpredictable emotions, going from happy to sad for no apparent reason

–excitability, especially during special events or changes in their routine

–poor adaptability to changes in their environment

–stubbornness, demanding to have things their own way


–unresponsive to discipline

–inability to learn from past mistakes

–poor peer relationships–bossy, aggressive, threatening

–difficulty playing or working in a group with more than two children

–low self-esteem

–specific learning disabilities

–sloppy schoolwork with careless errors

–difficulty organizing and completing assignments.

Every hyperactive child is unique as to which of these behaviors he acquires, as well as when in life he acquires them.

In an elementary school classroom you can expect one to five percent of the students to be hyperactive. If you have a class of 25 to 30 children, one, or perhaps two will be hyperactive.