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How do I instruct a flight student who has ADHD?

Posted by on August 10, 2008 8 Comments Category : Flight Instructor Blog Tags :

I have been really amazed at the timing of some of the questions I have been receiving from readers lately.  The last two questions that have been asked of me have been questions I have asked myself within the past week.  This morning’s question is a perfect example:

Paul, I’ve been teaching this gal with ADD…how do I keep her focused on a task? I’ve all but stood on my head. Thanks

I currently have a primary student who I have been working with for both the ground and flight portion of a private pilot course who has ADHD.  While every student can present unique and individual challenges, a student that has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder takes careful planning to keep the student clearly focused on the daily lesson’s objectives.  The key is to treat this condition as a strength and to use that to your and the student’s benefit.  Pilot training is perfectly suited to people with ADD because it is a very hands-on type of activity.  The struggle is usually with the theory and knowledge ground portion of the course.

Here are some suggestions to help keep such a student involved and participating.  This is not meant to be exhaustive or to stereotype students who have this condition.  It will vary student to student.  These are just some of the things I have done (or do) with some of my students who have ADD:

  • Use the “Demonstration-Performance Method” The Aviation Instructors Handbook taught us about the 3 teaching methods.  Don’t even bother with lecture or guided discussion.  Get them hands-on as much as possible and keep your demonstration portion short…very short.  They will learn during while performing what you quickly demonstrated.
  • Do not recommend a home study course. If you do, make it a home study course they do at the airport under your supervision.
  • During ground training, use visual aids as much and often as possible. Even if it is simple hand drawings and model airplanes.  Students with ADD tend to benefit from the use of visual aids.
  • Provide daily challenges. This will vary student to student but you’ll have to work harder to motivate ADD students to participate.  “See if you can get a 95% on this chapter’s test.”
  • For younger students, provide constant supervision. If you leave them alone to study while you work on updating your logbook (or blog) they will not be studying when you return and might appear frustrated that they are not learning the concepts.
  • Stop the discussion and ask questions.  To keep this student involved in the lesson and tuned in, it will be necessary to ask questions often.  Not just to rephrase what has been discussed but for you to ask questions in a truly meaningful way so that the student has to think and prepare an answer.  If they know a question is coming, they are less likely to drift off.
  • Don’t let the student give a “rote” answer. Sometimes a rote answer is easy for a ADD student to respond with but they don’t really understand the concept.  Grill them a little deeper to make sure they understand what is going on.
  • Provide real world examples.  For example, when it comes to weather, print out current weather reports and forecasts and have them read back the current and forecasted weather.
  • Focus on correlation. From the example above you can use that lesson to correlate the time zone lesson with the aviation weather chapter.
  • Be prepared for “accelerated” training. You can (and should) introduce advanced concepts early.  Let this student work the radios, even if it is just the second lesson.  ADD students will tend to catch on to concepts very early and will enjoy the challenge.
  • Let the student fly as much as possible. While they are flying, even if it is just enroute to the practice area, provide a challenge.  “See if you can keep the altitude within 50 feet out to the practice area.”
  • Keep the briefs short. I would conduct pre-briefs and post-briefs just like any other student but much shorter.  Get to the point and get flying.
  • Make sure they understand “fitness for flight.” I’ve had a student call me and say, “I didn’t take my medicine.  It won’t be a good day for ground school”  That is fine with me.  No reason to waste my time or theirs when no new material will be absorbed.
  • Stress the use of checklists and procedures guides. You can pre-brief how to do a slow flight maneuver but make them write out the procedures and then reference that procedure guide in the airplane.

Again, this list is in no way exhaustive.   Every student’s needs and ADD severity will be highly unique.  The idea is simply to keep them interested. The other side of this coin is of course, your student may not be cut out for flying.  When it comes down to it, flying an aircraft does require intense concentration for long periods of time and that might prove to be too difficult for some severe cases.  As instructors, we like to think that we can teach ANYBODY to fly but we have to understand learning to fly comes with  limitations…the student has to be prepared and able (mentally, emotionally and physically) to learn.

I know this must be a difficult position for you and I hope that you can implement some of my ideas to help.  I am very interested in learning how this goes.

As always…

Fly Safe.


  1. instructor on Aug 10, 2008

    Irony here but I just realized after publishing that the post is way too long for a student with ADHD to read! I wrote it and I can barely stay focused long enough to read it all.

  2. Matt on Aug 10, 2008

    A very interesting topic indeed. Although I am not an instructor (yet), I’ve seen these techniques used while doing research into special education and special needs children for a class two years ago.


    P.S. – Thank you for always writing such well written and helpful articles.

  3. instructor on Aug 10, 2008


    Do you have any other ideas you could lend us that you might have learned from the classes you mentioned?

    p.s. thanks for reading them!

  4. Matt on Aug 18, 2008

    Sorry for the lapse – I was out of town for a little.

    Once I get settled I’ll write up something concise and hopefully informative to add to this post!


  5. Matt on Aug 20, 2008

    Our research consisted of kids with many mental disabilities – focusing on the advantages/disadvantages of the No Child Left Behind Act. While we hit the gamut of disabilities I think most of what we discussed in the paper would fit for ADD/ADHD as well.

    Fortunately after checking my paper – you hit most everything that we discussed. The only thing I can think of to add that might help would be:

    Repetition – Use this when necessary and in a fun way… Ask questions about things you can only remember my memorization – airspeeds, east/west rules, compass rules, etc. While most of us will take some repetition of our own to memorize airspeeds persons with ADD might have an even more difficult time. They won’t sit there at home or at the flight school and focus on Vx-65 Vy-70 Vso-52… The student may have better luck memorizing those types of rules while they are multitasking. Remember keep it FUN and you should have better luck.

    Personally – I feel like my mind goes very quick and I do best while multitasking. ADD? Probably not but flying is really a great hobby for someone with an attention problem. You must train your mind to be focusing on multiple things at once – position, other traffic, air traffic control, etc, which keeps the mind going. Throw in an instructor adding in various questions and going over airspeeds, rules, and whatever other “distractions” as required by the Flight Test Standards and your ADD/ADHD student shall have their mind fulfilled.

  6. Peg Lapham on Sep 02, 2008

    Hmm. Everything in me is screaming “not HOW you should teach someone to fly that has ADHD, but SHOULD you teach someone to fly that has an attention disorder?” I suppose you pass the liability on to that person eventually, but I would be hard pressed to want that challenge.

    Can they actually keep … oh look at that….

  7. Peg Lapham on Sep 02, 2008

    I realize the previous comment may be taken out of context, but seriously, would you address the issue for those who may be uncomfortable with this as to WHY someone with ADHD should be able to fly above our heads?

  8. instructor on Sep 02, 2008


    I think there are different degrees and severity of ADHD and each should be treated as unique.

    Flight training in of itself can act as a natural filter for those who who may not be suited for flying. If you can focus enough to study the course material, pass a 60 question written test, persist enough to make it through training and a checkride, than I would say that the ADHD isn’t going to detract from safety of flight.

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