If your child struggles with attention issues or ADD/ADHD, you recognize the academic and emotional challenges he or she faces. Learn why creativity, innovation, and acceptance may lead your child to success, in school and beyond.
Old or young, professionally or personally, yearning to be accepted is among the most natural of all human emotions. It affects the development of our personal identities, and often dictates how we measure our self-worth.
Many of us incessantly and obsessively compare ourselves to others: Sally got an A, and I got a D; Jim was promoted before me; Nancy always wins. This human impulse can deeply affect us — and children aren’t exempt. For children with attention differences, ADD, or ADHD, it’s may be even more crucial to feel included and accepted.
What Do Experts Say About Attention Issues?
Connirae Andreas, an author and psychotherapist whose work on fostering children’s success emerges from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), points out that benchmarks for student achievement are usually based on collective averages rather than a given child’s earlier performances. Without a growth model applied to individual children, it’s entirely possible for a student to make significant strides in learning that are masked by the group’s averages.
For this reason, one of the keys to inspiring attention-challenged students — such as those with ADHD — lies in positive collaboration; reminding kids that they are an important part of their learning community, and not just a test score or statistic. Some educators and parents deal with attention difficulties by isolating or punishing students, or by providing solo lessons that differ from the work being done by the majority of the class. These well-intentioned adults don’t realize that this approach can do more harm than good.
A 2008 report by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) examined three large reviews of studies looking at the impact of social-emotional learning programs on over three hundred thousand K–8 students across the U.S. Researchers concluded that integrating social-emotional teaching into the larger curricula can have substantial impacts on children’s grades, self-esteem, and behavior. In particular, those children who were taught through collaborative methods and felt comfortable with their peer relationships performed better academically.
Studies such as these support the conviction that separating a child from his or her learning community does not solve attention issues, but rather leaves the student feeling ostracized, embarrassed, and singled out. In the long term, this does not only disrupt academic achievement, but may undermine the child’s passion for learning.
Who Are These Kids?
According to ADDitude Magazine, there are roughly 1–3 students with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) in every classroom of 30 students.
If you are a teacher, you know exactly who these kids are. They are the class clowns, silly-hearts, and dreamers — often with more passion and energy than the rest, but no focus, control, or consistency. Their participation comes in random bursts of inspiration, frequently off-topic, and often distracting to others.
These are the kids who stare out the window and sketch a tree — and some squirrels — and a few parked cars nearby — when they should be doing equations. They can’t stop moving, and they bring a little cyclone of energy and confusion with them everywhere they go. They are the ones who respond to, “Who was the 10th president of the United States?” with “Mrs. B, did you get your haircut?”
While it can be a challenge for parents and teachers to meet such children where they are, one of the most effective tools for helping attention-challenged students succeed is a positive, patient, and understanding attitude.
How Can School Be More Rewarding?
I was playing Go Fish when my brother walked in the door after his first day of first grade. His presence shattered the room like a brick through a window. It was as though light, energy, and happiness were liquid things, and someone had drained them from his body. I saw it in his eyes and heard it in the silence — my smart, enthusiastic, boldly curious brother had lost the passion to learn.
Throughout the course of that year, my brother was sent to the principal’s office nearly 100 times. His teacher chose to approach his attention issues with negative reinforcement, which in turn encouraged my brother to act out more and to care less. He would come home saying that he hated school and never wanted to go back.
The following year, his second grade teacher chose a different approach; it was barely a week before I saw the flush of inspiration color my brother’s face once again. This teacher managed him with positive encouragement, and collaborated with him to transcend his attention struggles. She made efforts to integrate him into the learning community, and gave him responsibilities such as carrying the attendance sheet to the office.
She also noticed that my brother liked to take things apart and see how they worked. When he was engaged in these tasks, he was hyper-focused and occupied for hours. She decided to incorporate this understanding into her curriculum by creating assignments that involved tactile problem-solving and constructive, hands-on activities.
As this teacher demonstrated, innovative approaches to teaching can spark focus in even the most distractible minds. She was able to transform dry academic topics into more vibrant, accessible, and engaging lessons for all of her students, and, in turn, she helped my brother to succeed.
How Can We Support These Kids at Home?
As I watched my brother’s enthusiasm for learning blossom that year, I saw my parents work to nurture this creativity and inspiration at home. It became clear that improving my brother’s attention issues started with catching his interest. On one occasion, when my brother had a major science project assigned, my parents took us all on a trip to the Museum of Science in Boston. We were talking about outer space and electricity for weeks!
It’s critical that kids with attention difficulties and academic struggles understand they are normal, capable, and appreciated for who they are. If attention-challenged children are taught that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and that it’s okay to fail, their struggles will become easier and motivation will increase.
As adults, we need to refrain from berating their failures. Don’t let them carry their shame around as a burden. It’s likely that they are just as unhappy with a poor grade as everyone else is. The key is to teach them to move forward with confidence, and to persevere.
The Cost of Stress
For most of us, the worst moments we endured as young students were, in retrospect, not all that bad. But to a third grader, a low grade or a frustrated remark on the part of a beloved teacher or parent can feel like the end of the world. And this feeling often sucks inspiration away with it.
Kids who are struggling generally feel stress and pressure. According to Hank Pellissier, author and director of the Brighter Brains Institute, children who experience chronic stress are going to have trouble learning and committing new information to memory. This is the last thing that attention-challenged students need.
As parents and educators, it’s vital to develop strategies that help these children thrive. This will, in turn, help lower their stress levels.
Don’t Assume the Worst.
Sometimes parents and teachers slip into patterns of anticipating negative behavior, jumping to conclusions, or forming fixed judgments that blind them to the effort an attention-challenged student is making.
These reactions can create a cycle that is hard for students to break. Teachers and parents lose their patience or get frustrated, and everything starts to feel like a dead end for the child. The intentions and behavior of a child can change fifteen times in the space of five minutes — so it’s important not to make presumptions based on previous behavior or mistakes.
In the end, these kids are not like everybody else — though they want to be — and it will be years before they’re able to see the value in being unique. So loving adults should help such students understand that their spritely, engaging, quirky, unique selves have a very important place in this world.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t associate attention issues with a lack of care or intelligence. While these struggles can result in poor grades, it’s critical that kids are not given the message that low grades or test scores — both of which may be a part of an attention-challenged child’s experience — indicate low intelligence.
The goal is to ensure that the learning difficulties of children with ADHD will not interfere with their potential for academic achievement. Engaging, supporting, and appreciating these kids for who they are will go a long way towards making that goal a reality.