During a recent conversation, the topic of ADHD in children came up. “Don’t you think that ADHD is all made up?,” the individual countered. I have to admit, this caught me off guard. My profound and personal understanding of ADHD, the very real nature of it, and the unique way in which the ADHD brain is wired had prompted me to forget that many still lack the fundamental understanding of just what ADHD is. I had forgotten that the need for education still exists, that there are those who still believe it is an excuse for “poor parenting”, rather than the physiological complexity of a brain that is differently wired. The individual I spoke with maintains an impact on a wide variety of families and so I took the opportunity to gently share with her very real information I knew through experience and learning. Following are some real facts about ADHD that will help those who are new to or skeptical of such the ADHD diagnosis and how a lens shift can make a world of difference in helping students with ADHD to access learning.
- ADHD Medications are Stimulants Not Tranquilizers. While not all who receive a diagnosis of ADHD choose to utilize medication as a treatment, it is important to dispel a common misconception about the family of medications used for the treatment of ADD and ADHD. While many assume ADHD medication is a tranquilizer, the most commonly used medications used to treat ADHD are, in reality, stimulants. The ADHD brain is physiologically wired differently and responds differently to the stimulant. A person with clinical ADHD will become calm and more focused when given a stimulant (including caffeine!), while a neurotypical brain will become hyper. This response indicates that the ADHD brain is truly and physiologically wired differently.
2. Children with ADHD are doing the best they can. When you think about it, can you imagine that any human, child or adult, would go day after day constantly feeling the challenges of ADHD by choice? Constantly “in trouble,” ostracized by peers, missing recess once again because work is not complete ( I truly hope that this practice no longer exists, but when I was in school it was the only thing the teacher knew to do)… the list goes on and on. In his book, Lost at School (2014), Dr. Ross Greene, uncovers a major flaw in the way we address such behavior challenges in school. His premise rests on this simple fact: “Kids do the best they can.” And when children are struggling, it is our responsibility not just to send them up to the office again or suspend them, but to find out the WHY of the behavior and to uncover best practices to help that child succeed. Otherwise, we risk yet another child lost to a system that does not recognize children who do not fit within the “classroom box.” And the consequences of that are huge for society as a whole.
3.Typical patterns of consequence and reward may not work with a child that has ADHD. For many nuerotypical children who are developing at an average rate, the stick and carrot method may be just enough to motivate. (Truly, motivation should be fostered within the child, but that is a different story for a different day.) Again, going back to Dr. Greene’s model as it applies to the school environment, consequence and reward systems typically used in PBIS and other systems in schools, may not be enough to get a child whose brain is differently wired to learn differently. Too often, the assumption is that there is a lack of parenting. Trust me, there are many, many parents out there exhausting their resources trying to find out how to help their child function, only to find out that consequences and rewards (no matter how consistent) provided no change. Remember, the ADHD brain is wired differently. Much like the ADHD brain does not respond the same to stimulants as the nuerotypical brain, it may not respond the same to consequence and reward. Depending on the child, the ADHD brain may not have the executive functions developed enough to make sense of such a system. These children need our guidance and direction, not punitive consequences. And a little secret most miss: the ADHD child is just as miserable in the midst of their challenges, too. With this lens shift we can approach the ADHD child, not as a “problem”, but with compassion.
4. Children with ADHD may also overlap with giftedness. While ADHD is considered a “learning disabilty,” many children with this type of wiring are also gifted in the very truest sense of the word. When this happens, we refer to it as being twice-exceptional, because the child’s learning disability is overlapped with their giftedness. Children with ADHD often possess an almost super-human ability to perseverate on topics that interest them to the point of becoming experts. Many times this ability to hyperfocus that defies their otherwise unfocused brain is misconstrued to mean that they only focus “when they want to,” once again shifting ADHD into a blame game, rather than finding ways to help a child learn ways to be successful. There is much to do in regards to providing access to gifted programs for the ADHD student. Many schools require straight A’s just to be screened for the gifted program, forgetting that some of our most brilliant thinkers of all times would not have made it into the gifted program under that burden. Getting straight A’s in school is not a mark of IQ but rather of academic talent in which a student is able to comply with the “in the box” expectations of the classroom (such as completion of work without distraction). Many of these students would find themselves much more engaged in school if allowed to access enrichment opportunities.
5. ADHD behaviors and effects go well beyond hyperactivity and behavior issues. A student with ADHD may outwardly appear overactive and always on the go, but there are underlying co-existing factors we must consider. Many ADHD children have a heightened sensitivity towards correction. While some may appear indifferent, this is often the protective shell they have developed. Additionally, they often lack executive functioning skills and experience developmental delays in their ability to order tasks. Keeping these facts in mind help us to be compassionate towards students whose brain is wired diversely!
6. And a bonus suggestion: if you are an individual parenting or teaching a young human with ADHD, make sure to leave room to have compassion for yourself. Guiding a nuerodiverse brain is draining, so ease up on yourself. When we teach we touch the future, and that is a pretty amazing place to be!
Greene, R. (2014). Lost at school. NewYork: Scribner.