I’ve always thought of ADHD as a context-specific disorder. What are considered talents in one setting — such as high energy, creativity, and the ability to make brilliant cognitive leaps — are considered deficits in other settings, particularly traditional school settings, where students are required to sit silently for long periods of time, engaged in teacher-led tasks.
If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching Sir Kenneth Robinson’s address to the RSA, in which he contends that diagnosis of ADHD is on the rise because schools are failing to meet the needs of 21st century learners.
Beyond the mismatch between students’ needs and the structure of schools, I’ve been learning about the many other causes for ADHD-like behavior. In her blog, Tech Transformations, Maggie Hos-McGrane summarizes the many factors, from diet to sleep to stress, that can cause students to be hyperactive, impulsive, or inattentive.
So what’s a classroom teacher to do?
First — even within the constraints of traditional school settings — we have to engage students in exciting, collaborative, and student-led learning using 21st century tools.
Second, we have to be partners with parents. When students have behavior problems, I try to share my observations with parents without any pretense that I have all the answers. Together, we look at the whole child, try to understand all of the factors that may be contributing to their difficulties, and problem-solve. When the possibility of ADHD comes up, I find it helpful to say, “We’re not talking about medicating your child.” There is a strong perception here in the Northeast United States that schools want to medicate away behavior problems, and I want parents to know that’s not where I’m coming from.
Third, we have to make accommodations in school that lower children’s stress and increase their focus, from providing them with standing work spaces to giving them ample “motor breaks” throughout the school day. These strategies help both in the short-term (in elementary school) and in the long-term (middle and high school and beyond) as children grow into more self-aware people who have the power to modify their habits and work environments to fit their needs.
In Part 2 of this post, I share my husband’s struggles with ADHD and reflect on the danger of not providing effective accommodations for students in schools.