ADD/ADHD Friendly Eduction: The 3 ADD/ADHD ‘Deficits’

If the average teacher was asked what word he/she would most readily associate with ADD/ADHD in the classroom the answer is quite likely to be: Trouble! We need to be honest about this response: Many teachers experience ADD/ADHD in the classroom as an unmitigated disaster. They struggle to control the behavior of those who deal with ADD/ADHD and this very often leads to a severe disruption of the learning experience of every single person in the class. No wonder that teachers would do everything in their power to attempt to minimize the impact of ADD/ADHD symptoms – And Fast!
There is obviously nothing wrong with the desire to create a calm, well ordered and ‘learning friendly’ classroom. In fact, this is exactly what this series is all about! My approach is therefore as far removed as it is possible to get from recommending a kind of ‘learn to live with it’ resignation. I am, instead, convinced that creative, forceful and carefully planned interventions can help you to take back control of your classroom. For you to plan these interventions it would obviously be necessary to understand what you are up against. It is with this in mind that I would like to spend some time in analyzing some of the classic ways in which ADD/ADHD ‘shows up’ in the classroom. A good place to begin is to discuss the three overarching impacts of ADD/ADHD on the body and brain. If you understand these you will also begin to grasp the origin of certain behaviors that you might hitherto have regarded as being as simply resulting from obstinacy and rebelliousness.
The three main ‘deficits’ associated with ADD/ADHD are found in the areas of:
Let’s discuss each of them in turn:
Inattention: This ‘deficit’ refers to the inability to a) select contextually appropriate stimuli to attend to and b) to remain focused on contextually important stimuli. If you look closely at this definition you will note that it does not state that the child with ADD/ADHD is simply unable to pay attention. The ability to pay attention ‘comes and goes’ according to level of interest, self selection (i.e. the child is much better able to concentrate if he/she chose an activity) and the level of external distractions. This is why I included the term ‘contextually appropriate/important’ above. Simply put, ADD/ADHD students often struggle to pay attention in ways that will allow them to thrive in the typical classroom environment. This will happen unless strategies can be found that will foster the kind of interest that will be conducive to effective learning.
Impulsivity: As the term indicates, impulsivity manifests itself in the inability to control or regulate impulses. In practice this means that children with ADD/ADHD struggle to exhibit age appropriate restraint in terms of behavior and/or speech. It means that the individual has difficulty properly controlling or regulating impulses. This can result in behavior that range from annoying (constantly speaking out of turn) to downright dangerous (running across a busy street during a school trip). Helping children to respond appropriately to impulses will certainly be a large part of your efforts to create an ADD/ADHD friendly classroom.
Hyperactivity: The hyperactivity associated with ADD/ADHD can most easily be seen in extremes of physical movement. Children with hyperactivity will move constantly and in a poorly directed and driven way. This manifests itself in fidgeting, squirming and the inability to sit still. This is perhaps the aspect of ADD/ADHD that gets children with the condition in the traditional classroom into the most trouble. In most classrooms the exhortation to ‘sit still’ is so important that it is almost as if it is written in golden letters above the blackboard! The design of an ADD/ADHD friendly classroom should therefore include a) strategies to help ADD/ADHD children to channel the constant urge to move about in productive way and/or b) strategies to foster learning in an environment where the absolute lack of ‘undesirable’ movement is not such an absolute value. Achieving either or both of these objectives would obviously be rather difficult but we will discuss some ways in which this can indeed be done as we go along.
The three ‘deficits’ discussed above provide us with an overarching general framework for understanding the basic impacts of ADD/ADHD. As a teacher you are, however, not dealing with generalities but with very specific problems that bedevil the classroom experience for everyone and that you want to sort out pronto! Next week I will discuss how the general deficits are linked with specific behaviors. This will, in the end, help us to chart an effective course towards dealing with these behaviors in a way that does not merely attempt to stick a band-aid on but that will take the complex interconnection of the three central deficits into account. See you next week!