Attention Deficit Disorder is a collection of traits that reflect the child’s inborn, neurologically based temperament. The four main qualities that define A.D.D. are selective attention, distractibility, impulsivity, and in many children, hyperactivity (A.D.H.D.).
A portrait of a child with A.D.D. The tag “A.D.D.” is not a judgment as to whether a child is good or bad. It is just a term to describe how he thinks or acts. While we feel it’s important to look at the positive side as well as the negative aspects of A.D.D., it must be said that growing up with A.D.D. poses a lot of challenges for the child and the family. Understanding what makes your child behave in a certain way will help you meet these challenges.
Johnny, 8 years old, seemed to hear the first instruction given by the teacher but often missed the next two. He had an excellent memory for things that interested him, like baseball players’ names, or the exact words of a television commercial, but seemed completely unable to learn his multiplication tables. Sometimes he had trouble getting started on his schoolwork. Once started, he would abandon it long before it was completed to sharpen a pencil, start on something else, or just sit and play. This seeming inability to attend to an assigned task for any reasonable length of time was quite confusing to his parents, as they had observed time and again how Johnny could play for hours with his building set or video games. Yet it was a struggle to get him out the door for school each morning because he was easily sidetracked. His mother would find him still in his pajamas and sprawled on his bed with a hand-held video game 15 minutes after he had been sent upstairs to brush his teeth and get dressed.
His report card said, “More effort needed.” His parents felt he was fooling around at school and tried taking privileges away to punish him. Johnny had been examined by the family doctor and tested by a special education teacher and neither one found a problem with his attention span in these one-on-one situations. His parents felt Johnny was the brightest of their four children by far, but he was failing the third grade! “He’s just so creative.” they said. From nowhere he comes out with these fantastic ideas! When he gets into inventing something, his energy seems endless, but he won’t stick to any of his school assignments unless we really sit on him. When he’s working on something that is not his own creation, he is a real scatterbrain. He irritates his teacher because he says the first thing that comes into his mind. He jumps from one idea to the next. He just doesn’t think things through.”
Despite the fact that the family doctor and the special-education teacher said Johnny’s attention span seemed fine, there is clearly something different about him. Johnny has A.D.D. His mother supplied all the clues in comments she made about her son. Although Johnny has the collection of traits known as A.D.D., like many children with A.D.D., he does not always display a deficit in attention (he is fine one-on-one and can focus on video games for hours), and he does not have a disorder in the usual sense of having an abnormality. The two “D’s” in A.D.D. would tell more about the problem if they stood for difference and distractible.
A.D.D. is most easily understood as a variation on normal patterns of behavior. Unlike diseases such as tumors and bacterial infections, which produce abnormal symptoms, A.D.D. is a grouping of normal characteristics which appear in some children more frequently, more obviously, and more intensely than in other children of the same age. All children are impulsive, distractible and inattentive, some of the time. Children with A.D.D. are impulsive, distractible, and inattentive most of the time. They think, act, feel, and learn differently. This difference can work for or against them. It’s important for parents to recognize and shape these different traits to work to the child’s advantage, and for the child to conclude that it’s okay to be different.
A: Let’s begin with the “A.” A.D.H.D. is not always a problem with attention. Often, these kids have a selective attention problem. They are able to go into a state of hyperfocus (pay deep attention) to things that interest them; but assign a task that seems trivial or lacks personal relevance (like most homework) and they will often tune out. When recognized and channeled properly, the ability to hyperfocus can work to the child’s advantage, both now and later on in life. For example, faced with an important task, some corporate CEO’s are able to accomplish a tremendous amount of work in a short period of time by clicking into a state of hyperfocus.
D: Moving on to the “D:” Rather than a deficit, what your child is experiencing may simply be the child’s individual style of learning. Keep in mind that “learning disability” is a relative term. In some cases, the problem ultimately lies with the school system rather than the child. The key is to match the school environment and the teacher’s style of teaching with your child’s style of learning. If your child finds rote homework boring, make it come alive and have relevance to him. For example, instead of having him memorize an event in history, develop a one-act drama in which he plays the role of the historical character and let him act it out.
H: As far as “H” goes, there are sit-still strategies that you can teach your child to counteract hyperactivity. Examples are breaking large tasks into smaller bites and introducing a game element by setting a timer for your child to beat. But keep in mind that your child does not necessarily have to sit still to get things done; she can stand (or bounce) while doing her homework, as long as she accomplishes the task. (One of our children learned her spelling words while jumping on a rebounder.) Hyperactivity is a relative term; your child might just be a very energetic child.
D: Finally, the second “D.” A.D.H.D. is a difference, not a disorder. It’s important to see your child as a unique person who thinks, acts, and learns differently and therefore needs a different style of teaching and parenting. In fact, many of the most influential people throughout history (Edison, Churchill, and Mozart, to name a few) would surely have been labeled A.D.H.D. by today’s standards. Instead, these creative individuals learned to channel their behavioral and learning differences to work to their advantage.