THE DELIGHTFUL CURSE: THE BATTLE OF THE ATTENTION SPAN
(AKA WAYS OF RETAINING YOUR SANITY)
Children with ADHD can be an absolute delight. They see a world much more colorful than our own and it’s hard not to be swept away by their enthusiasm. A few days ago, my son ran from his room (naked) where I had sent him (clothed) only moments before, practically convulsing because he had to tell me NOW about his overly-complex-but-might-actually-work scheme. He invented a steam-powered automaton to reach books from the top shelf, where his object of desire sat out of reach (the fact said object was not what I asked him to get is beside the point). He then proceeded to impart the details (oh, GOD, the copious details) complete with flapping arms, detailed blueprints, and a financial plan, all without realizing his nakedness. He was a snow ball thundering into an avalanche, only interrupted by a brief moment of irritation when mommy pointed out his breezy behind.
I wish I could say I was always a hundred percent enthusiastic during these daily, often charming phenomenon, but I’m not. While I’ve come to understand my five-year-old simply thinks better when his nether regions are free, I’ve also realized his enthusiasm cannot run unbridled all the time (for the sake of everyone’s sanity). No one likes to contain enthusiasm, especially a child’s, but if you have an ADHD kid you know what I mean.
I suppose this scenario illustrates the difference between an ADHD and non-ADHD brain. One of us thinks brilliantly with pants off, while the other can’t think of anything until we’ve scrambled to put them on! Socially, we would label the naked thinker the “odd” one, but when you think about it, there’s technically nothing wrong with pant-less pontificating. Unfortunately, our society’s moral order favors pants. If you keep forgetting to put them on, you’re quickly isolated as a freak, loser, moron, degenerate, and so on. And this is one of the most damaging ways to deal with an ADHD person: mistaking clinical behavior for moral behavior.
No where does an ADHD child feel the weight of moral order more than in school. Why? Because teachers, on average, are attracted to the profession because they enjoy order and goal-oriented activity. This kind of adult brain, unfortunately, is often at odds with the ADHD brain because it functions at the opposite extreme. There has, actually, been research on this. In 2006, using a personality test called the Kolbe Index, Arizona State University requested five hundred students and teachers take the Index. Their scores were then compared. The average teacher tended to work best by organizing, researching, and attending to details. The average ADD student? Experimenting, taking chances, and hands-on problem solving.
What does this mean? Ultimately, it turns what should be strengths into classroom power struggles. If you’re a young child and your way of learning causes problems, you automatically assume you are in the wrong. If you’re a teenager, you might feel a tad rebellious about it, especially if your report cards have been filled with comments about your lack of attention and/or motivation. I fully recognize not all teachers are oblivious to this, but sadly, many are. And this is where your child’s method of processing becomes moralized (usually negatively so). His or her teacher has assumed the lack of focus is a deliberate lack of effort. Of course, I shouldn’t have to point out the teacher is wrong.
Because grades are such a big deal, this type of moralizing is more obvious in school. The self-confidence of ADHD children is slowly eroded away, and the erosion starts early. No matter how smart they are, they have trouble following through, hearing directions, paying attention, waiting for their turn, and keeping calm. When these behaviors are assumed to be an issue of willpower, how could they not feel bad about themselves when called out in class? How could they not feel bad when told to "try harder," when they're already doing as much as they can. It becomes so easy for a child to learn he is different - somehow lacking - when compared to his cohorts.
But parents must remember, moralizing happens at home too. And if you homeschool (like we do) and are also your child’s teacher, you must be doubly aware of such assumptions. So what can you do? Intentional or not, teaching an ADHD child is hard! It is extremely difficult to get my son to listen long enough to learn something, and even more difficult for him to retain the information. What’s the best way to teach without screaming; belittling the failures which seem so simple to overcome; or having an emotional breakdown?
Luckily, there are techniques which do work. Even better, these techniques are not hard to learn, and their proper execution might spare your child years of negative indoctrination. There is a two tier method for teaching an ADD child, and they work for both parents and teachers. The first is Keeping Perspective and the second is Functional Intervention. Let’s discuss them one at a time.
As mentioned previously, the system generally treats ADHD kids as problems. Please don’t assume I think teachers are villains. Indeed, I empathize with them for they are equally trapped in the politics of public school. Such politics restrict teacher’s creative abilities and encourage catering to core measures. It’s my belief that if a student is not 100% average, school is simply not designed for his or her gloriously free brain.
Unfortunately, schools are designed to keep students at roughly the same educational level. Public schools simply lack the framework to foster your child’s unique mind. Instead of a welcome alternate pathway, ADHD children become unwelcome divergents. And because they have trouble focusing, they make easy scapegoats (both for teachers and classroom peers). The emotional burden this causes is dramatic and was evident in our son, Kallan, within just four months of public kindergarten (you can read about it here: AN ELEMENTARY MISTAKE).
If you are the parent of an ADHD child, you are already familiar with his or her unique brilliance. Despite knowing your child’s creativity and intelligence, however, it’s tempting to jump on the negative bandwagon, especially when report cards start rolling in.
The truth is, an ADHD brain cannot be rewired. You can’t fix it. There’s nothing to fix. But as a parent, you can be trained to help your child make connections he or she would otherwise miss. You can improve your child’s attention span by changing the way you interact during learning time. Work on your method first and your child’s confidence will blossom. When he is old enough to recognize his unique learning needs, you can back off and turn over the reigns.
The reason educators lose their cool are many, but the most common reason is that an inattentive learner makes you feel unimportant, taken for granted, and ignored. Second, it’s worrying when your child can’t seem to learn something, even when you’ve covered the same topic three hundred times. In other words, we start to take it personally. We even start to worry our child might have sub-par intelligence (and you're not a bad parent if you admit that to yourself).
I wish I could say ADD children “grow out of it,” but my husband still forgets things he should know, especially when driving. For example: Despite having gone over directions in detail, my husband continues to get lost on a frequent basis (even when he’s been to the same location many times before!) Yet, he can navigate a first-person shooter with ease and remember every nook and cranny! If only I could hypnotize him into thinking he’s trapped in a live action game of Doom…
Actually…that’s a terrible idea.
The most important thing to remember, as a parent, is that a child’s inability to pay attention is not a personal failing. Read that again: It's not a personal failure; not a deliberate choice; not a show of passive-aggression. Consider this analogy: If your child couldn't see because she needed glasses, would it be appropriate to condemn them for failing to read their assignments? Of course not. In that case, the solution is to give the student glasses. Well, ADHD treatment is the glasses your child needs (be it medication or behavioral therapy)! Like poor vision, the inattention of ADHD is not intentional. And finally, the ADHD way of learning is not wrong; it's the system that needs a good spanking!
When your son is running around without pants (seriously, why are your pants off AGAIN?), yelling during an invisible fight with light sabers (for the hundredth time, use your inside voice!), and you’re trying to corral him into one room (where are the dog gates!), it’s very hard not to lose your composure.
Like me, you’re sometimes going to fail to remain calm (okay…many times). There are days it seems like I have to turn into a raving maniac to get anyone to pay attention to me. If you have a similar Dr. Ren-crazy-level of outburst, then remove yourself from the situation to cool off (yes, I have been sent to my room before). Once you’re alone, it’s time to refocus and remind yourself that ADD children cannot help their hyperactivity and lack of focus. It also helps to remind yourself that your child is constantly subjected to other people’s displeasure, which slowly corrupts their self esteem. When you blow up, forgive yourself, but also remember your child is a victim of his own brain wiring, not a super villain genius.
Every day I must remind myself of this, not only for my son, but for my ADHD husband. We're also starting to have suspicions about my daughter. What I am about to write sounds terrible, but it’s my method of coping. And if you find the follow comment horrible, please remember that I'm simply venting and looking for a not-quite accurate analogy. But here goes: sometimes, I literally have to think of their ADHD as a form of brain damage–as if they had been in an accident, suffered a terrible concussion, and permanently damaged their memory storage and activating centers. Despite all the life-changing problems it causes, we don't blame people for accidents that changed their brain function and, frankly, ADHD is a little like that. Only, the different brain functioning is from birth. As a non-ADD spouse and mother, I confess it takes tremendous willpower to chose humor over anger; it takes endless practice to remember their behavior it’s unintentional, especially when my husband fails to realize my son’s car seat wasn’t buckled until after arriving at our destination. Which was all the way across the city. Yeah...I might have freaked out a little.
To wrap up, the most fundamental task for being a good educator is to keep things in perspective. Do not blame your child (or husband or yourself). Try to keep your cool. Remember he or she must learn differently by their very nature.
Below is a list of proven strategies for teaching an ADHD child. They all focus on one of two things: Accommodating movement and capturing attention.
ONE SENTENCE COMMANDS
This is a big one. When my son runs through the living room pant-less, I say, “Kallan, pants, please.” If I say, “Kallan, go to the laundry pile and get some clean pants and underwear, then brush your teeth,” I’ve already lost him. I can guarantee I’ll find him in the laundry room playing with the dryer sheets. People without ADHD take their executive functioning for granted. It’s easy for us to remember several steps for a task, but this is not true for those with ADHD. The more you limit commands to short, single sentences, the more follow-through you will see.
CONFIRM EYE CONTACT
Before issuing any command, it’s a good idea to ensure your child is making eye contact. It may not last long, but asking him to look at you before you impart something important is going to improve his retention. How do you know if you’re doing it right? If it feels like you’re training a dog, you’re doing great. Harsh, but true. It works! There is a caveat to this, however: some children retain information better if they are allowed to fidget. This often makes it feel like they're distracted, when in fact they're fidgeting for brain clarity. If you're not sure if your child is listening for comprehensive, simply as them!
REMOVE ENVIRONMENTAL DISTRACTIONS
As you probably know, ADHD children cannot tune out environmental distractions. If there is a red piece of paper on the ground, it is always there, screaming “RED!” Everyone else can forget about it and work on the math problem, while the child with ADD is thinking about what he would like to draw on the red paper. Eventually, parents learn what their ADHD kid is most likely to be distracted by (this is also true of adults. As an example, I've learned to avoid serious conversation with my husband when he's driving; it cuts down on the number of missed stop signs). Make sure homework is done in a place where all the toys, crayons, and LEGO have been removed. Don’t let them study in their room, where distractions abound. Try the kitchen or sitting room. And above all, keep the TV and computer off! If a computer is necessary for school work, parents may have to speak with their student's teachers for specific accommodations. Particularly, to be able to collect and submit homework assignments offline.
ALLOW MUSIC WITHOUT LYRICS
One of the central issues with ADHD is an inability to stop outside stimuli from invading the brain. As I understand it, there is a constant background noise of thoughts which can sabotage homework. This can be ameliorated by replacing brain noise with outside white noise. You’ll be amazed how far a white noise CD will go. Even simpler, hop on youtube and you’ll find an awesome collection of background noise options: rainfall, ocean waves, meditative chimes. There are also music videos that claim to run on a specific brave wave pattern. Evidence supporting their effectiveness is varied, but it certainly can't hurt to try it out. This simple trick can really aid concentration, but be sure not to use music with words. Lyrics pretty much defeat the purpose of having something on that can be ignored.
PURCHASE A WOBBLE CHAIR
Oh, man! These things are great. They're all over our house. Rest assured I have no business arrangement with this company. I am simply an impressed customer. The idea is simple: ADHD children need to move around, and sitting at a desk is agony for them. They are constantly being told to “be still!” The problem: it’s physically impossible. My husband still paces the house a hundred times when he’s on the phone. When he sits during a movie, he shakes his leg nonstop (I constantly have to place my hand on his knee to remind him that he's shaking the entire row of viewers).
Instead of fighting it, accommodate it! There are chairs on the market designed to wobble while the child sits at a desk. It allows her body to move, which, in turn, actually improves her concentration. The average wobble chair runs around fifty bucks, which isn’t too bad because they last a long time. If your child has any kind of personal action plan at school, discuss the need for him or her to move while focusing, and make them approve a wobble chair for school use. Physicians can write these kinds of recommendations for the school administration. Please see our ADHD -CCS for more information regarding physician assistance with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and other school-related accommodations. I can assure you that I will be on your side!
USE A BOUNCY BAND
Much like the wobble chair, a bouncy band is a rubber band children can place on their desk legs. It allows them to move and exercise their legs whenever desk time is required. They are less expensive than the wobble chair, but don’t last as long. If you have the money, why not get both? And consider its use at home, too. If you homeschool, this might be the trick you need to get your child to sit down and do some paperwork! These bands can be found all over the internet. This brand is sold on Amazon.com. Please check my (growing) list of internet resources and links for companies offering these kinds of ADHD products.
GIVE YOUR CHILD A FIDGET
Ah, thank god for fidgets. I had no idea what these were until I looked online for some kind of stupid wobbly thing my son could play with to stop him from molesting everything in the grocery aisle. I was shocked to discover there is an entire industry devoted to fidgets! Designed for ADHD and autistic children, fidgets allow little hands to remain busy. For many children, this improves their concentration and can help them remain at a desk for prolonged periods. I am particularly fond of desk fidgets like the one below, called the Desk Buddy. These rest on desktops so fingers can get sensory stimulation. They are small, cheap, and are less distracting to other children when used in the classroom. The Desk Buddy is only ten dollars and can be obtained through Amazon.com.
There are two other popular fidgets on the market worth mentioning. The first is the "spinner." These are truly fantastic fidgits for ADHD hands. My husband uses a spinner constantly. It does make a little whirring noise, but I've come to use that as his belled collar (in case I need to ensure I'm alone for unsavory events, like an outbreak of heinie hiccups). The other popular fidget is called a "cube fidget." Currently, these fidgets are driving teachers nuts, and I don't blame them. I can certainly see how they would be a major distraction in a classroom, especially if they're being used for non ADHD-reasons. If you purchase one of these fidgets - which you should - be sure to educate your child about proper use in the classroom. Some schools are now banning them, which is extremely unfortunate. If your school has banned the use of fidgets, they will often back down if a parent has a doctor-approved note recommending their use in class for an ADHD student. Should you find this to be an issue, contact Dr. Ren. She will gladly compose a letter for your school, assuming it's an appropriate case.
These are the most popular fidget cubes. They're pretty fun and teachers tend to prefer them over the fidget spinners.
Here is the traditional spinner fidget. They tend to make a little bit of noise and are larger and flashier than other kinds of fidgets. Because of this, teachers are on the verge of banning their use from classrooms.
WAIT FIVE SECONDS
This intervention saved my sanity. My son has a habit of saying, “what?,” any time I tell him something. For five years, I repeated myself, often getting angry he couldn’t listen to an answer he just asked for! Then I learned this little trick. Remember that ADHD children have slower processing times. They literally have to push aside all the incoming information to hear your comment from everything else. If you give a command to your child, wait five seconds. This allows processing time. Since starting this, morale really improved in my household. Now every time my son asks, “what?,” I remain silent for five seconds. Most the time (~90%) he figures out what I said and the conversation continues without having to repeat myself.
Does this sound familiar: “You have until the count of five before you go to time out!” If you’re the type of parent who counts down to a reprimand, the following trick will work wonderfully. First, announce you’re starting the countdown. Then wait five seconds. If there is no response, start with the countdown. Allowing this brief pause before starting the count can allow time for processing and avoid a meltdown. More importantly, this technique can be used during learning time. When explaining an important concept, use brief sentences, then wait five seconds before continuing on. I think you’ll be impressed with the change.
SAY YOUR CHILD'S NAME BEFORE SAYING SOMETHING IMPORTANT
In my household, I constantly say something to a child, only to be completely ignored. They simply do not hear me speaking to them, even if I'm in the same room. It's hard to believe a child is not intentionally ignoring you when there's no one else in the room you could be talking to, yet, that's usually what's happening: they don't hear you because they're mentially engaged in something else. One thing that's helped us is to say our child's name each time we speak to them.
"Tesla, can you please pick that up?"
"Kallan, how was your play date?"
While this can be conversationally awkward and repetitive, it does make a difference in helping our children to tune in when we address them on the first time.
GIVE VERBAL & VISUAL ENCOURAGEMENT
You know, many ADHD children go through their school day without an iota of encouragement. Not ONE. What they do hear is a lot of redirection, “calm downs,” and reprimands. If your child attends public school, imagine what it would be like to hear how you fall short at your schoolwork, only to go home and do more schoolwork. Schoolwork that you’ve been told you suck at. It’s not terribly encouraging, and it does have long-lasting consequences. My adult husband still deals with feelings of inadequacy caused by these constant criticisms.
Every child needs to hear encouragement, but parents have to be aware of what’s going on to provide it in the right context. If you see your son sitting and reading, tell him how great that is! Did he finally complete a project that was due two weeks ago? Tell him how proud you are! Even better, make a chart on the wall that can track your child’s progress. Use stickers to represent small successes leading up to a big reward. ADHD children are visual learners, and visual aids are very useful, especially with younger children.
RESTRICT SCREEN TIME
The devilry of TV and computers will be discussed in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that TV has been shown to decrease attention span and increase a child’s demand for immediate gratification. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics has shown that the amount of TV watched at ages 1 and 3 were both associated with attention problems at age 7. You can download the study at this link:
This is one of many peer-reviewed studies showing even small amounts of TV time can have affects on children, particularly ADHD children, who are already programmed to latch onto immediate visual stimulation. An addiction to TV and other media (such as games on your cell phone) is no joke. Child who are ADHD or on the Autism spectrum can become as addicted to visual stimulation as any drug. I have seen it both in my personal and professional life. And frankly, Mindcraft is one of the worst!
If you want to encourage your ADHD child to focus, media must go. And that means you’ll have to monitor your own use of it. Watching TV around an ADHD child is kind of like drinking a beer next to a recovering alcoholic. Try decreasing your exposure a little at a time. You might be surprised how much you were missing while sitting in front of the TV or at the computer.
TIMED EXERCISE BREAKS
This is a no-brainer. ADHD kids have to move! To learn a little about how important this is, click here and I’ll try to convince you: CHILD IN MOTION. It will be torture to make your child sit for too long, for both of you. Ensure there is adequate time to move. Here’s the catch: once distracted, it’s hard to get them back again. Make sure there is an agreed upon break time, and stick to it with a clock.
SET YOUR CHILD UP FOR SUCCESSES
This may seem silly, but it’s important to emphasize the need to set realistic goals. It’s easy for ADHD kiddos to become discouraged and give up, even when they’re perfectly capable of doing a task. When working with your child, make sure you’ve set a goal which will be reached during the day or learning session.
Arrange Escape Valves
This is simply giving your child a task when focusing on an assignment, such as nightly homework. Give him a minor chore, such as letting the dogs out, allowing him to move without becoming too engaged in something else.
As a physician, I’m dubious when it comes to alternative therapies, aromatherapy included. However, there have been some interesting studies about the effects of essential oils on concentration and ambient mood. In addition, essential oils are harmless (unless you drink them), so why not try them?
One group of scientists wondered how they could help patients with anosmia (people without a sense of smell). They found a regimen of inhaling certain essential oils not only improved their sense of smell, but also seemed to affect their memory (the olfactory portion of our brains is very close to our primary memory center).
Other studies showed lavender and rosemary had a statistically significant effect on anxiety, mood, memory, and analytic processing. Lavender was better than rosemary in increasing correct answers on math problems, but both improved mental processing times and improved mood.
The studies around aromatherapy are really so interesting, I will cover them in another article which will not only review the current studies, but provide the correct way to use oils. For now, having the scent of Lavender around your child while he or she studies may have beneficial effects.
I hope this article was helpful. There are so many techniques out there for dealing with distracted children, it would be impossible to cover them all. In the end, you must find what works best for your child. It won’t always be easy.
Some days, it will be a major victory just to convince your son to wear pants.
And that’s okay.