Understanding Attention Challenges: A Must-Read for Teachers and Parents

In life, there may be nothing worse than feeling like you’re on the outside.

Old or young, professionally or personally, the yearning to be accepted is among the most natural of all human emotions. It affects the development of our personal identities and often dictates how we measure our self-worth.

Many of us incessantly and obsessively compare ourselves to others: Sally got an A, and I got a D; Jim was promoted before me; Nancy always wins. This human impulse can deeply affect us — and children aren’t exempt.

What Do Experts Say?

Connirae Andreas, an author and psychotherapist whose work on fostering children’s success emerges from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), points out that benchmarks for student achievement are usually based on collective averages, rather than measuring a child against his earlier performance. Without a growth model applied to individual children, it’s entirely possible for a student to make significant strides in learning that are masked by the group's averages.

It’s for this reason that I believe one of the keys to inspiring attention-challenged students, such as those with ADHD, lies in positive collaboration; reminding kids that they are an important part of their learning community. Some educators and parents deal with these difficulties by isolating or punishing students, or by giving them individual lessons that differ from the work being done by their classmates. Many well-intentioned adults don’t realize that this can do more harm than good.

A 2008 report by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) examined three large reviews of studies looking at the impact of social-emotional learning programs on over 300,000 K–8 students across the U.S. Researchers concluded that integrating social-emotional teaching into the larger curricula can have substantial impacts on children’s grades, self-esteem, and behavior. In particular, those children who were taught through collaborative methods and felt comfortable with their peer relationships performed better academically.

Studies such as these support my conviction and experience that separating a child from his learning community does not solve attention issues. It can leave kids feeling ostracized, embarrassed, and singled out, while in the long term it may undermine his passion for learning.

Who Are These Kids?

According to Attitude Magazine, there are roughly 1–3 students with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) in every classroom of 30 students.

If you are a teacher, you know exactly who these kids are. They are the silly-hearts and the dreamers — often with more passion and energy than the rest, but no focus, control, or consistency. Their participation comes in random bursts of inspiration, frequently off-topic and often distracting to others.

These are the kids who stare out the window and sketch the tree — and some squirrels — and a few parked cars nearby — when they should be doing equations. They can’t stop moving, and they bring a little cyclone of energy and confusion with them everywhere they go. They are the ones who respond to, “Who was the 10th president of the United States?” with “Mrs. B, did you get your haircut?”

I know these kids, because my brother was one of them. And that’s why I can say from experience that the most effective tools in helping attention-challenged students are a positive attitude and a willingness to meet them on their level.

What Are Achievable Goals?

Setting attainable goals gives students focus, ambition, and a sense of accomplishment when they achieve them. According to research conducted by the Canadian Ministry of Education, setting goals can deliver substantially positive results in student performance.

Juliana Beegan, a teaching assistant and Special Education Master-in-Training at Avery’s Creek Elementary School, believes it’s important to make a collaborative effort with students. “By taking a child aside and reminding [him] constantly that you care, [he] will feel like you are on [his] team,” she notes. “Ask [him] — ‘How do you think we could solve this problem together?’”

She believes this approach gives students the opportunity to seize the reins and and be a part of the solution, instead of the problem. It gives kids a chance to brainstorm solutions that interest them, fine-tuned to their unique sensibilities and inspirational touchstones. As adults and children work together, she suggests using creativity, quirkiness, and humor to draw kids out and ignite their passions.

Beegan also remarks that, rather than allowing a child’s unbridled energy to steer the class in unintended directions, educators can harness that force by giving students with attentional difficulties more responsibility in the classroom. “Students with a job are more likely to feel proud and wanted, and are therefore more likely to engage,” Beegan says.

How Can School Be Rewarding?

I was playing Go Fish when my brother walked in the door after his first day of first grade. His presence shattered the room like a brick through a window. It was as though light, energy, and happiness were liquid things, and someone had drained them from his body. I saw it in his eyes and heard it in the silence — my smart, enthusiastic, boldly curious brother had lost the passion to learn.

Throughout the course of that year, my brother was sent to the principal’s office nearly 100 times. His teacher chose to approach his attentional issues with negative reinforcement, which in turn encouraged my brother to act out more and to care less. He would come home saying that he hated school and never wanted to go back.

The following year, his second grade teacher chose a different approach — it was barely a week before I saw the flush of inspiration color my brother’s face once again. This teacher managed him with positive encouragement and collaborated with him to transcend his attention struggles. She made efforts to integrate him into the learning community and gave him responsibilities, like carrying the attendance sheet to the office.

She also noticed that my brother liked to take things apart and see how they worked. When he was engaged in these tasks, he was hyper-focused and occupied for hours. She decided to incorporate this understanding into her curriculum by creating assignments that involved tactile problem-solving and constructive, hands-on activities.

As this teacher demonstrated, innovative approaches to teaching can spark focus in even the most distractible minds. She was able to transform dry academic topics into more vibrant, accessible, and engaging lessons for all of her students, and in turn help my brother to succeed.

How Can We Support These Kids at Home?

As I watched my brother’s enthusiasm for learning blossom that year, I saw my parents work to nurture this creativity and inspiration at home. It became clear that improving my brother’s attention issues started with catching his interest. On one occasion, when my brother had a major science project assigned, my parents took us all on a trip to the Museum of Science in Boston. We were talking about outer space and electricity for weeks!

As my brother helped me to realize, it’s critical that kids with attention difficulties and academic struggles understand they are normal, capable, and appreciated for who they are. If attention-challenged children are taught that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and that it's okay to fail, their struggles will become easier and motivation will increase.

As adults, we need to refrain from berating their failures. Don't let them carry their shame around as a burden. More likely than not, they are just as unhappy with a poor grade as everyone else — the key is to teach them to move forward with confidence, and to persevere.

The Cost of Stress

For most of us, the worst moments we endured as young students were, in retrospect, not that bad after all. But to a third grader, a low grade or a frustrated remark on the part of a beloved teacher or parent can feel like the end of the world. And this feeling often sucks inspiration away with it.

Kids who are struggling generally feel stress and pressure. According to Hank Pellissier, author and director of the Brighter Brains Institute, children who experience chronic stress are going to have trouble learning and committing new information to memory — the last thing that attention-challenged students need.

As parents and educators, it’s vital to develop strategies that help these children thrive, which will, in turn, help lower their stress levels.

Keep instructions simple.

The brains of most attention-challenged students filter and interpret stimuli differently than the rest of us. When a student with ADHD sits in a classroom, his mind may wander because he lacks the ability to block out unimportant information. For example, when a teacher gives instructions to a student with attentional issues, the child may sometimes have trouble following them. The educator’s words can get lost in a hurricane of other sensory signals.

Working as an instructor for the non-profit organization Mayan Families, I learned this lesson directly. The first activity I designed for attention-challenged second graders was a circus-disaster, and I learned quickly that my lesson plans were too complex. The children would either lose interest or get lost in my instructions — and the focus of the entire group would quickly unravel.

As I continued to develop new activities, I learned to use simple, straightforward language, peppered with exciting buzzwords like “candy-colored” and “superhero.” By the end, kids were completely engaged in lessons I taught, and it was heartening to witness the transformative effects that being creative, direct, and simple can deliver.

Don't typecast these kids.

Sometimes parents and teachers slip into patterns of anticipating negative behavior, jumping to conclusions, or forming fixed judgments that blind them to the effort an attention-challenged student is making to change — as my own parents did from time to time.

Beegan also commented on this pattern: “Sometimes attention-challenged children are not dealt with in the most ideal manner.” She went on to say, “Often, these kids are treated as though they have bad behavior issues when, in truth, it is probably more accurate to call their problems a disability.”

These reactions can create a cycle that attention-challenged kids like my brother are caught in. Teachers and parents lose their patience or get frustrated, and everything starts to feel like a dead end for the child. The intentions and behavior of a child can change fifteen times in the space of five minutes — so be careful not to make presumptions based on previous behavior or mistakes.

In the end, these kids are not like everybody else, but they want to be. It will be years before they're able to see the value in being unique. So, if you are someone who is involved in the life of one of these kids, help him to understand that his spritely, engaging, quirky little self has a very important place in this world.

Don't listen to stereotypes.

Perhaps most important of all, don’t associate attention issues with a lack of care or intelligence. While these struggles can result in poor grades, it’s critical that kids are not given the message that low grades or test scores — both of which may be a part of an attention-challenged child’s experiences — are a sign of unintelligence.

The goal is, rather, to ensure that the achievement of children with ADHD is not diminished by their learning difficulties — engaging, supporting, and appreciating these kids for who they are will go a long way towards making that a reality.

Follow this link to find additional resources and advice about how to deal with ADHD and attention issues in education.

Sources:

Andreas, C. (n.d.). Positive self-concept: Setting your children up for success. Retrieved June 29, 2015, from NLP.

Barkley, R. (n.d.). The statistics of ADHD. Retrieved June 29, 2015, from ADDitude.

Payton, J., Weissberg, R., Durlak, J., Dymnicki, A., Taylor, R., Schellinger, K., & Pachan, M. (2008, December 1). The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eighth-grade students. Retrieved June 29, 2015, from CASEL.

Pellissier, H. (n.d.). Stress and your child's brain. Retrieved June 29, 2015, from Great Kids.

Setting goals: The power of purpose. (2010). Retrieved June 29, 2015, from Ontario Ministry of Education.