ADHD or highly spirited?

What are ADD and ADHD? How do they differ from high activity within a normal range, or easy distractibility? And how should they be treated?

There is enormous controversy around the world, ranging from those who believe that children should be drugged and expected to conform, to those who encourage them to express feelings and be themselves, and those who believe ADD does not exist: that children simply need more boundaries and discipline.

Clearly ADD and ADHD can be serious problems which, in a small minority of children, can be treated successfully with a carefully controlled environment and drugs. But this should only be after extensive testing by qualified psychiatrists, and with continual and careful monitoring. Read the book ‘Right-brained Children in a Left-brained World’ by J Freed and L Parsons for more detailed descriptions of these syndromes. If you are dubious about drugs such as Ritalin, you can read an extensive report on the dangers.

Disruptive children

But what of a child who is disruptive or over-emotional? What of a child who cannot concentrate on schoolwork, or who distracts other children? The traditional approach is to punish such a child – or, more recently, to try rewarding positive behaviour in the hope of modifying the child’s attitude.

However, Alfie Kohn’s book ‘Punished by Rewards’ (among others) suggests that rewarding behaviour is almost as bad as punishment. The reason is that it destroys a child’s intrinsic motivation and teaches him to behave in certain ways simply to please other people. Behaviour modification, no matter how gentle it might seem, may be acceptable occasionally. But it is a dangerous way treating a child long-term. If it ‘works’, what actually happens is that it coerces the child into repressing his feelings and acting in ways that are likely to cause internal stress. If it doesn’t work, it is likely to make him feel rebellious and unloved.

Problems in the classroom

In a classroom environment with thirty or more other children, there is little that can be done for a child who is unable to keep still and concentrate. The teacher cannot spend more time with this child than with the rest of the class – and if statistics are to be trusted, we should expect at least three easily distractible children in every classroom. A child with ADD, or with a distractible personality, is actually unable to avoid hearing whispering, clocks ticking, traffic passing, or workmen outside. Every time the teacher speaks to another child, he will probably lose track of what he was doing.

Moreover, such children are often extremely bright, and find repetitive worksheets or drill intensely boring. An excellent book which describes the problems of such children, known as ‘highly spirited’, ┬áis ‘Raising Your Spirited Child’ by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. If your child is intense, distractible, or highly sensitive to sensory stimulation, this book will probably change your life – or at least your approach to your child.

Home education for a spirited child

If your child is in this situation, consider home education if you possibly can. Parents of highly active or distractible children may heave a sigh of relief when their offspring go to school, and feel that they couldn’t cope with having them around all day, let alone teaching them anything. But you are likely to find that the reverse is true. Suddenly life will become less stressful, as you let your child be who he is – able to run around and use up his energy in constructive ways rather than having to sit still for long periods.

At home, he can relax in his own environment, and you can ensure the distractions are at a minimum. You can help him to learn in the ways that suit his style, at times when he is most eager to learn. You can channel his curiosity and answer his questions, and give him as much time as he needs to finish whatever he is working on, as well as the reassurance that he can be himself.

Short teaching sessions

If you want to give your child some formal teaching, try to make sure each session is no longer than ten minutes at a time to start with; shorter still if his concentration is wandering. You will probably need to find workbooks which are less colourful than those traditionally intended for young children, or he will be distracted by the pictures and bright text. It may be easiest to create your own in a plain single-coloured font on white paper – you will need to experiment with this and see what works. But never insist on drill or repetition of something which your child already understands. Follow his interests primarily, and give him lots of love.

If you have a young child, it doesn’t matter when he learns to read: he’s most likely to enjoy reading if he learns when he is inwardly motivated, not because of some pre-defined expectations. In the meantime you can read to him for as long as he wants, on whatever topics you both enjoy. See the page on reading aloud for more on this topic.

Children’s input into learning

For older children, encourage their input into each day, suggestions of projects which they can work on in their own time, research which they can do in their own way. Let them know that they are special, and that you love them, no matter what they do. Many children with these traits are highly creative and will enjoy working with their hands on arts and crafts, or practical work. Others have strong imaginations and like nothing better than to write stories, or compose music.

Most children will benefit from home education, even if only for a year or two. For some parents it isn’t possible or desirable, and of course some children love being in school and thrive there. But when a child has ADD or ADHD, home education can make an incredible difference.

Further reading:

Personality types in children
Parenting books
Parenting theories
Discipline – to spank or not?
What motivates your child?
Is your child a TV addict?
Understanding temperament