What is ADHD? It’s this weird ambiguous term that we throw around without quite knowing what it really means and how it affects the lives of those who have it.
It stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.
Let’s break that word down.
“Attention deficit” = Shorter than average attention span.
“Hyperactive” = Over active. Energetic. Hyper.
Combine the two and you’re someone who not only gets distracted easily, but gets excited about getting distracted as well!
The dog from the movie “Up” getting distracted by squirrels is what comes to mind…
What does this mean if you have ADHD? What are the key principles that we want to focus on?
1) You have a shorter than average attention span.
ADHD is misunderstood. — it’s not that they are easily distracted, it’s that it’s hard to grasp their attention. Even when you do, it’s difficult to maintain their attention.
Children with ADHD usually require a lot of stimuli. They need something that gets them riled up and excited, and then they can channel that energy into the task that they are doing.
This is why it often seems like children with ADHD are unmotivated. It’s not that they lack motivation, it’s that they haven’t seen anything that has properly excited them yet. They haven’t been inspired yet.
Children with ADHD are reactive, meaning anything that excites them more than what they are currently doing is probably going to grab their attention. OR, if you’re not stimulating them enough, and the work isn’t engaging enough, then they will naturally get distracted.
The upside? You’re more creative — your mind makes connections between things that most people can’t make. You have the ability to mentally jump from one thing to the next, allowing you to create solutions to problems that others can’t see.
ADHD is widely associated with “Lateral Thinking”, which is a prerequisite for creativity. A lot of recent research supports this as well. Just type in ADD/ADHD and lateral thinking into google and you’ll see a lot of interesting research.
I am personally a testament to this. Not to toot my own horn, but throughout the course of the day I will doodle, write poems, write in my journal, freestyle rap, dance, and so much more. I’ve always been known as a creative person — I personally think that my ADHD was a tremendous asset in where I am today.
Building on this point…
2) It means that you have a lot of energy.
You are, quite literally, diagnosed as having more energy than the average person. You are “hyper” active. Overly active. Have too much energy.
So much, that you have the tendency to disrupt or distract the people around you.
These are the pencil tappers. The doodlers, talkers, pencil biters and leg shakers. All manifestations of the same thing — excess energy that is being suppressed because the child is forced to sit still at a desk all day.
I myself had all of these. To this day whenever I get into a deep thinking mode I’ll start touching my hair. I think best when I’m walking. I like to dance and move around while working whenever possible.
It’s important to understand that asking a child with ADHD to sit completely still and focus on one thing at a time for an hour at a time, multiple hours in a day, is going to be a struggle. That’s WHY they fidget.
There IS good news though 😃
People with ADHD have more energy and can work harder than the average person. It’s a competitive advantage.
ADHD is performance enhancement if you learn how to harness it and use it properly.
When someone with ADHD gets interested in something, they get REALLY into it.
For me, as a kid it was juggling, and then hacky-sack, and then breakdancing, and then starting businesses. Lately it’s been the slackline.
Once I found something that properly stimulated me, I would lose myself for hours on end in that one activity. My mom will testify to this as I juggled lacrosse balls around the house and made videos of myself doing Hacky-Sack in my living room.
Once I found a way to properly channel my excess energy into an activity that properly stimulated me, my ADHD would, quite literally, evaporate.
How to Harness It Properly:
There are a few things that help children with ADHD learn faster.
1) Switch it up:
When it comes to learning, you have to constantly switch it up. New materials. New teaching styles. Novel learning experiences. Learning by doing. Getting them involved in the activities. They are “hyper active”, which means that they have disproportionate energy levels. You’re gonna have to up your own energy to stay at their level.
Let them get up. Move around. Play. Have fun. Let them explore. Give them a standing desk. Whatever you do, don’t try to limit their movement and have them sit still. This is the worst thing you can do. Give them the freedom to have unrestricted movement.
3) Incentives — Rewards/Punishment:
The key is not to punish them for getting distracted, but to reward them for desired outcomes. Get them in the habit of noticing that they were distracted and then bringing themselves back to their work. This is the process that we want to work on.
Getting them in the habit of catching their own tendencies of distraction, and then bringing themselves back to the task at hand.
If a child doesn’t know how to solve something, and then doesn’t have someone around to help them, they will naturally abandon the task at hand. It’s not surprising at all that they get bored and wander off.
If we add in incentives for returning back to the task, such as rewards for when they do, we’ll make more progress. Over time they will learn to do things on their own instead of having someone watching over their shoulder. It will teach them accountability.
Sit down with them in advance and create expectations and guidelines. When they hit their approved goals, reward them. If they don’t, they are held accountable. Give them favorable terms too. Something that gets them excited. Remember, you always need to get their attention 😉
4) Create a self learner.
Someone who turns to the internet to teach themselves. Someone who doesn’t need to rely on teachers in order to learn something new. The internet is the largest university in the world, and it’s free.
You can learn ANYTHING that you would learn in a traditional classroom, from biology to chemistry to software programming to data science and more. Don’t limit education to the crappy curriculum they are given in the classroom — allow them to become a self learner.
Personally, I think it’s ok if grades decline a bit at first because they need to re-learn “how to learn”. The truth is, schools have us memorize instead of testing and learning through experience. I believe that children with ADHD thrive in environments where they can learn by doing?
***Caveat — The internet is also the land of distractions. It’s easy to mindlessly spend hours lost in the world of Youtube videos. To counteract this, I suggest creating a framework for self learning. An assignment that is performance based. A deliverable presentation or writing summarizing what they have learned. Or a demonstration of it in some way. If they do it well, reward them…if they don’t, they should already know the punishment in place (linked to above rewards and punishment).
Meditation teaches concentration, discipline, and most importantly, how to notice when the mind has wandered. I believe that children who have ADHD will benefit tremendously from the practice of meditation. Here’s a list of studies that confirm my beliefs. If you want to dive into meditation, I also recommend Headspace.
6) Control Cell Phone Usage –
The cell phone is an ADHD nightmare. It makes it worse. If the child has a cell phone, get them to use it less. Reduce push notifications. Make them put it on airplane mode for extended periods of time. This is the only one I think you should be firm on — but don’t do it without explanation. Explain WHY the cell phone is a land of distractions. As a parent, you should do it too so that they can learn by your example.
7) Explain ADHD as an advantage –
Explain how ADHD is a competitive advantage that makes them more creative energetic than the average person. Rather than feeling like they are somehow not as good as everyone else, they will realize that they are just different. More importantly, it teaches them how it makes them better if they can channel it properly. It shifts their own internal perspective from being disadvantaged to empowered.
Final Note — Do Schools Kill Creativity?
This TED Talk (THE MOST WATCHED TED TALK OF ALL TIME!!!) by Sir Ken Robinson, accurately sums up my feelings on this subject.
In this talk we hear the story of Gillian Lynne. Despite the best efforts of her teachers to get her to sit down, shut up, and do her work, nothing seemed to have an effect on her. Then one day something interesting happened….
Her mother took her to a Psychologist…”he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” And the minute they left the room, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”
Gillian went on to produce Cats and Phantom of the Opera after graduating from some of the world’s best Ballet and Dance academies. She’s a multi-millionaire.
The moral of the story?
“Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.”
This last line is the most important of all — in today’s world we try to suppress the energy of children who have ADHD. We try to control them. Put them on medication, tell them to calm down and concentrate.
The fact is, this technique doesn’t work. Even worse, we’re robbing children of their creative capacity. If Gillian Lynnne were placed on medication, we would have lost out on one of the most wonderful creative minds the world has ever seen.
Yet this is what happens every day in today’s world. Children are placed on medication instead of being given the space to explore and experiment. We tell them to sit down and shut up instead of allowing them to run around like screaming lunatics. We try to place them into buckets instead of giving them the freedom to create their own container, unique to their size and shape as an individual.
If you’re a parent…don’t do this to your children. In my opinion it’s cruel, neglectful, and straight up bad parenting. It should be considered a human rights violation. Yes, I’m dead serious when I say that.
Placing children on medication because the parents are too lazy to give them the time that they deserve, or are too impatient/frustrated when experiments don’t work, is abusive psychological manipulation that will forever change the trajectory of your child’s life.
Give your child the freedom to explore. To move. To scream, rant, rave, and be a nutcase. Give them the space they need to let loose and then let the dust settle. At first they will have an explosion, but over time they will learn to naturally harness their own energy instead of artificially forcing them to do so via medication. Teach them how to teach themselves. How to cultivate discipline and become a better version of themselves, on their own hard work.
/rant. I hope this helps you in your journey 🙂 As someone who has struggled with ADHD for most of my adult life, these techniques have helped me turn disadvantage into advantage by embracing my “condition” and learning how to use it properly. You can do the same with the right effort and energy.
Also published on Medium.