When Kids Just Can't Pay Attention

A half-dozen fourth-graders sit around teacher Claire Borchardt at the independent Woodlynde School outside Philadelphia, riveted by Aliens for Breakfast, a sci-fi novel popular with 10-year-olds. Eagerly, they describe characters, discuss plot, and analyze the story line. Hands shoot up. Once in a while, to remind them to read analytically, Borchardt points to a poster that says: "I read...and I know...so I think...." Filling in the blank after each verb makes reading more than a passive exercise.

Any teacher would be happy with a class as excited as Borchardt's. But for her, it's especially gratifying, since several students have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), an often-hereditary biochemical condition that can be a major problem. For them, staying focused or just sitting in a seat can be difficult. Talking at the wrong times is often irresistible. And some who stay quiet may just mentally check out.

HANDS ON. As many as 1 in 20 students struggles with ADHD. Many find school so alienating and dull that they fail. They may turn off teachers and students with rambunctious, inappropriate behavior. Their impulsiveness can get them in trouble at home, on the job, or with the law. The latest high-profile sufferer is Michael Fay, the teen caned for vandalism in Singapore.

But ADHD doesn't condemn kids to gloomy fates. Savvy educational and child-rearing methods, plus such medications as Ritalin, can make huge differences. Unless major learning disabilities pop up, most ADHD kids, properly handled, manage fine in regular classrooms. Some researchers say many of the approaches for ADHD kids serve all students.

Still, specific techniques are needed. Tedious lectures, for instance, guarantee disruption or inattention by ADHD kids. "They need to be involved as responders and thinkers, not as passive receptacles of information," says Sydney Zentall, a special-education professor at Purdue University. So at Woodlynde, kids don't just hear a lecture about China. They learn a little Chinese, make Chinese costumes for a play, visit Philadelphia's Chinatown.

ADHD kids fare best in small classes, with lots of personal attention. To avoid embarrassing them, teachers can use signals to keep control, such as finger snaps or color-coded cards (e.g., red for quiet). High-interest subjects, such as reading, should be alternated with less-intriguing work. But a routine is essential, since ADHD kids have a hard time with change. An educator's manual from Plantation (Fla.)-based advocacy group Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders (ChADD) advises teachers to post schedules in the same place every day, with lots of advance notice on changes.

Life with an ADHD child doesn't have to be chaos. Parents complain of kids who play too loudly, get overly frustrated, break things, or put themselves in danger by, say, hanging out a window. These problems can be managed. More than anything, kids with ADHD need clear rules. Rewards for proper behavior--with plenty of praise--and penalties for misbehavior must come swiftly. Since these kids have trouble delaying gratification, some experts advise putting allowance money in a jar, then gradually adding for good behavior and taking away for bad, handing the child the total at week's end. Commands should be positive: tell the child to eat dinner, for instance, not to not watch TV when the family is at the table.

SUPPORT. Parents and teachers need to keep cool heads, ignore small problems, and understand the ailment. Utah psychologist Sam Goldstein distinguishes between incompetence and noncompliance. The child may not be able, or competent, to control dinnertime fidgeting. "But standing there defiantly, saying 'Make my day' is noncompliance and ought to be punished," he says.

Blame and criticism are out. Already, experts say, 80% of interactions between ADHD children and adults are negative. The result: poor self-esteem and a spiral of failure that may never let up. With a healthier approach, ADHD kids may turn their restlessness into an asset, growing up to be lively adults that others gravitate to. Parenting classes through groups such as ChADD (305 587-3700) can help everyone--especially the kids.


-- Attention Deficit Disorder and Learning Disabilities: Realities, Myths and Controversial Treatments, by Barbara D. Ingersoll and Sam Goldstein ($12.95, Doubleday)

-- CompuServe Information Services, ADD Forum--Subscribers enter GO ADD

-- It's Just Attention Disorder: A Video Guide for Kids, $89.95, Sam and Michael Goldstein, Neurology, Learning & Behavior Center, 230 South 500 East, Suite 100, Salt Lake City, Utah 84102, 801 5321484

-- Maybe You Know My Kid, by Mary Fowler ($12.95, Birch Lane Press)

-- Putting on the Brakes: Young People's Guide to Understanding Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), by Patricia O. Quinn and Judith M. Stern ($8.95, Magination Press)


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