The typical young child is active and impulsive, with fleeting attention. Nowadays, however, if children display these behaviors in a classroom, they are often labeled Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Then in a curious twist of logic, the ADHD is said to cause the inattentiveness, impulsivity and overactivity. But ADHD is only a label for those behaviors, nothing more.
Consider this. At about the age of 6 or 7, young children who are normally active and impulsive with short attention spans are corralled in a room and expected to sit still and quietly for relatively long periods of time while listening to an adult or engaging in activities that are not much fun.
Guess what? If adults are made to sit for a long time and listen to someone, they too will become inattentive and impulsive and their activity level will increase. The difference is that adults have learned to be inattentive, impulsive and active privately and subtly: they daydream, doodle or text message; they move around in their seat and kick their legs; or they attend to the slightest distraction.
As Michael E. Ruff, M.D., recently wrote in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, “Distractibility, inattentiveness, and impulsiveness are essentially symptoms of boredom with the pace of the conventional classroom.” This is especially true for kids who have been raised on a diet of fast-paced movies, television shows and video games.
There is nothing wrong with these kids; there is something wrong with the classroom environment. For example, many kids diagnosed with ADHD seem to focus quite well on video games, movies or television shows.
Other factors worsen the behaviors that emerge in slow-paced classrooms. For example, teachers often don't pay much attention to a child until he acts impulsively or inattentively. Suppose a child looks out the window or gets out of his chair and the teacher immediately reprimands him, at which point he looks back at the teacher or sits back down. What has happened here?
Well, it's likely that the teacher has unknowingly reinforced the behaviors by immediately paying attention to them. And the child has unknowingly reinforced the teacher's reprimand by immediately looking back or sitting down. When behaviors have been reinforced they continue to recur in the same setting and where school is concerned, they usually do.
The dilemma for parents is what to do if your child’s teacher tells you that your child may have ADHD. You are put in the awkward position of either having to believe that there is something wrong with your child that requires medication or holding the school responsible for creating a better learning environment.
This is a touchy issue that requires finesse. On the one hand, you are your child’s advocate and protector; on the other hand, you don’t want to antagonize your child’s teacher or school.
Try this: instead of accusation, offer assistance. The best way to affect the learning environment in your child’s classroom is to help change it. Because many teachers are overwhelmed with too many kids in a classroom and too little time, most will welcome your help. Perhaps you can offer to come into the classroom each week for a bit of time and get other parents involved too.
Suggest ways to make your own child’s experience more interactive, hands-on and, frankly, fun. This might include activities that are more fast-paced with shorter activity time, or timed activities with some movement required. Perhaps the teacher can turn certain academic exercises into a beat-the-clock game or into a competition to see who can complete the most math problems or spell the greatest number of words correctly in the shortest time. You don't need to be physically available to suggest things that might work in the classroom.
Studies show time and again that parent participation is intricately linked to student success. No one knows your child like you do. Help to make their classroom more suited to their strengths by helping out—whether it be hands-on, or virtually.
Hank Schlinger, Ph.D., BCBA, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, directs the Masters Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in the Psychology Department at California State University, Los Angeles. He is also author of the book, A Behavior-Analytic View of Child Development, as well as numerous scientific articles and popular columns.