The information in this section has been gathered from many years of experience, working with thousands of students from various cultures and economic levels. It describes how DISCOVER techniques tend to reduce or eliminate negative characteristics commonly associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD—without the hyperactivity), even when this was not the original objective. Such results are an interesting side benefit of the teaching philosophies DISCOVER advocates, and something we feel is important to emphasize. The following perspectives are not intended to be all-inclusive, nor should they necessarily replace medical or professional evaluation. However, it is clear that parents and teachers, alike, are becoming increasingly concerned about the seemingly ever-growing number of ADHD/ADD cases and are frustrated with the disorganized, haphazard approaches to dealing with them. We are confident that more can be done. The first half of this article presents our general observations and suggestions. The second half describes the direct effects DISCOVER teaching methods can have on ADHD/ADD issues.
Although there is much controversy as to whether or not the ADHD/ADD syndrome involves an imbalance of brain chemicals and/or a genetic component, we tend to agree that in a small number of cases, this is true. And we agree that in severe cases, medication is necessary and helpful (not necessarily as a cure but as a pragmatic aid). On the other hand, we strongly support the opinion that many, if not most, of the ADHD/ADD labeled cases are either a misdiagnosis or at least have causes rooted in something other than simple brain chemical deficiencies. These majority of cases, we feel, can be dealt with more effectively by looking at learning styles, environment, multiple intelligences, curriculum and self-regulatory activities. In our opinion, drugs should be the last resort because they tend to mask the real problems. We are concerned about the acquiescent consent so many parents and educators give to medicating children, when most solutions involve changes in the home and school environments.
We note a frequent connection between ADHD/ADD-related symptoms and giftedness. Exasperated parents give us countless variations of scenarios like dealing with a 12-year old capable of doing college math, yet behind in linguistic or social skills, apparently unable to focus or sit still, always in trouble, bored, or failing in school, while often possessing a high IQ. These parents are usually confused that such extremes can go together and don’t know where to start in helping their child develop his or her full potential. Among professionals dealing with the issue, there is much debate, currently, as to whether or not some of the traits ascribed to ADHD/ADD are just a normal part of being gifted and whether or not some gifted kids, thus, are being misdiagnosed and placed on drugs, thereby squelching their giftedness potential. Our experience shows clearly that negative symptoms often disappear when a child’s gifts are acknowledged and properly built upon, suggesting that some symptoms might not be ADHD related at all. This topic is explored in more detail later, as part of the classroom structure discussion.
We see an obvious connection, also, with environmental factors. Dr. Andrew Weil, who conducts the Program for Integrated Medicine at the University of Arizona, surmises that perhaps “the increasingly fast pace of our society has created an environment that may be too stimulating for many kids”, generating behaviors that mimic or exacerbate ADHD. It is curious that this “disorder” was virtually unknown before the invention of television and that its diagnosis exploded as visual media moved toward quick flashing scenes and sequences that demanded ever-shorter attention spans. It is possible that excessive exposure to constantly changing stimuli might cause some children to experience difficulties concentrating during relatively non-stimulating activities, such as reading or listening to a lecture. We recommend parents experiment with curbing or eliminating television, movies and video games and encourage reading and active play, instead. Another interesting environment-related hypothesis (and we are searching for the reference) by a medical doctor points out that many ADHD/ADD symptoms are virtually identical to those associated with sleep deprivation, raising the issue of whether parents today, given their often hectic lifestyles, are assuring their children get sufficient rest. Furthermore, on a subject that does not come as welcome news to working parents, a recent 10-year study done by Professor Jay Belsky of Birkbeck College in London involving 1,394 children in 10 cities indicated that the longer children attend day care facilities, the more prone they are to exhibit aggressive, disruptive, and defiant behavior by the time they are in kindergarten, regardless of whether they are from a rich or poor family, are boys or girls, and regardless of who looked after them in daycare. This study strongly suggests that parental involvement and choice of lifestyle are part of the equation. Other studies have shown that kids who smoke are more prone to anxiety, paranoia, and depression, possibly because of nicotine interfering with the central nervous system and altering brain chemistry. Drugs in general, obviously, can have a significant impact as well. Diet is a further influence. Check for food allergies and encourage eating more fruits and vegetables, while discouraging sugary or processed foods and bottled or canned juices (which typically are loaded with sugar).
Finally, before discussing DISCOVER’s contribution, we emphasize the importance of self-regulation. There is a tendency to label negative behaviors as a “syndrome”, allowing all concerned to abdicate responsibility when, in fact, directed behavior modification does help. Parents and teachers need to explore creative ways of helping children want to change their own behavior. A common misconception is to assume the situation is static. Children have a surprising ability to arrive at their own effective solutions when motivated to do so. Dr. Maker often illustrates this point with an example of conflict resolution that can be effective with young children. She will bring the opposing parties together and ask them what they did and what was the result of their actions. She will then ask them to think of many other ways the same type of situation can be resolved differently in the future. Adults viewing this process are often surprised when the children impose harsher restrictions on themselves than the adults would have dared suggest.
How Does DISCOVER Make a Difference?
First of all, it is important to point out that while ADHD/ADD behavior normally is viewed in a negative context, it can have a powerfully positive side, especially when the child is gifted. Such behavior, when placed in proper context and directed, can produce incredible motivation, creativity and learning potential. Some children, even at an early age, are advanced so far beyond what is being taught in the classroom that their abilities go unchallenged, leading to feelings of boredom. They are well aware of their natural desire to explore, create and express…and know that it is being stifled. Their minds and bodies are so active with new ideas and impulses that inhibiting activity for too long makes them feel like exploding—and they often do. Teachers certainly do not maliciously put children in such a box. Yet the rigidity of their teaching styles often does. The traditional classroom has neat rows of chairs facing the chalk/white board, providing a convenient arrangement for lectures, test taking, and classroom management. But do all children respond well to this type of structure? Absolutely not. In the traditional classroom children are expected (ideally) to be neat, well behaved, and polite, to concentrate, to sit still and to conform to whatever classroom management style is used. A realistic expectation? No, unless the goal is to spend much of the class time dealing with discipline problems. Increasingly, teachers are realizing that not all students function well under these conditions…nor should they be expected to…and are looking for alternatives. There is a better way.
DISCOVER advocates a very different classroom organization and teaching style, one that requires some mental adjustment. Through a series of workshops, we demonstrate how to completely re-organize the classroom around student choice and multi-level, multiple intelligence, problem solving-based learning. To briefly summarize the process: we replace individual chairs and desks with tables spread throughout the room, to foster small group interaction and teamwork activities. Students have choice in how they learn, and at what pace. There are, of course, minimum core requirements that must be mastered for the respective grade, but all students are encouraged to explore beyond these. Students learn concepts and processes through hands-on themes that interest them. Math, for example, can be learned through the context of music, movement, or reading. Practically any subject can be taught through a context that is engaging to, and chosen by, the student. As you can imagine, the role of teachers in this environment is quite different from that of their traditional counterparts. Sections of the classroom are organized around different learning styles. One section might be for movement and active learning exercises, another, a “soft place”, for quiet reading or reflection, another for art, for science, and so forth. Students are guided by the teacher, but are given freedom to explore which method of learning works best for them; in the process they master the core curriculum presented through the activities.
The result is a customizable classroom tailored to individual interests and abilities, at multiple levels. Student engagement increases because learning is fun and challenging. Classroom discipline problems correspondingly decrease as children realize they are not expected to fit into a particular mold and that they have a say in the process. In this context, teachers often see problems associated with ADHD/ADD decrease or disappear, either because the symptoms themselves diminish or because they are channeled more constructively into learning. It should be noted, for clarification, that in this type of learning environment, the teacher is still very much in control of the overall learning process and classroom management, but in a less obvious way.
DISCOVER Curriculum models further support the above learning style. The philosophy behind the models is constructivism, meaning that students continually build new knowledge from knowledge already learned, in a process of ever-deepening exploration. The models are problem solving-based, too, so that rather than being constantly told the “right” answer, students must derive the right or plausible answers. We have found, again, that this approach results in more concentration and meaningful learning, with reduced disciplinary problems.
Finally, it’s important to consider multiple intelligences and childhood development. Dr. Maker, in her book Nurturing Giftedness in Young Children, points out that children do not necessarily develop uniformly or at the same speed, in all cases. And as is frequently found using the DISCOVER Assessment, a child can be highly gifted in one or more intelligences, yet be severely lacking in others. Both of these situations can lead to behaviors that are confusing and frustrating. A student might score high on an IQ test, which primarily measures verbal and reasoning skills (comparable to parts of Linguistic Intelligence and Logical/Mathematical Intelligence) yet be socially inept (low Interpersonal Intelligence) or unable to assimilate abstract concepts (a part of Spatial Intelligence) or lacking adequate motor skills (low Bodily Kinesthetic Intelligence). The result can be poor performance in school, withdrawal, poor self-esteem, disruptive behavior, or a number of other counterproductive tendencies. DISCOVER staff encourage parents and teachers to look at students from a “holistic” perspective, measuring their abilities in all areas, rather than just two or three, and to teach them how to use strengths to bolster performance in weaker areas. This approach can be incredibly helpful to children, giving them tangible ways to make improvements in specific areas…when the alternative usually is a nebulous feeling of failure.
Parents can make a difference at home, too. With knowledge of the child’s preferred learning styles, levels of intelligences, and developmental stages, it is easier to encourage continued growth and improvement. We strongly recommend regular communication between parents and teacher(s), so that all know what is happening in the other learning environment and so that similar reinforcement occurs both at home and in school. Parents should take the time to learn the child’s areas of strength and learning styles (which may well be completely opposite of theirs), and as much as possible, try to avoid making assumptions about behaviors without exploring what is behind them or how they can be put to beneficial use. Hyperactivity may be an indication of gifted ability in Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence, in which case active learning (learning through movement) is a far better option than medication. Daydreaming and withdrawal sometimes indicates high ability in Intrapersonal Intelligence (understanding of oneself) and can be very useful later in life. The rumor is that Bill Gates once was conducting guests through the Microsoft headquarters, when the group passed an open office door. Inside the office, a Microsoft employee was leaning back in a chair, with his feet up on the desk, hands behind his head, staring blankly at the ceiling. After walking on, one of the guests asked why the employee was allowed to do that. Gates responded, “He’s working”. The guest had failed to realize that staring at the ceiling might mean seeing things that had never before been imagined.
We do not wish to de-emphasize the possibility of a medical condition requiring medical and/or psychological evaluation. But we recommend taking a hard look at the classroom and home environment first, making changes where possible. Even if the child is labeled gifted or learning disabled, explore his or her learning environment. Unfortunately some programs for the gifted still operate on a “more-is-better” approach, loading the student down with more coursework, while still using ineffective drill-and-practice, and large-group, lecture-style teaching, where all students are lumped together. Strive to change the learning environment to one that encourages individual choices and flexibility. Students who are highly gifted in some area need to develop that area like the rest of us need to breathe. Encourage them to do so. If the child is learning disabled, find his/her strongest intelligences and use those to augment the rest. Again seek a flexible learning environment that can be adjusted to the child’s best learning potential. And don’t forget that it is quite possible to be both gifted and learning disabled at the same time—in different areas.
A DISCOVER staff member can provide more information and resources as needed. We will be glad to assist in any way possible.