“Has trouble concentrating” and “does not work up to potential” found their way home on many of my report cards. I’m guessing I would have been diagnosed with ADD if there had been such a thing way back then. My stepson was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) when he was in elementary school. His mother and I chose not to treat him with medication. Until he found a school that really challenged him in every way (in this case, a Sudbury school, run by the students and staff, no grades, grade levels or formal classes), he struggled mightily but was floundering. He’s 27 now, and still an excited, lifelong learner. Though his attention may wander, that wandering leads him to growth and development. His deficit has simply become part of his learning energy.
Perhaps this issue can be approached from a practical rather than clinical perspective. Maybe what appears as attention deficit also has something to do with our schools, not just with our students.
First, more students are bored than over-challenged. Too much of classroom teaching and training (including classes for tall children, aka. adults) still slogs along in lecture, teacher-in-charge, focus on the correct answer, sit still and listen. Adults are better at hiding their boredom—we may well see more evidence of attention deficit among children because they are less practiced at maintaining a façade of interest!
Our default setting is to discover and explore, and that’s what we do without the barriers that prevent it. You don’t see much evidence of attention deficit on the playground, right? When we make our classrooms more usefully chaotic, give students lots of things to do, and let them learn in their own style, at their own pace, and give them opportunities to build learning relationships among themselves, their attention gets fired up toward learning rather than acting out. They will rise to the occasion. And after all, the root word for education means “to bring forth,” not “to put into.” Bringing forth is an activity, sitting and being talked at is not.
In addition, there is lots of research indicating we can mitigate attention deficit through programs involving meditation rather than medication. Several studies in mindfulness skill building nationwide have shown promising results in not only reducing acting out, but in increased learning retention and even benefits in socialization—partnering more effectively with other children.
Finally, we instructors (and parents) can be aware of our own attention deficit. By that I mean we can pay much closer attention to the different styles of our learners. Most classrooms still resemble factories, one size fits all. We know that every human learns differently. Some are strongly visual, some more kinesthetic, or auditory. Some of us are introverts, most comfortable with time alone to process; others are more extraverted and gravitate toward groups. We need to do our homework about how to spot these differences and design learning to attach to all children’s preferences, essential for involved learning.
Mac Bogert is the founder of AZA Learning, which provides leadership coaching and learning-design support to 200 clients nationwide. His latest publication is “Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education.” The book explores the disconnect between what schools do and how people learn. In it, Bogert suggests concrete steps to remove barriers to learning in schools and training centers.