George Lucas Educational Foundation

Affection Deficit: Dealing with Students Who Hear a Different Drummer

Daydreamers thrive when teachers recognize their learning styles -- and emotional needs.
By Christina Wood
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Credit: Brian Cairns

My son Cole's idea of a good time is to pore over a science book and pelt me with questions. He'll tinker with an electronics kit or read for hours. He enjoys a science documentary almost as much as Ed, Edd, n Eddy.

I had assumed these interests would make him a great student. I was wrong. Instead, school has been an ordeal. Why? Because Cole will tune out what doesn't interest him. He can get lost going from one simple task to another, and his imagination revs up without warning, taking him from spelling quiz to intergalactic mission in a matter of seconds.

He's been kept in during "Fun Day," had his desk separated from the class, and received enough "Sad Grams" to wallpaper his room. He's been banned from recess and given detention -- in first grade. I've been called to endless meetings, asked to have him evaluated by a therapist, and offered not-so-subtle suggestions to medicate him. "He's not a discipline problem," offered one teacher. "But he isn't paying attention."

Cole is now in third grade. His problem is that he's a dreamer. And he's not the only one. In fact, it seems as if just about everyone I know knows someone who has (or had) attention problems serious enough to bring isolation, medication, or punishment in school. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as a "condition of the brain that makes it difficult for children to control their behavior," affects an estimated 4 to 12 percent of all school-age children -- about three times more boys than girls. Because those children may be labeled "bad" kids or space cadets, says the academy, the impact on their self-esteem can be devastating.

In first grade, Cole's teacher complained that my son never seemed to know what was going on. I shared studies with her about how bright children can appear slow or inattentive when bored. Her response was to pity me, an obviously deluded parent, and to give up on Cole. "We can't make things slow enough for him," she told me in another meeting. When I insisted that my son needed a challenge, she came up with a complicated assignment and gave him a week to complete it. He finished on time, but the school year was nearly over. It was too late, though the teacher did admit she had learned a lot that year.

So had I. That summer, I resolved that Cole's needs would be met at school, or I'd join the ranks of homeschooling parents. On the first day of second grade, I told the teacher about Cole's attention problems and shared his psychiatric evaluation. It found no evidence of ADHD, an IQ in the gifted range, and signs of depression, presumably from all the negative attention.

This wonderful teacher listened sympathetically and took Cole to lunch. She then offered him support and understanding. Cole declined recess that day, preferring to hang around with his new best friend. That affectionate relationship, and the teacher's willingness to craft Cole a challenging curriculum, gave Cole a new lease on school.

But the circumstances couldn't last. She warned me that third grade -- with a less accommodating teacher -- might not go so well. So I transferred Cole to a local magnet school for math, science, and technology, and, once again, Cole got the understanding teacher he needed. She says he's a difficult case, "but I know he's smart because of the amazing questions he asks me."

Our greatest hurdle still loomed: the grueling End of Grade (EOG) assessment tests, which every one of Cole's teachers had warned me he wouldn't pass. He drew cartoons all over the preliminary test, failing to fill in a single bubble. When his teacher suggested Cole be designated ADHD to take the test in May, I was crushed, but I finally agreed.

Cole, however, hated the idea. Suddenly, he started finishing tests -- and earning As. I assumed it was a matter of time, and the fear of an ADHD stigma, that caused the change, but Cole credits the teachers who believed in him. Previous ones "always told me what not to do," he says. The good ones, he explains, "make me feel like I can do anything."

Cole aced the EOG tests, though I don't believe he could have done it without teachers willing to embrace him. Yes, my son is a dreamer, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Albert Einstein, not a big fan of school, said, "The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge." I'm no Einstein, but I have to agree. I know Cole does, too.

Credit: Brian Cairns
Christina Wood is a freelance writer living in North Carolina.

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

ldtchr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work in a school for students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD and we have a discussion similar to your article every so weeks. What IS it, even in our small environment (25 students right now), that creates success for some and not for others? The classes are small, we offer more hands-on learning as much as possible, more individual curriculum/accommodations and teach them social skills and skills to support executive functioning, yet some are still not successful. .... One of the common factors that keeps coming up from adults and students is that dynamic between teacher and student. It's not enough to set a kid up or to act like you believe in them; they need to BELIEVE it - and they need time to get over all of/any of the negative input they've had, or thought they had. It is amazing how much of relationships goes into learning, especially with kids and it was wonderful to see someone speak so clearly and eloquently about it. Thank you!

Dr. Ron Mersch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have enjoyed a 30 year experience working with the wide spectrum of students at the senior high school level. Students across the spectrum of ability and performance levels desire an engaging, active design to their lessons but teachers at the senior high level shift from an elementary nurturing learner-centered context to a discipline-based focus dominant at the senior high level. The learner is left to navigate the new waters without the requisite skills and coaching on how to do this. One answer I have found to be highly successful with secondary students stems out of a line of research by Dr. Christine Johnston with Let Me Learn, Inc. Dr. Johnston's work on the Interactive Learning Model of the Let Me Learn Process can build self awareness in the learner and empower the learner with assistance of parents and teachers to partner with the child for school success. I liked the model so much and it worked very well in my role as an associate principal at a large suburban comprehensive high school, For eight years (over 5000 students) we created individulaized learning plans for success using this model. This held great interest and hope for students and staff. Every year I had scores of parents desire to sit one on one and discuss their student's pattern approaches to learning. Most were amazed by the valuable information and insights this model offers to build hope and encouragement where many students had felt batched processed through school. I have chosen to leave my position this fall to pursue more effective use of interventions as an independent consultant/facilitator of learning. I will use this model as a tool to launch conversations of building bridges of success in a very discipline rich/ learner starved context in this area of the country.

Ron Mersch, Ed.D.
Overland Park, Kansas

Sara M. Berquist's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

what an amazing and thought provoking article. As a kindergarten teacher, I have seen many "Coles" come through the door, and following not so far behind are the parents asking about medicating their 5 year old for ADHD. It seems that this has been the easy fall back cure for so many school age children not only for teachers but parents as well. I do know that many students have had tremendous success on medication, but others who may have lost what made them a special learner. Hat's off to the author for finding that niche and pressing on to give her son the education and learning evironment he needed.

Loren Brauner's picture
Loren Brauner
Parent of 2E/PG 6th grader in Los Angeles

It's hard for anyone to pay attention to material that is boring. Texts are writting to keep the typical student interested... problem is that 'typical' leaves out 'atypical' and they're not interesting for everyone, sounds like they're not interesting for your son for sure. Getting a frowny face for pushing or stealing is one thing, but his teacher should not be handing them out for daydreaming, etc. he may work better with more of his stuff around (mine does) he may focus more if the information is more scientific or focuses on an area of his interest. I've known people whose chidren actually have true ADD/ADHD that have required medication to avoid things like running through traffic because they just had to run, who could not sit more than mere moments, whose thoughts were so jumbled they couldn't finish a question before they changed the topic, etc.... this is not mere inattentiveness. This is a difficult situation and meds can be helpful at times to get through the day. what you describe is a child who is OBVIOUSLY bored with the curriculum, who had intellectual persuits that were more interesting than the standard topics, etc.

My son is also very science minded and so our school literacy coach would bring in items from home and print out kid-accessible articles relating to them for my son to read. They would go out after the rain and look at worms and then he would read about worms on or she would bring in seaweed and then go to the same site for articles on giant kelp forests so he was intellectually stimulated enough to focus on the skill-building.

We live at a time when we have a lot of school choices and not every teaching style or educational theory meets the needs of every kid. I'd feel free to shop around as I did. Be up front with what you want for your child. I visited about a dozen schools before finding one that would allow my son to go beyond the current grade's standards and boy am I glad that I did. The school has been amazing for us both academically and social/emotionally. That being said, we've never refused an assessment. I felt if he didn't meet the criteria for a particular diagnosis the test would prove it, and if he did, it gives me just a little bit more information and in many ways it protects the students from unfair punitive treatment. When my autistic son got in trouble with a teacher who comes in once a week for history for not staying on topic when he spoke, I asked her why she had not read his IEP since this is an area of speach pragmatics that is being addressed and not for her to judge. She can redirect him or ask the speach therapist for suggestions, but not single him out before the class or downgrade him because of it. His

Pamela DeRossitte's picture

Thanks for the info on Dr. Christine Johnston with Let Me Learn, Inc. I will check into it. (A former elementary teacher, out for about 10 years, now in grad school for sp ed. -- so I am very interested in what teachers and administrators are finding. And, good luck with the new plans ~

Troubled Youth's picture

ADD and ADHD are major problems of teenagers that make them depressed and unmotivated. Residential treatment centers are appropriate options of ADD kids to get safe recovery for life long. Treatment centers prescribe certified medicated drug Ritalin which is used for successful ADHD treatment. Treatment centers not only offer medication treatments but also therapies, counseling, psychotherapy assessment programs for complete ADD recovery.

Angela Palmier's picture

"Troubled Youth ADD Treatments"

I'm curious about your statement below...

"ADD and ADHD are major problems of teenagers that make them depressed and unmotivated. Residential treatment centers are appropriate options of ADD kids to get safe recovery for life long. Treatment centers prescribe certified medicated drug Ritalin which is used for successful ADHD treatment. Treatment centers not only offer medication treatments but also therapies, counseling, psychotherapy assessment programs for complete ADD recovery."

What exactly do you mean by "complete ADD recovery?"

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