Tuesday, February 23, 2010

ADHD Anecdote--From a teacher's perspective

High angle view of students sitting in a classroom

As a junior high teacher, a lot of one's time is spent controlling the room. Finding the perfect balance between strict and "cool" (always favoring strict over "cool" is the way, fyi, but this ain't a teaching blog, so I won't expound) is not an easy thing to achieve when you're standing in front of that sea of faces.

It was always amazing to me how one student--one kid--had the power to completely change a room. There were certain classes where I had one student I dreaded to see--not because I didn't like him or her, but because with that student in the room, the net learning achieved in the classroom diminished dramatically.

In other words, a lot of a teacher's job is crowd control. It's taking the big personalities, squashing them effectively into obedience enough that information can be shared with the masses, and then after all that is said and done, it is assessment in order to re-evaluate your material.

Because of this, when there is a student who truly has the hyperactive subtype of ADHD (and trust me, as a teacher you begin to tell a distinct difference between correct diagnoses and bogus diagnoses--the ones that really have it, poor kids, very genuinely cannot control themselves or their impulses), much of that teacher's time is spent corralling that one kid. It's not fair. It's not right. It's not cool. But it is reality. And it's not the kid's fault. And it is necessary in order for learning to happen at all on a broader scale.

I remember, midway through the school year one year, getting a new student into one of my favorite, hardest working, most obedient classes. I had long heard the stories about this kid. He was big and intimidating to some of the teachers. He was loud. He was belligerent. And other kids loved him and his rowdiness.

When he came into my class, I was prepared. I had him sit in the front row in the corner, where I could have total access to him. I was not going to let him bulldoze the entire classroom experience.

I remember spending the entire first period he was in the room standing literally by his side the entire class. Every time he turned to say something to someone else, I motioned for him to turn back around, standing directly over him. I lectured like that the entire period, trying to not let it distract as much as I could. While it felt a little over-the-top, my ploy worked, and we got through the class having covered all the material.

Several weeks in, I had him somewhat trained. Some days were still bad. One day in particular, I turned to him and said "before you got here, this class was able to learn great things without interruption. When you monopolize my time like this, you take away my ability to teach all the other 30 kids in this room, and frankly, you just aren't that important." Then I sent him down to the office (which is actually not a really great thing to do as a teacher, so I did it very, very rarely.) My message to him was: you are not the center of the universe, and my job is not to babysit you. It is to teach the entire class. As time passed, the message was understood, and my relentless discipline made some headway. The class was never the same as it had once been. But learning did take place, and much more often than not, he didn't dominate the room at all (which left to his own devices, he would have.)

The thing that chagrins me, though, is that now, several years later, he is the kid I remember. I have vague recollections of a few of the kids in that group--I more just remember the good feeling I got with them. They were a good class. But, besides him, the rest have already vanished into the ether of my memory.

So, what if there was a student in that class, on those days that I was so entirely focused on controlling this kid's behavior so that I could access the attention of the largest number of students possible, who was sitting near the back, unable to focus on anything I was saying? What if there was a student, a girl perhaps, who wasn't failing, but wasn't doing great nor reaching her intellectual potential? Who was really bright, made good comments, but didn't consistently get her work done because she couldn't focus on it? A girl who had the inattentive subtype of ADHD, but wasn't receiving the help she needed?

The fact is, I bet my bottom dollar this kind of thing happened in my teaching career. And that sucks.

What does this mean? Honestly, I don't have the answer here. I mean, I think people need to be more aware in general of this issue, and of the prevalence of students (especially girls) who have ADHD-I and fall between the cracks in our educational system. I think parents need to be educated and pick up on signs and advocate. I think teachers should too.

But having been both the teacher as well as the poor ADHD-I student being ignored, I must admit that I can't entirely blame the teachers--even my own teachers--for not seeing what, in an ideal world, should have been seen. They have to focus on what directly impacts, positively or negatively, the highest number of students at any given moment. And unfortunately many times, that's the really hyperactive kid who can't help but distract the entire class.

It isn't cool. But it is the reality.

Tomorrow, I think I'll talk about some of the signs parents and teachers should look for to try and ferret out the kids that have ADHD-I.


  1. Interesting post, Josh. Maybe the student you remember AND the one you don't had ADHD subtype 1...possible do you think?

    Also, your earlier query I am still interested. Have they considered whether racial minorities (though maybe they are no longer that! maybe I should say non-whites???) are also under-reported and under served in terms of this diagnosis?

  2. I read something yesterday about NY Chinese immigrants being underdiagnosed with ADHD, but it didn't seem to be from a scholarly journal. It blamed a lack of knowledge about the disorder.

    I imagine it's pretty tough to quantify how many people suffer from mental illness, since diagnostic methods would differ from place to place.

  3. We just had a conference with our daughter's teacher, and she told us that she loves having our daughter in her class because she's enthusiastic about school and very friendly. Unspoken was the fact that she doesn't usually act up. But, when we asked about the fact that she doesn't complete most of her assignments, that wasn't a problem. Her teacher is brand new this year and I imagine a bit overwhelmed by managing 21 first-graders. Thankfully our daughter still likes school, but I worry she's going to be one of those kids slipping through the cracks because she isn't rowdy.

  4. Marcia--The student I remember was diagnosed with ADHD-H, and I concur with that assessment. I only wish I could remember the other conceptual student--shame on me for not noticing him/her.

    I actually haven't seen much research regarding racial minorities, so I honestly don't know whether they fall under the same pattern of being ignored. That's a really good question, though. I'd be interested to find out. If you see anything on the subject, let me know!

    Brad--that's really interesting. Thanks for that info. Also, I just took a look at your website, and was very impressed.

    Jesse--It sure is cool that you guys are so aware of her and her situation. Whatever the case, she has wonderful parents who are very proactive and will advocate for her, which will help her a great deal in the long-run, I would think.

  5. This is so tough to stay on top of as a teacher. I have a student right now, a girl, who has been diagnosed with ADHD and I'm pretty sure she has the inattentive subtype. Her paperwork doesn't specify subtype, but she has exactly the symptoms you describe here. Even knowing what her issue is, it is so difficult to give her the help she needs. It is terrible that most days she ends up slipping through the cracks, unnoticed because she is so quiet about being off task. I've always wished I had a clone of myself to alleviate this problem that is probably unavoidable when faced with a classroom full of so many kids.

  6. Great post, Josh! And Akidd, I totally agree with you. As a teacher in the primary grades, I can empathize. I worry all the time about meeting all of my children's unique needs. And years after some children have left me, I worry about whether or not I did the best job that I could've done.In fact, some years and students haunt me. Being a teacher is so much more than anyone ever knows! It's enough to make most teachers quit before retirement age.

    And Josh,I'm glad that you have the teacher's perspective now. Back when you went to school, your teacher just didn't know anything about ADHD. Back then,she was just probably really frustrated and didn't know what to do. I know that doesn't make it right, but I wonder if
    that experience helped make you a better teacher. I know that having a few inept teachers helped make me a better teacher and person. Not that I have ADHD. I just had a myriad of family problems, and slipped right through the cracks. And although it doesn't make me feel better about my rough childhood, I guess I'm grateful that it made me such a strong willed, accepting person. I will never be like some of my past teachers. And they will always remind of the teacher that I want to be.

    Good luck with your writing!