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Tales of Stress and ADHD: Elementary School

Written by Dr. Jerome Shultz | 2 years ago

Clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Jerome Schultz is the author of Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It and is an expert on stress, learning disabilities, and ADHD. In the following three scenarios, he takes you inside the brains of a parent, an elementary school student, and a teacher as they attempt to cope with ADHD- and stress-related challenges. At the end of each scenario, he offers his expert take on the situation and follows up with tangible (and at times out-of-the-box) tips that parents and teachers can apply.


Scenario #1: The Parent

Through a parent’s eyes: Last night, we got a call from a neighbor who used to be a really good friend of the family. “I don’t really know how to tell you this, Amy, but we can’t have Nate over to play with Shawn any more. I told him to tell you…Did he tell you that he almost burned our house down?” I nearly drop the phone. “What!?!” I hear myself yell, feeling the defensive mom rising up in me like a squadron of fighter jets, engines flaming and ready to engage the enemy—once again. My husband reaches over and puts his hand gently on my forearm. I look at him and sigh, letting him know he’s cooled my jets. “I’ll look into this and call you back, Sally,” I say to my soon-to-be-ex-friend.

Scenes like this have played themselves out many times in the 10 years since our son Nate was born. He’s hyper-everything! Now here we are again, faced with the task of talking to our son about doing something silly and dangerous. We know the pattern. First, he’ll vehemently deny that he did anything of the sort. When we press with evidence, he’ll tell us how “it was Shawn’s idea!” or how he’d “told him to stop!” As the story unravels, he’ll bury himself in some “fact” he invents to save face, digging the hole deeper and deeper. This is a deed that can’t be ignored, but his dad and I know how fruitless a punishment can be. We’ll take away this or that, and he’ll protest for a while, later paying his penance with no real regret or sense of a lesson learned. My husband says it’s like that movie “Groundhog Day,” only now it’s in ADD-land. Same thing day after day, just with a twist. It’s taking a toll on us and his little sister, but our greatest worry is that it’s starting to define him. We were watching “America’s Biggest Loser” one night, and he leaned over and quietly said, “They should make a show about me with that name.”

My take on this: You can feel the frustration and sadness in this family’s story. The repeating cycle of action and negative reaction has taken its toll on this little boy, his social connections, and his reputation. His tendency to get himself into these “hot spots” has also drained a lot of the parent’s energy, making them wary and guarded. You can also hear the love and understanding this husband and wife have for each other, as they’re drawn closer by defending and protecting their son. It sounds like they’re fraying around the edges, and I wonder how much more of this they can take.

My advice: This boy’s energy needs to be channeled in a safe way. Enrolling him in after-school activities (science club, rocketry class, robotics) might appeal to him and put him in an environment where trained adults can teach and reinforce safety procedures. Organizations like these can help him learn mantras like “think, then act,” which takes practice. Additionally, Cub Scouts might satisfy his need to explore while in the “protective custody” of like-minded outdoorsmen who appreciate a child’s vigor and spirit. Or how about Clown School? Here, he’d be taught how to do things that get the positive attention of others, while learning self-discipline.

A psycho-educational therapy approach that teaches him about himself would also help him navigate the social demands of everyday life. His parents would benefit from therapy, for instance a support group for parents of kids with ADHD.

This little boy needs positive role models, so instead of having him play with younger kids who won’t teach him much, or age-mates who may not know how to deal with him, why not find him a Big Brother? Perhaps even someone with ADHD who can teach life lessons.

Finally, I would ask this family if they have considered the use of stimulant medication to help this “hyper-everything” little boy gain more self-control and focus, so he’s not barreling through life leaving a bad reputation, guilt, and regret in his wake. Other non-medical approaches such as yoga, mindfulness training, and biofeedback can certainly be considered, but research (and my years of clinical experience) suggest that these approaches lack the punch to help a boy with this profile. This boy needs to be in a state of mind that will allow him to learn new strategies and have the focus to use them.


Scenario #2: The Student

Tiana’s story: When I was in kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade—school was kinda fun. There were a few wild kids in my class, and we used to run around and act goofy all the time. The other kids loved to see us perform. Toward the end of the 2nd grade, some of the other kids sort of grew up…but not me. I continued to be the class clown, and I worked really hard at trying to get the kids to laugh with me. Instead, they started to “shush” me, telling me they didn’t want to get into trouble.

In 3rd grade, school got a lot harder, and the teacher was a lot stricter. Whenever I acted up, we’d have these talks about how I needed to get more serious about school. She said that in 3rd grade we were changing from a “learning to read” class to a “reading to learn” class. I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that every time I picked up a book I felt really dumb. Just about everybody could read better than me—and when we had to read out loud, I was really scared that the other kids would laugh at me. And you know what? Sometimes they did. The teacher got mad at them, but they didn’t really stop—they just got sneakier.

That’s about the time I began to hate school. I cried every morning and begged my mom to let me stay home. I got stomachaches and headaches all the time and asked to go to the nurse’s office. I would do just about anything to get of class or miss school, because everything was so hard for me. The kids who used to think I was funny told me that I was “weird,” or that I bugged them, and they started to whisper about me whenever I came into the room or the cafeteria. I started to get extra help with my schoolwork, but it was so embarrassing for me to go to the “special class” that I refused or did stuff that got me sent to the principal’s office. It was better to be punished than embarrassed. I didn’t tell anyone, but I was lonely, sad, and kind of scared.

My take on this: If we recorded Tiana’s life with time-lapse photography, we’d see a funny, happy little girl morph into a depressed, anxious student over the span of three short years. Tiana’s classmates, not wanting to get led down the road to trouble, began to see her antics as silly and disruptive, and they distanced themselves from her socially. Academically, Tiana saw the extra help she was offered as an acknowledgement of weakness, and she rejected her teachers’ efforts to help her get on track educationally. She didn’t feel competent or confident, so she developed physical symptoms to get out of school. She must have felt she had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

My advice: If your child is in a similar situation, hit the “stop” button right now and try to rewind and restart. Teachers and parents need to take dramatic steps to help a student like this take control over her life as a student, or else she’ll continue to flail and seek escape.

Parents can:

  • Talk to teachers about how best to create a learning environment in which a student experiences success more often than frustration and failure. With specialized, intensive instruction delivered in an environment that is safe and supportive, this little girl might be put on a better learning, social, and emotional trajectory. If she doesn’t have an IEP, this might be time to initiate the evaluation process.
  • Talk to the student about the nature of her LD and ADHD, and also about ways she can work through or around the challenges that come with these conditions.
  • Consider specialized summer programs, perhaps even for a couple of years, to help her catch up with things she’s missed and to “hit the ground running” the following school year.

Scenario #3: The Teacher

View from the classroom: I swear he’s the funniest kid I’ve ever had in class. Sometimes I have to pretend I’m coughing and put my head down so the class won’t see me cracking up! He’s spontaneous and witty, making connections between ideas at lightning speed. He comes up with creative solutions that reveal a super-smart brain. But here’s the flip side of this kid: He disrupts the flow of my teaching, the learning of other kids, and his own learning. His impulsive calling out, his constant movement in and out of his seat are, well…annoying. But I know that the behaviors I see are a smokescreen that this vulnerable boy is hiding behind.

I had a conference with him last week. I let him know how much I enjoyed having him as a student and encouraged him to use more of the many strategies he’s been taught by his parents, counselors, and teachers (including me). He looked down, dropped his voice and said, “I know everything I’m supposed to do, but doing the right thing at the right time has always been my biggest problem.” Then he told me something that absolutely shocked me. “I’m sorry I’m such a pain in the butt,” he said. “You must really hate having me in your class. I know the kids do. On the bus, they’re always yelling at me for talking too much, and they tell me to stop being such a jerk. One of the kids said his father was going to ask Principal Brownell to put me in another class. I know I may seem funny in class, but there a lot of mornings that I just want to curl up and go back to sleep. My dreams are so much better than my real life.”

My take on this: Many kids with ADHD are quick thinkers who can make connections between and among different and often disparate ideas or concepts. That’s why so many of these kids are such good jokesters. Professionals like teachers, psychologists, and others who work with students with ADHD often see this behavior as attention-getting, or the child’s desire to have the spotlight shine on him. While it’s true that some children are attention seekers, acting out or acting up are often warning signs that there’s something else going on. It’s more fun to be funny (even if it gets you in trouble) than it is to be sad, and it’s better to have people laughing with you than at you. ADHD and depression often live in the same brain, and antidepressants can sometimes help with inattention.

My advice: If kids are seeking attention, perhaps they need something to boost their status and self-esteem. If this is your child, you might want to suggest that your child’s teacher does something like what Jim Carrey’s teacher did. According to this wildly successful comic actor’s website, jimcarrey.com, his teacher gave him the last 10 minutes of every class to “perform” if he promised not to disrupt the first 35 minutes with his antics. Carey claims she was the best teacher he ever had and that she set him on his path to success.

If your child’s sadness gets in the way of success, you might consider a consultation with a psychiatrist who has experience treating kids with ADHD and associated depression.

Programs:

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