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LD and ADHD Make Stress Worse (book excerpt)

AD/HD and LD - Stress in School
The following is an excerpt from chapter 5 of the book Nowhere To Hide: Why Kids with ADHD & LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It, by Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D.
It is the very characteristics of LD and ADHD that make kids with these conditions so vulnerable to stress. The perceptual deficits that make it hard for a student with LD to interpret sights and sounds can also make it difficult to understand or read the uncomfortable feelings that accompany stress. The impulsive child with ADHD is less likely to stop and make the stress-fear connection, but instead will jump up and head for the hills at the first hint of challenge. That’s why so many kids ask to go to the bathroom or the nurse’s office when they get backed into a corner by the curriculum. Kids who learn to read their queasy stomachs, their sweaty palms and armpits, their hot flashes or dizziness as signs of stress—these are the kids who stand a better chance of making the connection between stress and the threat of failure.

Think about this. To confident, competent kids, each new learning challenge is an opportunity to get a success fix. The reason that kids without impairments in learning or attention are less stressed than kids with these problems is that they have what it takes to be successful and they know it. They have conquered many challenges in their young lives and they know what success feels like. And they want more of that feeling. Sure, these kids might be temporarily thrown off balance by a challenge, but that’s just their brain sensing a change in the environment and getting ready to conquer the threat and make it go away. “Another test?” it perceives. “I can handle that!” “A long-term writing project? Bring it on.”

In contrast, students with learning disabilities or ADHD spend much of their day in environments that ask them to do things that range from difficult to nearly impossible. For kids with LD and ADHD, stress lives in the space between “I need to” and “I don’t know how to.” The key to reducing stress lies in giving a child the tools needed to attain success, and the practice it takes to do that with confidence.

Imagine this scene: A teacher asks the class a question. Declan, a little boy with ADHD, sits in the front row because his IEP says he should have “preferential seating.” This distractible little boy has been doodling on his paper, legs coiled under his chair and ceaselessly undulating like snakes. On some level he probably hears the teacher’s question, but it does not register with him. His sonar picks up something and alerts him: “Huh? What?” Movement on his left and right catches his attention, and he notices that his classmates are eagerly raising their hands. In response to this concrete visual cue, this little impulsive boy’s hand shoots up like a rocket, accompanied by repeated, animated shouts of “Oooh! Oooh!...Oooh!” The teacher, delighted to see this particular student taking part in the lesson in such an energized way, says to the class with a smile, “Well, it looks like somebody is eager to give us an answer! Yes, Declan?”

You know how it goes from here. Declan mutters, “Uh…uh…,” looks puzzled, turns beet red. Little chirps of laughter break out all around him. With a gentle but admonishing “Now, children,” the teacher quiets the class. Declan’s hand drops like a rock. He slumps, embarrassed, into his chair. For kids like Declan, this scene replays itself over and over again. These kids’ frontal lobes just can’t override their distractibility or their impulsive nature. As a result, their teachers—despite their good intentions—wind up looking to these kids like pitching machines, spitting out ball after ball that they just can’t seem to hit.

Don't miss Dr. Schultz's pieces written exclusively for LD.org: “Tales of Stress and ADHD: Elementary School” and “Tales of Stress and ADHD: High School.”

Excerpted from Nowhere To Hide: Why Kids with ADHD & LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It, by Jerome J. Schultz. Copyright © 2011 by Jerome J. Schultz. This material is reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.