Four Things You Shouldn’t Believe about ADHD
Kids with ADHD have a long history of being misunderstood. We’ve all heard the false but familiar labels: lazy, willful, spacey. These hurtful labels fail to capture the real challenges and strengths that come with ADHD. They also leave parents and educators in a lurch, without helpful strategies to support their students’ growth. Shifting away from these four ADHD myths can make a big difference in students’ lives.
1. “Students with ADHD can’t pay attention to anything for very long.”
The corollary to this one is: “They can’t have ADHD if they can pay attention to video games for hours.” In either case, the underlying myth is that ADHD is a deficit of attention (as the first “D” in ADHD so unhelpfully suggests). It’s not. Or at least not always.
ADHD is more accurately understood as difficulty regulating attention. Meaning, yes, in some cases it is harder for students with ADHD to attend to things they should attend to (like homework) for the length of time needed. But, in other cases, with an inherently interesting task, students may overfocus and have difficulty shifting their attention away when needed. While video games are a familiar example of such attention-grabbing content, it can include anything from a good book to an art project, or even a student’s own internal thoughts.
The helpful shift: Once we realize that students can attend, but just have trouble regulating their attention, the question becomes: how do we make the boring but necessary (homework) doable? And how do we keep the interesting but optional (that really good YA read) from running over its allotted time? Unlike the “they just can’t pay attention” approach, this approach creates options. Homework can be done in small, manageable chunks. Students can learn to set a timer when they dig into a good book or other activity where they may tend to lose track of time. After all, the ability to intensely focus on things you love is a gift when managed well.
2. “All students with ADHD are hyperactive.”
Given the “H” in ADHD, it’s not surprising that many people expect hyperactivity to be a hallmark trait of students with ADHD. Once again: not always.
ADHD is actually an umbrella term for three subtypes: inattentive type, hyperactive type, and combined type. While the latter two do involve hyperactive and impulsive behaviors, the former – inattentive type – does not. Students with inattentive ADHD may often go unnoticed in the classroom, sitting quietly but sometimes missing important details or losing track of things. Even among students with hyperactive or combined type, behaviors vary considerably. Some students may be able to manage reasonably well in a classroom but have a harder time responding appropriately in social settings with peers.
The helpful shift: The common thread across all three subtypes is a challenge with self-regulation. A lens of self-regulation encompasses a much broader range than just hyperactivity. It includes everything from managing impulses and shifting attention to managing emotions and responses to different situations. With a self-regulation lens, parents and educators have a helpful skill-building toolkit. For a student who is indeed hyperactive, self-regulatory support might involve fidgets and more frequent breaks for physical activity. For a student who sits quietly but gets easily overwhelmed, strategies might include mindfulness or an organizational system to make their work more manageable.
3. “It’s just a behavior problem.”
Too often, students with ADHD are misunderstood as willful. Do some kids with ADHD exhibit challenging behaviors? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that they want to make things difficult. As Dr. Ross Greene, a psychologist and behavior-management expert, explains: “Kids do well when they can.” If a student isn’t doing well in a certain situation it’s not a lack of will, but a lack of skill that’s the problem.
The helpful shift: Shifting from a will framework to skill framework can be a game-changer. Take a student who protests and slams their bedroom door shut when asked to start their homework. If we think they lack the will to do their homework, we might respond with consequences for non-compliance or rewards for compliance. But a “kids do well when they can” approach will lead us to ask, “What underlying skills is my student missing?” Once we know what skills are missing, we can take a skill-building approach that, over time, will help the student learn to manage and complete their homework.
4. “But they’re such a good student – they can’t have ADHD.”
ADHD affects school performance but not always in obvious ways. Some students with ADHD are like ducks on water – things look smooth on the surface but beneath it all they’re working extra hard to stay afloat. (This student’s story says it all.) A student might get good grades but spend much longer on homework than their peers, have to frequently re-read things due to wandering attention, or make careless mistakes that make them question their ability.
The helpful shift: It’s important to remember that ADHD is completely unrelated to intelligence or potential to succeed in life. Many bright students and successful people have ADHD. A student who is getting good grades but having to overcompensate due to ADHD, still deserves the self-awareness and skill-building that can come from managing their ADHD. Likewise, a student who does not have high grades (yet!) should never be led to believe that they can’t do better merely because they have ADHD.
Our mantra is when you change students’ self-beliefs, you change their lives. Feeling understood is important for all students, even more so for students who learn and think differently. When we understand students’ challenges, we can help them build the skills to do their best in school and life. If you’re looking for more support building these skills, join our founder Jed Applerouth, PhD and psychologist, Dr. Judy Wolman for our free upcoming webinar: ADHD, LD, 2e – How to Support Your Child.