Thursday, September 24, 2009

My views about ADHD

The ADHD label only makes sense within the framework of a massive, standardized educational system.

Sometimes, parents tell me that their child has ADHD, and they ask me if I can help them raise their child’s math scores. I tell them it would take me more than a few sessions to figure out whether, or to what extent I can help them, because this ADHD situation works out differently with each child.
In my opinion, ADHD is not a disability, nor a disorder, or a sickness, or anything like that, unless the lab work in a given case proved that it comes from a specific chemical imbalance in the brain. Otherwise, this is how I see it: children are autonomous individuals, with their own interests, and their own preferences. Very often the school system tries to "tame," or "domesticate" students into a uniform, one-size-fits-all set of academic variables, like pace of study, homework volume, expected format for answers, and so on.
There is a whole new body of research supporting the view that academic ability is very narrow a parameter for measuring intelligence. There are several other types of intelligence, each one very important on its own right, besides just having English and Math skills. Kids may be interested in other things, actually they usually are.
I am a firm believer each one of them should be allowed to pursue their math studies at their own pace, and -as much as possible- in the information processing way that works best for them; instead of expecting them to do all the time exactly the same as the whole class is doing. Mass education may save budget dollars but society pays for it in lost creativity, and lost opportunities for individual happiness, and fulfillment.
Schools typically have no resources to properly (meaning, individually) address these so called “ADHD” situations. And parents often do not have the time, or patience, to find out in detail, how exactly their children's learning process is evolving, what their true talents really are, how far their talents and interests go along with their school work, and how to help them make difficult decisions when it comes to a conflict between the child's true talents, and what schools expect of them. Often parents tell their children: "Just do the work," or something similar, ignoring the child’s emotional process. This is not because they are not interested in their children's development but mainly because most parents want to prepare their children for the dreadful world of jobs, deadlines, and bosses most parents live in as adults.
Personally, except in the case of unruly teenagers who are involved with drugs, or gangs, I usually side with the student against his or her school's expectations, and I wish more parents would do the same, taking the time to bust the "ADHD" label into pieces, and figure out what exactly is going on behind appearances in the particular case of their child. It would be great if more parents took the time, and interest, to find out what their children really want to do in life, and help them be themselves, instead of helping them, or sometimes even forcing them, to trim their natural talents and interests, just to become some facade of personality they may eventually get used to but are never going to be happy with.
In short, ADHD is a code term for "distraction." If a young student gets distracted during math class, it is obvious to me they are not finding math interesting enough. This does not mean it is the teacher’s fault, either. There may be other activities the so-called “distracted,” “unfocused” student strongly prefers to math. My question here is: Just how strongly? Can they overcome their lack of interest in math, and produce the grades their parents want? For me, at the beginning of my tutoring work with them, this is an open problem, and I cannot form any specific opinion until I have worked with them for some time. I tell parents that, if they want me to work with their ADHD child, they have to know that my focus will be finding out the following two things:

1) How much does the student dislike math? Is it just a mild form of lack of interest? Or is it an active, gut-level hatred of math? I have seen these extremes, so I know they are real, but they can be subtly hidden. It takes time to find out. Some children do not even know the answer themselves, since it generally is subconscious.

2) Is it possible to present math to this individual student in a way that will sufficiently raise his or her interest in math? To what extent is it possible to suggest math exercises that will make math easier for them?

It is entirely possible that a better way exists for these students in life, outside of school grades and diplomas. Maybe they can be great artists, or politicians, or sales people, or any number of professions that require special talents, special types of intelligence but not necessarily a college degree. I am aware many parents do not want to hear any suggestion like those above, as most would just have their children go through the whole school cycle getting A's and B's, and then take up a profession like lawyer, or doctor, or business manager, for the prospect of finding a good job. Unfortunately, life is never that simple.
So I never promise parents (especially those with “ADHD” children) that I am going to make their child's math grades go up because I do not know if I can. All I can promise is my best effort in finding out to what extent I can help them improve their grades, and to keep in constant, open, honest communication with the parents all along, always respecting the child’s individual set of preferences, abilities, values, and interests because I do not "fix kids," as some parents in the past have expected me to magically do.


Ralph said...

ADD (or ADHD?) sometimes leads to hyper-concentration of the type that can be helpful for doing concentrated math work. I personally have trouble maintaining focus. It's hard for me to concentrate under typical circumstances, but when I sit in front of a computer writing code, time sometimes vanishes and I can go on and on at high intensity.

This also happens when I do math, although not quite as intensely. My problem has been diagnosed and described, more than once, as ADD.

As I get older, my hyper-concentration doesn't last as long as it used to, but I still enjoy it.

Now I'm teaching myself Mathematica, hoping to achieve some of the the same concentration there as I get from writing computer code. Usually I prefer to work on math that has some real-world applications -- even if the applications are only philosophical -- if that makes any sense.

Actually I'd prefer an open-source alternative to Mathematica, if such a thing exists.

Juan Carlos Castaneda said...

Very interesting. Wikipedia says there may be some kind of link between ADD/ADHD and creativity.

I think there are open-source alternatives to Mathematica. Have you checked

Ralph said...

Thanks -- I just took a look at Scilab. It's described as being for numerical computations rather than algebra. Which might be a really good thing.

Mathematica does both algebra and numerical math, but it's awfully expensive. Right now I have a limited-time academic license until January.

There is also an open-source algebra program called Sage ( that I'm looking at, and an older program called LiveMath that seems to be a bit too quirky for my taste. That's all I have found so far.

Juan Carlos Castaneda said...

Thank you for the link to

I believe if you sign up with Wolfram Alpha as a beta tester they give you a student Mathematica license. I do not know the details but the deal may still be on.

johnsilvers said...

Great post, Juan. I have similar thoughts on ADD/ADHD. I believe our children are WAY over-medicated these days. Rather than let kids be kids, we set unrealistic expectations, then drug them when they don't meet those expectations. We should be focused on a child's assets, not their faults.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Juan Carlos Castaneda said...

Thank you, John.

I totally agree with your views about over-medication. Medication should only be a last-resort option, and kept to a minimum.

Education should be given a much higher budget, and attention, than it currently receives. The school system could adapt more to individual students, rather than make students adapt to the system.

You are welcome.

Lori MathHead said...

I have to agree. My experience with so-called ADD/ADHD has not held with our students. I prefer to try behavior and habit changes instead. More opinions here:

Mathheadinc on ADD/ADHD

Juan Carlos Castaneda said...


Thank you very much for including a link to your own article about ADD/ADHD. I find your opinion not only compatible with mine but also complementary, because you offer practical suggestions from a slightly different angle, which is very valuable for a deeper insight on the problem.

Tammy said...

I used to think the same thing about medication, but that was before I lived with 2 kids with ADHD. Both kids had a lapse in medication that lasted for almost 3 months, and then they went back on it because it was necessary. I think the best way to explain is to give an example.
The middle child is an 8 year old boy, who is also dyslexic, and he was in 1st grade doing addition at the time.

With medication:
I wanted to go through a set of flash cards, and he liked the idea. He stood up on a kitchen chair, facing away from me, and was singing and dancing. He turned to look at the flash card, turned back around, did a little song and dance, turned back to me, and gave me the correct answer. He did a little victory song and dance, and then repeated the process for each card. It was fun for both of us. As long as he was getting them all correct, I didn’t mind one bit. And he “stayed with me” the whole time (for about an hour).

Without medication:
I was trying to get him to do his math homework (about 20 addition problems on one page). He knew the answer, but wrote the wrong number intentionally, erased it, wrote another wrong answer, erased it, played with his pencil, threw it on the floor, dropped onto the floor to get it, crawled around under the table, played with the dog who soon joined him under the table, came out from under the table, spun around on the kitchen floor, got up, took off for the living room to watch TV, came back to me in the kitchen, wanted to wrestle (took me a few minutes to get him to stop jumping on me), came back to the table finally, drew a picture where the answer was supposed to go, erased it, dropped the pencil on the floor again,…. That was just for the first problem.
He eventually did finish all the problems, but it took hours. If he had been on his medication, he could have finished 20 problems in about a half hour without help or someone watching over him to make sure he does his homework. To me, he wasn’t able to function. We would go through the same process trying to get him to anything, like take out the garbage or feed the dogs. He is still a very active boy on his medication, but the difference is that he can accomplish things on his own.

David_B said...

>> Juan Carlos Castaneda said...

"I think there are open-source alternatives to Mathematica. Have you checked"

I just came across this blog, read through some of it and couldn't resist adding a comment (numerical mathematics and computer programming is one of my interests).

You might also be interested in Octave:

It is an open source MATLAB clone with many powerful features.