ADD or Personality Difference?

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Question:

I have a 7 year old son. He is handsome, kind, and very intelligent. The problem is that he can't sit still in class. He is often out of his seat, making noises, whistling, not paying attention, not staying on task and not completing his classroom assignments. He also is constantly talking back and arguing with the teacher. I don't have these problems at home--maybe, because he can burn off the energy. He spends his time biking, playing with the other children and running. He is very active. I keep in close contact with the teacher. I've had him to see a doctor, who is sending him to see a specialist, but we (the teacher and I) need some help on disciplining him for his actions in the meantime. I love my son very much, but his behavior is hurting him. He losing self confidence and the other children are calling him bad. I hate this word. Thank you. 

Answer:

I read your question and it broke my heart. It sounds like you have a very special seven year old who is not feeling valued in his classroom. He is so lucky to have a parent who cherishes him and sees all of his wonderful qualities. You said he is kind and I'm sure that you have modeled kindness for him.

The characteristics you mentioned of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity are the three major criteria for the diagnosis of ADD or attention deficit disorder. I have these traits as well and was labeled as "ADD." I do not see these characteristics as a "disorder" but as a personality difference with many assets and a few liabilities. I spend my career as a marriage and family therapist helping parents, teachers and families to honor these special high energy spirits who come to us with many gifts that often go unappreciated.

I do not believe it is an accident that you son's behavior is significantly better at home. What we know from research is that children (and adults) behave better when they experience acceptance and caring. This brings out their best behavior - kindness, joy, and respect for self and others. Your son experiences unconditional love in your home. He is free to be exactly who he is; a creative, energetic, and wonderfully free spirited child.

These same qualities are not being appreciated in his classroom so his sense of belonging is out the window. The message he is getting is "there is something wrong with you, you don't fit in, shape up, pay attention, quit being lazy." This is devastating to his self-esteem and it sounds like he is fighting back against the criticism and judgment. Rudolf Dreikers, founder of the Positive Discipline principles, discovered that misbehaving children are "discouraged children" who use misbehavior in order to achieve their core need in life- to belong. It sounds like your son is fighting and arguing with the teacher because he is engaged in a power struggle with her. She wants him to be just like the other kids. He just wants her to appreciate and like him.

Dreikers said that discouraged children use four primary "misbehaviors" in their mistaken ideas on how to achieve belonging. First; excessive attention seeking (many class clowns seek attention this way), Second; vying to be the boss, (being right), Third; to get revenge for the hurt they experience from the lack of acceptance, and Fourth; they give up because they feel they cannot possibly win. His teacher may believe that in order to motivate your son to do better that she must first make him feel bad about his behavior. The truth is that children will always do better when they feel better. His teacher must reach his heart before she can reach his head.

The culprit in your sons misbehavior is two-fold. Part of his perceived "misbehavior" at school is not misbehavior at all. It is simply his nature to be so excited he talks out of turn, to have so much energy that sitting still for long intervals is impossible, etc It is unfair to punish and shame him for something he cannot help. The second part of his misbehavior is his profound DISCOURAGEMENT at losing a sense of belonging at school. Therefore the anecdote is massive doses of ENCOURAGEMENT so his motive for misbehavior will be gone.

I would like to share with you some Positive Discipline tools that are extremely effective for "hyper" children. You can pass these tips to his teacher.

TOOLS FOR THE CLASSROOM AND HOME

  1. Clearly your son's perception is that his teacher is against him. She must change this perception by spending some caring, "special time" with him where her goal is to make your son feel accepted. She may share with him all of the things she appreciates about him and ask him to help her so that both of them can feel happy in the classroom. When your son believes his teacher is on his side he will want to cooperate with her. His arguing will simply stop.
  2. Have her brainstorm ideas for what to do when he is off task. A humorous non-verbal signal often works or one agreed -upon word. They can come up with a plan when your son simply can't sit still anymore. Many teachers allow these children to run two laps around the classroom buildings. When they come back they are focused and ready to work. They also feel understood. One creative teacher had a large, empty envelope that she would give to her hyper student when he was wandering. She would ask him to run some papers to the office.
  3. I would recommend that you purchase "Positive Discipline in the Classroom" for his teacher. You can buy it at your local bookstore or through the Positive Discipline website. All of these principles are explained and may help your son's teacher understand the importance of children feeling valued before they can put forth their best behavior.
  4. Seat your son in the front of the class in the middle of the row.
  5. Create a special area in the classroom he can go when he is upset and frustrated. He can calm down and rejoin the class when he feels better.
  6. Assign a study buddy to help him with assignments. This will help him focus on the task at hand.
  7. Limit the amount of homework he does to a maximum of two 25 minute segments. Have him do something very active in between like bike riding. Set an egg timer to create urgency. This will help with focus. If he is not done sign off his homework. Many families have horrible evenings because and inattentive child struggles with homework all night long.
  8. Make accommodations on projects that are too difficult for you son. For example, let him give an oral report instead of a written report if he shines verbally.
  9. Request an IEP meeting (An individualized Educational Plan) By law, your son is entitled to the same education as children without hyperactivity and inattention issues. You can ask for accommodations so that he can feel competent and successful in school.
  10. Assist your son in creating routine charts for morning, afternoon, and bedtime.
  11. Teach organizational and time management skills. This is often difficult for these kids.
  12. Spend fifteen minutes of special time with your son every evening in order to hear his heart. You want to know his hurts and his triumphs on a daily basis. This is extremely encouraging.
  13. Have family meetings to discuss strategies for chores, homework, school, etc.
  14. Take time to really train him in his areas of weakness. Role-play not interrupting, appropriate listening skills, etc You may want to enroll him in social skills classes with other kids his age.
  15. Use every mistake as an opportunity to teach important lessons. Ask him what he could have done differently. Role-play the appropriate behavior.  Have fun with it by exaggerating doing it wrong and then doing it correctly. Make sure he knows mistakes are simply opportunities to learn ! Focus on solutions, not consequences.
  16. Contact your local chapter of CHADD, a wonderful organization for parents of children with ADD-attention deficit disorder.

The biggest problem with ADD (or these sets of traits) is the loss of self confidence. Many of these children eventually become CEO'S of large corporations and hire MBA's to do the boring detail work in order to achieve their visions and dreams.

Your son is lucky to have you. If your elementary school is overly rigid and structured and unwilling to accommodate your son, you may consider the Montessori or Waldorf private schools. They are much less structured and allow children more freedom of choice and creativity.

Your son will do incredible things in his life if he believes he is lovable and competent. I know you will fight to make sure that his school experience doesn't rob him of his sense of belonging and significance.

Sincerely,
Lisa Larson, Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Positive Discipline Associate.