Motivation & Learning Disorders

Kids go to school for a living. That’s their job – their entire identity (p. 25).

As Lavoie (2007) wrote, children with learning disabilities struggle mightily in the classroom. Their frequent failures and frustrations have an understandable impact upon their motivation. It is difficult to remain motivated and inspired when you are consistently unable to meet adult expectations – through no fault or choice of your own.

One of the least-understood aspects of learning disorders is the concept of performance inconsistency. Teachers’ comments on report cards and at parent-faculty meetings often reflect this frustrating aspect of learning disabilities.

  • “His performance is very spotty.”
  • “He has good days and bad days.”
  • “He seems to be able to do the work when he wants to.”
  • And the classic: “If he only applied himself . . .”

These comments reflect the challenge of performance inconsistency. Any child with a learning disability has experienced the demoralizing aspect of knowing a subject one day and forgetting it the next only to have the knowledge reappear a day after the quiz. For kids with learning problems, this scenario occurs over and over. Eventually, they come to accept a profound reality about their idiosyncratic learning style: For them, school is a game of chance. A crapshoot.

Many students with learning disabilities have good days and bad days that are beyond their control. They have come to realize that if a test day is a good day they will pass the test whether or not they study. If the test day is going to be a bad day they’ll fail the test whether or not they study. Sometimes, I think that it is useless to study at all. This spotty motivation on the part of students with learning problems is caused by performance inconsistency.

Basically, this “good day-bad day” is a neurologically-based (p. 27). It’s as if the child has three clocks in their brain. Each clock is set at a different time and moves at a different speed. As a result, the child is constantly confused and out of sync with their environment. However, the law of averages dictates that eventually, and inexorably, the clocks will tell the same time for a period but then they will again go out of sync again. So it is with the child with learning problems. Inexplicably they will have bursts of forward movement wherein they makes observable, measurable progress for a period of time. Basically, their “clocks” are telling the same time. But then the clock hands move and they once again are out of sync.

This inconsistent progress and motivation is a source of great frustration for parents and teachers as well as the student. In a study conducted by Jonathan Cohen at Columbia University, eight hundred adolescents with learning problems were asked to identify the most troubling and frustrating aspect of their learning disability. The majority of the students cited performance inconsistency. One respondent said that the problem seems to come and go and that they never know from one day to the next how they will perform in school.

This frustration is heightened by the fact that adults view this as a motivational problem rather than a neurological problem. Teachers and parents will often cite this inconsistency as a lack of focused effort. This leads to the mistaken but oft-heard belief that “He can do the work when he puts his mind to it.” In the wise words of Dr. Mel Levine in his book All Kinds of Minds, “It will be a great day in education when we recognize performance inconsistency as part of the child’s profile . . .  rather than as evidence for the prosecution.”

These accusations can create great anxiety and confusion for the child. They are constantly told that their learning capabilities are within their control, but in large part, this is simply untrue. They may become anxious or even depressed regarding their erratic and unpredictable performance. They begin to view themselves as a failure or a slacker, and their motivation to succeed wanes even further. It is useful to teach the child about their inborn inconsistencies. (p. 28)

They should not be allowed to use this irregularity as an excuse. Rather, they should learn to embrace and maximize those periods of time when they are in sync. Lavoie explained:

Decades ago, I heard Dr. Levine speak about performance inconsistency and I began to utilize the concept in my classroom. I explained to my students that – through no fault or choice of their own – their day-to-day performance would vary widely. In light of this, I explained that we would want to take full advantage of those occasional “good days.” I purchased twenty hot-pink file folders and labeled each with a student’s name. Inside each folder was a work sheet related to a skill or concept that was particularly difficult for that specific student. Tiffany’s folder might contain a sheet on multiplication tables; Victoria’s might focus on a specific spelling rule; Charlie’s folder might contain some map work. I placed the folders on my desk, and when a student appeared to be having a good day, I would dispense with the planned lesson and give him his hot-pink folder. Maybe that day would be the day when he would learn that “i comes before e, except after c!”

My students began to embrace this concept and it was not unusual for a child to enter my classroom and say, “I’m feeling hot today, Mr. Lavoie. Gimme my good-day folder!” This demonstrated that they were beginning to understand and embrace – and compensate for – an important aspect of their learning style.



 “Tell a man that he is brave, and you help him to become so.”


It is nearly impossible to understand or empathize with struggling children unless and until you have gained an appreciation for the complex concept of learned helplessness. Children who experience this phenomenon are often mislabeled as simply “lazy” and “unmotivated.” The misdiagnosis occurs because educational professionals are often unskilled and untrained in the area of “differential diagnosis” (p. 29).

Physicians receive intensive training in differential diagnosis and utilize the concept on a daily basis. Differential diagnosis recognizes the fact that two patients can have identical symptoms and yet their diagnoses and treatments may be significantly different. Two people may go to their doctor suffering from excruciating headaches. After thorough examination, the physician determines that one’s headaches are caused by seasonal allergies; the other’s is caused by a growing cerebral tumor. Although the men’s outward symptoms are identical, the treatment that will be used will be drastically different – antihistamine vs. radiation.

As educators, we tend to view all children with similar symptoms (or behaviors) as having the same problem or diagnosis. Research into this intriguing phenomenon of “learned helplessness” began in the 1960s. Researchers demonstrated that animals could be “taught” that they were helpless, and once they accepted the fact that they could not help themselves, they became very passive and nonassertive. These experiments demonstrated that when any member of the animal kingdom feels that it is helpless, it stops trying. (p. 30)

We all have areas of learned helplessness in our lives. Unfortunately for children with academic deficiencies, their areas of learned helplessness include math, science, reading, and writing. As adults, we can generally avoid confronting our areas of learned helplessness. Struggling children cannot ignore theirs. Their chronic failure and frustration related to accomplishing critical language tasks can easily result in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, withdrawal, and marked reluctance to attempt new or challenging tasks. (p. 31)

They assume that failure at these tasks is inevitable and unavoidable. They begin to develop passive and maladaptive behaviors in response to this anticipated failure.

I recall working with a math class several years ago. I announced, “We are going to try something new today.” Immediately, Craig’s hand shot up. “I can’t do this. I’ll need help!” Craig had decided that he would need my assistance before he even knew the nature of the task. That’s not laziness. That’s learned helplessness. Craig’s long history of failure in math led him to believe that this task, too, would result in failure, defeat, and frustration. His effort would be futile. This was not a moral choice. Rather, it was a decision based on past experiences. Learned helplessness becomes a conditioned response to academic challenges and expectations.

But conditioned responses are learned behaviors – and all learned behaviors can be unlearned. If attempts are not made to “unlearn” learned helplessness, it can easily become a permanent and continuous response to any unfamiliar or challenging task. In order to fully understand the concept of learned helplessness, one must also be familiar with the theory of “locus of control.”

This theory holds that human beings will attribute their success or failure to internal or external forces depending upon the degree of control that they have over the events in their lives. Having an external locus of control would mean that a person’s performance is determined by outside forces beyond the person’s influence (luck, fate, intelligence, inborn qualities). Having an internal locus of control would mean that a person’s actions are controlled by his own effort and energy. Most of us assume an external locus of control when we fail and an internal locus of control when we succeed.

However, some children who struggle with learning take an (p. 32) opposite view.  It is important to realize that internal forces are factors that are within the child’s sphere of influence. However, external factors cannot be controlled or predicted. It is easy to see how a child can feel helpless if he believes that he is at the mercy of these external forces.

Parents and teachers need to assist the child in gaining a more realistic and appropriate view of the factors that contribute to his performance. In order to assist the child who is experiencing learned helplessness and to modify this unproductive thought process, the adults in the child’s life must take three definitive but interrelated steps.

First, they must come to fully understand and embrace the nature of learned helplessness and come to view learned helplessness as a credible and treatable condition and not label this behavior as laziness or a lack of motivation (p. 33).

The second step in the elimination of learned helplessness involves changing the child’s thought process and adjusting his belief that failure is inevitable. The parent must replace his expectation of failure with a more positive and effective thought process. However, encouraging the child to repeat confident, self-affirming statements to himself will not provide significant relief. The parent must consider not only the failure itself but the child’s perception of the reasons for the failure.

The child’s assigning of causes for his lack of success is known as “attribution.” This concept explains and illuminates the child’s perception of what and who are responsible for his failure. The degree to which he is optimistic or pessimistic about his academic abilities is largely determined by his belief either that he has significant control over his skills (“I flunked the test because I didn’t study enough” “I got an A because I did my homework every night”) or that his performance is beyond his influence (“I failed because I’m dumb” “I got a D because the teacher doesn’t like me”). This belief system is fairly well established by third grade and is greatly influenced by interactions with parents, teachers, and peers. Adults need to continually foster the idea that the child can control his progress and performance to a degree and that intensive and consistent effort will, eventually, result in academic progress.

Absent supportive adult intervention, the child can develop a permanent, fixated attitude about the inevitability of failure. His perception of the future and the present is dictated by the past. Further, he begins to generalize his failure in specific tasks (e.g., reading) to unrelated tasks (e.g., swimming, soccer). His feelings of helplessness and failure begin to take on a life of their own. The child begins to view himself as incompetent and assumes that this pattern of school failure will spread to his activities at home and in the community. His negative feelings about himself begin to extend to all aspects of his life. His initial feelings that he is “lousy at reading” expand into the belief that he is “a loser” (p. 34).

Once these feelings of learned helplessness become widespread and intense, learning becomes nearly impossible and the child’s daily performance is significantly impacted. The resultant lack of progress serves to confirm his feelings of hopelessness, and a vicious cycle begins. In order to break this cycle, the child’s teachers and parents must work closely together to provide the student with consistent reassurance and support. This is a lengthy, complex, and protracted process. Your encouragement must be at least as strong as the child’s self-discouragement.

The adults in this child’s life must make the child aware of these automatic, negative thoughts. Because this pattern of thinking has become so routinized and constant, the child may be unaware that he has developed such negative and ineffective thoughts. He must learn to recognize and derail these negative thoughts as soon as they occur and replace them with more positive, self-affirming thoughts (“I can do this” “I’ve gotten through difficult assignments before”). Once the student becomes aware of the nature and the frequency of these negative thoughts, he will be better able to defeat them. Dr. Thomas Tokarz, a Massachusetts-based expert in this area reminds us: “You don’t have bad thoughts because you feel bad. Rather, you feel bad because you have bad thoughts. By improving the thoughts, you improve the feelings.”

We must provide the child with concrete, observable, measurable evidence that contradicts and refutes his negative thoughts. (For example, “I don’t agree that you don’t have any friends, Jamal. Remember when joseph asked you to be on his team in the geography bee?” “Sandra, I think that you will be able to design a good project for the science fair. The book cover that you made for The Call of the Wild was beautifully and creatively done.”) The child must learn that these particular – negative – thought patterns are invalid and inaccurate.

Once the child has become aware of the negative thought patterns that he has developed and, further, recognizes that the thought patterns are unproductive, untrue, and harmful to his progress, the adults can begin the next step in the remediation process. (p. 35)

The third step involves asking the child what he would do if he were falsely accused of something or if someone called him a thief or a liar. He will likely respond that he would defend himself by assertively disputing the charges and that he would provide contradictory evidence to the accuser. (“I couldn’t have stolen your stapler because I was in soccer practice all afternoon/’)

Tell the child that his consistent negative thought patterns are, in effect, accusing him falsely and that he should provide himself with contradictory evidence just as he would with a teacher or peer who made an untrue accusation. It may be useful to role-play such a discussion with him.

Martin Seligman, who pioneered much of the research into learned helplessness, suggests in his book The Optimistic Child that the child use the following strategies to conduct this self-argument:

  • Gather contradictory evidence. The child should serve as his own defense attorney and should collect data that refutes his belief that he will automatically fail at the task before him. (“Maybe Patti won’t laugh at me if I ask her to work on our homework together. Last week when I asked to sit next to her on the bus, she said okay”)
  • Analyze alternatives. Teach the child to generate possible outcomes that contradict his automatic negative thought. (“I think that I will be unable to understand the new unit in algebra, but maybe I will be able to get the initial part of the lesson and then my teacher or my dad can help me with the rest . . . or maybe the teacher will have us work in teams and Dawan will be able to help me a bit.”)
  • Consider the implications of failure. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Often the child’s anxiety about a negative outcome magnifies the situation beyond reality. Enable him to understand this. (“Max, suppose you submitted a poem to the poetry contest and it didn’t get selected for the class anthology. . . . So what? What damage would be done?”) (p. 36)

The child with learned helplessness needs a learning environment that is supportive and nonthreatening. Mistakes must be viewed as inevitable – and useful – steps in the learning process. I often told students that I couldn’t actually begin teaching them until they made some mistakes. The errors were the invaluable signal of the student’s needs. (“If you keep getting every answer correct, I won’t know where to start my instruction”)

In order to reduce the child’s fear of mistakes, utilize correction techniques that recognize how a student’s response is partially accurate, then coach him to the accurate answer.

TEACHER: Kyle, who was the founder of Rhode Island?

STUDENT: William Penn.

TEACHER: Good answer because William Penn did found one of the colonies. William Penn founded Pennsylvania. In fact, that is how the state got its name. We talked about the fact that the founder of Rhode Island has a college named after him in

Providence. Does that help?

STUDENT: Oh, yeah! Roger Williams.

TEACHER: Excellent.

As much as possible, try to eliminate the word “wrong” from your classroom vocabulary, particularly when working with the child who has learned helplessness. Refer to his responses as “good,” “better,” and “best.” (“Is there a better answer than that?” Or “That’s much better, but let’s try to find the best answer”) Encourage the child to use this vocabulary as well. Measurable success and progress must be an integral part of the child’s learning environment. He should be taught how to establish and work toward realistic goals, to monitor his performance, and to accept responsibility and credit for his progress.

Another instructional strategy that is effective with children with learned helplessness is the learning-teaching cycle. This four-step process can be used to teach nearly any academic, social, recreational, or household skill. This process has been used to teach children (p. 38) the times tables, how to fry an egg, spelling rules, how to mow a lawn, and how to wash the family dog.

This simple, sequential strategy must be followed closely with appropriate emphasis on and practice with each of the four steps. The strategy will not be effective if steps are skipped or abbreviated. Although the process can be time consuming, it should be viewed as an effective investment in the child’s growth, progress, and attitude. Again, it is a particularly valuable approach to use with a learned-helpless child.

Step One: Do It for Him

 Do the task while the child observes the process closely. As you complete each step, explain what you are doing. Encourage the child to ask questions. As the process proceeds – over a period of several days – require the child to verbally guide you through the procedure. Do not require him to physically participate or assist during step one.

Step Two: Do It with Him

 Gradually include the child in the process. At the outset of step two, the child will be assisting. As step two proceeds and an increasing number of the subtasks are assigned to (p. 39) the child, you are in effect assisting him. By the conclusion of step two, he is completing the task virtually on his own.

Step Three: Watch Him Do It

This step is often forgotten, and its omission from the sequence can render this technique ineffective. Once the child has mastered the task, ask him to call you whenever he competes the task. Observe the child and offer suggestions, praise, and reinforcement. Once you are convinced that he has gained mastery of the task, move on to step four.

Step Four: Have Him Do It

 Parents and teachers commonly invest tremendous amounts of time in teaching a child a skill, only to fall into old patterns and begin doing the task for the child even though he is now capable of doing it independently. Well-meaning parents unintentionally feed the learned helplessness by continually doing things for the child that she may be capable of doing independently (p. 39). Parents need to continue to break this ongoing dependency cycle, lest the child’s learned helplessness becomes more deeply ingrained (p. 40)

Learned helplessness is a real and potentially destructive psychological construct. The presumption of failure can cause significant damage to a child’s self-esteem and worldview. He can become consumed and obsessed by a dark pessimism that will prevent him from taking risks in any setting.



 “Sometimes I just get all scribbly.”

– Nine-year-old boy with add, as quoted by Maureen Neuville

One of the factors that can have a substantial impact on a child’s academic performance and his degree of motivation is attention deficit disorder (ADD). This debilitating disorder affects the child’s ability to focus and control his behavior. These are the two factors that contribute most significantly to a child’s daily progress and performance in the classroom. School is quite literally a stacked deck for the child with ADD.

An ADD child is constantly searching for stimulation. He simply cannot function without it. In fact, if the child is not provided with stimulation, he will create stimulation by acting out or disrupting his environment in some way. Again, this is not being done for any negative reason. He is creating excitement because he needs it (p. 41) which impacts academic progress and motivation to succeed.

Because the skills that the child lacks are precisely the skills he needs in order to progress in school, he begins to develop negative associations regarding the learning process. He may be continually blamed, reprimanded, and censured for behavior that is beyond his control. He begins to feel angry, resentful, and frustrated. This frustration is exacerbated by the fact that ADD children are often exceedingly bright, and they are well aware of the discrepancy between their potential and their performance.

Current research by the Council for Exceptional Children indicates that nearly 10 percent of school-aged children struggle with ADD. The majority of these students also have some sort of academic learning disability, so their inability to sit still in class is complicated by their difficulty in mastering the content of the curriculum. These children tend to fail at a rate 250 percent higher than their peers without ADD, and nearly half of them will be required to repeat a grade in elementary or middle school.

In the 1985, the disorder was associated with three basic symptoms: hyperactivity, distractibility, and impulsivity. Current research demonstrates that there are numerous symptoms and traits that impact greatly upon the child’s academic and social performance. Success in school requires children to pay attention to assigned tasks and expectations. Children with ADD have significant difficulty sustaining attention, particularly during rote, repetitious, or prolonged tasks that are not particularly novel, entertaining, or stimulating.

Success in social situations requires children to complete three basic tasks consistently: listen, follow direction, and wait their turn. (p. 42) For the child with ADD, these “simple” skills are greatly compromised. For the ADD child, “simple” is not always “easy.”

The key to motivating the child with attentional problems is to modify and adjust the learning environment. Often, teachers will invest significant time and effort in attempting to change the child. Their time might be better spent trying to change the policies, practices, and procedures that they are using with the child.

If you consider the skills and abilities that a child requires to succeed in the classroom, and then consider the deficits and weaknesses inherent in ADD, you will recognize that a significant mismatch exists. The expectations of the classroom are in direct conflict with the limitations of the child. Consider the following:

Key ADD Symptoms that interfere with learning:

  • Impulsivity
  • Hyperactivity
  • Organizational problems
  • Low frustration level
  • Inability to learn from experience
  • Impaired sense of time
  • Memory deficits
  • Inattention
  • Inability to sustain effort

(p. 43-44)

When the above is considered, it becomes clear that the ADD child and the traditional classroom basically represent a mismatch. In order for the child with ADD to be successful – and, therefore, motivated – the teacher must make significant adjustments in policies, procedures, and expectations. Basically, if the child cannot learn in the way we teach, we must teach in the way he learns.

For the child with ADD, his performance and his motivation are influenced by three major factors:

  • The degree of interest in the activity
  • The difficulty of the activity, and
  • The duration of the task

The child will have significant difficulty with tasks that require:

  • Organization
  • Planning
  • Inhibition
  • Self-monitoring, and
  • Sustained effort

(See: Executive Function and Academic Behavior)

The implications of this are readily apparent and it is easy to see that many traditional classroom activities will be inappropriate for this student. Included among these are:

  • Heavy emphasis on work sheets
  • Independent work
  • Long-term assignments
  • Extended silent reading, and
  • Multistep tasks

Conversely, the activities that are very likely to motivate and inspire the child are:

  • Active
  • Collaborative
  • Spirited

As much as possible, the curriculum should be stimulating and relevant to the child’s life experiences. Research has shown that a curriculum that is irrelevant to the student’s social and economic interests generally results in disruptive behavior, poor academic performance, limited progress, and dropping out. It is extraordinarily difficult for a child with ADD to remain engaged in a curriculum that is not interesting or challenging. These children live very much in the present. Therefore, long-term goals and rewards (e.g., grades and report cards) are often ineffective motivators.

Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Boston-based psychologist and author of Driven to Distraction, crystallized how important the present is to children with ADD. He explains that in the world of ADD children, there are basically two time frames – now and not now (p. 45).

This Now/Not Now worldview causes great frustration for the child, his teachers, and his parents, and must be seriously considered when designing activities and approaches for motivating the child with ADD.

The child with ADD will respond more positively to a curriculum that allows him choices and options. He will also be more likely to participate actively in tasks when there is a degree of creativity and novelty (e.g., presenting a history review using a jeopardy! game). In order to maintain the motivation of this child, the teacher must simultaneously consider what is being taught and how it is being taught. The content alone is unlikely to hold the child’s attention or motivation for an extended period. The content should be stimulating and relevant; the presentation should be creative, colorful, multi-modal, and enjoyable.


Teaching Strategies to Motivate the Child with ADD

Among the specific teaching strategies that may foster the child’s motivation are:

  • Provide a structured, predictable environment.
  • Give simple single-step instructions.
  • Simultaneously provide verbal and visual input (e.g., dictate instructions as you write them on the board).
  • Provide modified testing and assessment procedures.
  • Offer the child positive reinforcement, praise, and encouragement.
  • Teach note taking, outlining, and other useful study skills.
  • Assign the child a seat within close proximity of the teacher but away from high-traffic areas.
  • Clearly outline rules, limits, and expectations. Post them.
  • Avoid overloading the child with information, data, or instructions that he is unable to process (p.46)
  • Allow for occasional breaks to let the child relax and reenergize.
  • Institute a “study buddy” or “good neighbor” system wherein a classmate may assist the child with organization and preparation.
  • Utilize a cue or a private signal that you can send to the child if her behavior or attention is beginning to deteriorate.
  • Divide large, complex tasks into smaller, manageable segments. This will be less intimidating and overwhelming. Gradually, increase the length of the segments.
  • “Legitimize” the child’s need for Kinetic movement and activity by designing classroom activities that allow and encourage movement.
  • Require that the child maintain an assignment notebook, and assist her with this task.
  • Assist the child in getting started on a task and then encourage him to complete it independently.
  • Give the child as much notice as possible if a major change or transition is coming.
  • Establish a daily checklist communication system to ensure ongoing contact between home and school.
  • Provide the child with a basic course syllabus to assist her in organization and planning.
  • Provide him with two sets of textbooks. One set remains at home to facilitate homework, while the second set stays in school. This strategy ensures that he has the necessary materials in both settings.
  • Make organization of books, desk, locker, and book bag a regular routinized part of her day. She should be assigned to spend a few minutes organizing at the beginning, middle, and end of the school day. Be aware that she may need assistance with this.
  • Be sure that you have the child’s attention before giving him a direction or instruction. This can be done by calling his name or using a hand signal. After the instruction has been given, ask him (p. 47) to repeat it back to you prior to carrying it out. Many ADD children are adept at appearing to understand when, in fact, they do not.
  • Remain mindful of the three levels of instructional material:
    • Independent Level: Child can read the material at 97 percent accuracy and comprehend at 90 percent accuracy
    • Instructional Level: Child can read the material at 90 to 96 percent accuracy and comprehend at 75 percent accuracy
    • Frustration Level: 90 percent or below in reading accuracy and below 75 percent accuracy in comprehension. Reading is halting, slow, and laborious.
  • Independent Level work should be assigned for homework and seat work. Material at a child’s Instructional Level should be teacher-directed or monitored. Material at the Frustration Level should not be assigned.
  • Never take good behavior for granted. Praise and reinforce the child for not interrupting, for working patiently, remaining in his seat, staying on task, cooperating.
  • Remember that hyperactive behaviors during seat work (e.g., drumming fingers, pencil tapping, squirming in seat, fidgeting) are actually a release for the child’s hyperactivity. Unless the movements are distracting or disruptive for others, ignore them.
  • Do not emphasize quality and quantity simultaneously. Lengthy, complex assignments are exceedingly difficult for the child with attentional problems. It is better to assign five math problems and emphasize/expect accuracy than to assign twenty problems that will overwhelm the child and result in twenty inaccurate responses.
  • Provide the child with a study carrel or a quiet section of the classroom where she can go when she needs a distraction-free area to study or memorize. Allow other students to have access to this area so it is not viewed as punitive or negative by the class.
  • Remember that the child with ADD can become easily frustrated and this frustration greatly impacts his motivation. Stress 7 pressure, and fatigue can initiate and increase these feelings of frustration (p. 48). Be aware of the child’s tendency to become frustrated, and take proactive steps to avoid or diminish anxiety-producing situations.
  • Provide this child with several (e.g., ten to fifteen) seconds to respond to verbal questions. It may well take him that long to process and comprehend the question. Whenever possible, supplement verbal questions with visual input.
  • Try alternative methods of assessment, such as oral testing or demonstration testing. Written tests and assessments will present particular difficulty for children with attentional problems because of the children’s language and organizational weaknesses.
  • Be certain that the child has the materials she needs before she begins a task.
  • Carefully observe the child in order to determine when the child is particularly focused and attentive (e.g., early in the day, after recess, before lunch). Schedule his most difficult and challenging assignments and activities at these times.
  • Follow difficult activities with more interesting or rewarding activities. (“Joseph, when you finish the math work sheet, you can feed the gerbil.”)
  • Avoid attributing moral or judgmental reasons for the child’s inconsistency and impulsivity. Remember that these behaviors occur through no fault or choice of the child’s. Accusatory feedback is counterproductive. Don’t blame the victim.
  • Provide the ADD child with ample opportunities to show divergent, creative, and imaginative thinking and to receive recognition for originality.
  • Allow the child to doodle or squeeze a soft ball. Some children with ADD are better able to focus and attend when they are doing something with their hands during quiet activities (lectures, discussions, story time, videos).
  • When giving instructions, be sure that you have the child’s focused attention and ask her to paraphrase the instruction before beginning the task. Many children with ADD may also have difficulty with auditory processing. This disorder makes it exceedingly difficult to understand and follow oral directions. These students will also have difficulty taking notes from lectures, so it may be useful to provide her with class notes.
  • Encourage the child to focus his attention on the task at hand, and reinforce appropriate behavior when it occurs. These students have significant difficulty working independently and have a tendency to procrastinate and dawdle. These behaviors can be disruptive for the class and frustrating for the teacher.

Teachers and parents should view attention deficit disorder as a pervasive and complex disorder that impacts nearly all of the child’s activities and interactions such as:

  • The child’s impulsivity (“Ready, fire, aim!”) can present serious safety concerns;
  • His distractibility makes it extraordinarily difficult for him to understand and follow instructions;
  • His memory difficulties make even rote learning troublesome;
  • His executive processing problems (ability to plan and prioritize) present great challenges when he attempts to plan simple daily activities;
  • His organizational deficiencies cause him tremendous problems with homework, household tasks, and long-term projects.

The neurological causes and the medical treatment of ADD continue to be sources of research, experimentation, and debate. However, educators have developed methods and strategies that have proven successful with these children. Teachers and parents should remember the two most important words when dealing with these special children:

  • Support
  • Challenge

The child should be continually challenged by presenting him with activities designed to improve his behavior and his learning, while simultaneously providing him with the support that he requires to meet these goals. Support without challenge is meaningless. Challenge without support is equally ineffective (p. 50).