Our child with school difficulties has two essential characteristics: an exquisite sensitivity to their environment (both external and internal) and a corresponding over enthusiastic reaction to those stimuli. Some experts believe their primary difficulty is a drive to actively seek more and more stimulating situations. They are acutely aware of what is happening around them as well as inside of them and they react quickly and strongly. They leap before they look. They are like lightning rods that instead of harmlessly conducting their white hot energy safely away into the ground instead send it back to the sky and at innocent bystanders leaving unintentional destruction and conflagration.
We try to minimize the external stimuli by choosing a teacher who is flexible but fair, provides a consistent routine with clear rules and expectations, and immediate rewards coupled with appropriate consequences. The teacher may sit him in front of the class, give a good deal of eye contact and tap on his desk when he is distracted. She may give him special responsibilities to keep him moving and reward his good behavior.
At home we try to supervise his interactions with siblings and other children, provide constant discipline from both parents, and avoid wild birthday parties, violent loud cartoons or video games. Tea at his elderly great-aunt’s apartment is not going to happen. We have seen what over stimulation can do and want to prevent the problem before it starts. As my mother-in-law states it “You just have to nip it in the bud”. Good advice but it is hard to catch them (if you can).
The internal component is somewhat more difficult to get at but has the potential for greater success. We can’t completely control their outside world but we can help them learn how to manage their inner attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. We want our child to be less immature, to think carefully, take their time, remember to slow down and finish the job and be kind especially to small animals and stressed parents. Psychiatrists call this process “internalization”. As people grow older they eventually come to accept the values and customs of their culture. They become more civilized. This is the hope and prayer of every parent.
And so we teach our children well to behave and make the right decision. We reinforce the good behaviors by rewards and give the opposite with natural consequences. Despite our best efforts some of our children seem to take a lot longer to learn these lessons even though they provide the multiple learning opportunities time and time again. The frustration level for us rises quickly as the same sad scenes get replayed over and over again with diminishing returns but increasing anger, tears and guilt.
Improvement depends on addressing both internal and external issues. My patient with a fever might lower his temperature and feel better sitting in an air-conditioned room, drinking cool water, wearing light pajamas next to a giant fan. He might finally make it to 98.6 degrees if I add some Tylenol as well. The combination of inside and outside strategies can get us back to “normal”.
Goals to measure of therapeutic success in child with ADHD are more difficult to define. We don’t have a thermometer for that, but we have some ideas for next time.