Most parents would probably agree that children and adolescents are a squirmy lot who tend not to listen or pay attention very well.
But for some, the problem is more than just a jumpy phase on the path to adulthood. They suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which can affect many aspects of their lives--most obviously their schoolwork.
The disorder hasn't been studied or discussed widely until the last decade, and it's important not to apply the diagnosis too broadly. After all, many teen-agers are unable to concentrate for long or have poor listening skills, but that may be attributable to poor diet or a lack of interest in the subject.
Students with the disorder have more serious problems. They cannot sustain even short periods of attention while learning--while reading a text or hearing a lecture, for example.
Nor can they clearly organize information, so synopsizing a story they have just read may include jumbling key events or even omitting them.
And, because students with the disorder have greater difficulty staying on task, they often also display disruptive classroom behavior.
In general, children with the disorder tend to engage in what is called passive learning. That is, they go through the motions--by completing a reading assignment or listening to a lecture, for example--but don't really think about or process the material. It's a lot like copying sentences perfectly in a language you don't understand.
Obviously, such problems impose huge obstacles to academic success, but there are some ways that public schools are trying to help.
In fact, the federal government made the campaign against the disorder official in 1991 by ordering that public schools test any student who is suspected of having it to a degree that impairs learning. In other words, if a child is thought to have the disorder but does not seem disadvantaged by it, then testing is not required. (Of course parents are able to appeal a school's refusal to test as part of their rights to due process.)
If your son or daughter tests positive for the disorder, then the school has three options for helping him or her succeed.
Severe cases typically require a program in which students receive specialized teaching (including more teacher attention) in a resource room for at least part of each school day.
Another option, for students with less serious problems, is to keep the student in the regular classroom but with adjustments in the teacher's methods and the learning environment. For example, instructions may be simplified and condensed, or tests and assignments may be modified.
Still other students can be helped by a third option: medication. In such cases, students need no special adjustments in their education; they just need permission and facilities to take their medicine.
All three strategies have been shown to help improve both behavior and learning.
In a recent study for the U.S. Department of Education, the University of Kentucky found 26 other practices, gathered from public schools nationwide, that have shown measurable success.
One effective method is increasing the family's involvement in the student's school life. Some schools host orientation programs to teach families about the disorder's nature, treatments, school resources, and parents' legal rights. Teachers, physicians, psychologists and parents with relevant
experience can conduct the programs.
Some schools also designate a staff member to serve as a parent liaison so parents of students with the disorder have regular reports about schoolwork and know what homework assignments the child has been given.
Helping the students become organized about their schoolwork also seems to be one of the most effective coping strategies. This is often as simple as teaching them to write all homework assignments, test dates and other deadlines in a daily planner. Some campuses reported having a teacher or aide meet regularly (in some cases, daily) with each student to look over his or her daily planner, and monitor daily schoolwork in general.
Although many public schools are understaffed, it is apparently also helpful, when possible, to assign an aide, tutor or other paraprofessional to help the student in the classroom.
Note taking is an important skill for any student, but particularly so for students who have the disorder. It forces them to listen or read intently, and think about, organize, and remember the information.
Helping students perfect their skills in composing narrative summaries of what they have heard or read is beneficial for similar reasons.
To learn more about the disorder, talk with a special education teacher at your child's school, or write to Children and Adults With Attention Deficit Disorders (CHADD), 499 N. W. 70th Ave., Suite 308, Plantation, Fla. 33317. Or you can call CHADD at (305) 587-3700.
Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School.