For the past year or so, I've been thinking about the importance of attention as a spiritual discipline, an essential quality that keeps us focused on the reality of the present in a world of multiple distractions.
At the same time, I have been tutoring a high school boy, a family friend, who has ADHD, as attention deficit disorder is generally known. I knew the boy as a hyperactive child,so I was not surprised that he has been a restless, impatient student, sometimes impossible for me to work with.
Now, only after reading a few key sources, I understand how typical he is among those with attention deficit disorder (and how my original ideas about attention mean little to many people). I learned the challenges faced by about 10% of the world's population: talented, creative people with ADHD don't outgrow the brain dysfunction whereby focusing becomes difficult and attendant emotional distress inevitable.
Hyperactivity leads in adolescence to a restlessness in which forgetfulness and a lack of organizational skills are common. Parents and teachers need to understand what I have recently learned: that ADHD people can be helped. The two M.D.s who wrote the book Driven to Distraction--Edward Hollowell and John Ratey--discovered during their medical studies that they themselves had an attention deficit disorder, yet they not only graduated from Harvard but got through the ordeal of medical education. Now they have written books and are helping others in their medical practice.
In my own teaching, I had little awareness of this disorder, and assumed that most requests that students be given more time or help were due to dyslexia (or simply that the students were among those who didn't belong at the university). I now know how much patience a teacher and parent must exercise in repeating ideas, suggesting ways to structure reading and writing assignments, helping students prioritze their work so they don't feel crippled by the effects of a common problem. Because these students are generally gifted, not backward.
A topic like this involves the complexities of learning and problem solving. Things I take for granted--planning a schedule and writing an essay--require subtle skills that my high school friend lacks. He easily becomes impatient with himself, angry, and depressed when he runs into a blank wall. He knows that anxiety is often a part of attention deficit disorder, but we tell him that he is not mentally ill or damaged as a person.
He is getting help not just from me and from his parents, who are attending a workshop on this topic this week, but from medication and the patient guidance of his teachers. I remind him of the many gifted people in the past--Mozart among them--who are assumed to have had ADHD or at least trouble organizing the plethora of ideas they had; they were, like many great people, poor performers in the structured environment of formal schooling.
So it is important to remind students like mine that, along with the negative symptoms, they are likely to be creative, imaginative, warm and outgoing people with a great sense of humor and a great deal of spontaneous talent to share with the world.
I have been learning, again, how difficult learning is as a behavior and how our under-valued teachers have enormous opportunities to turn a challenge like ADHD into a channel for good. What we who educate need are patience and understanding.