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The Importance of Skills Acquisition for Students with ADD - featured June 24, 2011

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The Importance of Skills Acquisition for Students with ADD

By: Diane I. Ferber-Collins MBA, MA, C.A.S.

Our approach to children with ADD has largely focused on their identification and diagnosis, as well as the design of school-centered interventions around the classroom management and impacted areas of academic underachievement. I believe we need to consider whether our current school interventions will be effective beyond the immediate school microcosm, and beyond managing class specific academic success and classroom behavior. Are we providing the skill transfer and personal tools that will help these students through their academic career as they grow into adults? In 2007 I completed a school psychology graduate thesis project in which I chose to work backwards: with an understanding of the challenges faced by adults with ADD, from both their point of view and the point of view of their spouses and co-workers, I sought to find valuable, broad directions to inform the optimal content of school based interventions and transition plans.

Working Backwards
It makes intuitive and practical sense to me to work backwards and use the challenges of adults to inform the ideal interventions for children. Throughout my interviews, the challenging symptoms of ADD adult functioning were similar in nature to those for children -- social and interpersonal interaction, work / school difficulties, organizational and time management difficulties, and non-beneficial behavioral coping strategies. I found that there are significant additional difficulties for some adults who had little or no intervention and negative experiences in childhood related to their ADD, underscoring the critical need for positive school support and skill transfer early on.

Skill Transfer
There is still an obvious role for designing interventions around negative symptoms, beginning as early as possible. But there is a need to go beyond interventions and modifications geared toward classroom behavior and academic performance to what can be called conscious and phased “skill transfer.” This involves outlining specific skills that need to be overtly taught and applied – and creating a framework for the skill to be chunked down, modeled, and over time internalized by the child. This would entail a distinct shift of focus beyond intervention design focused primarily on preferential seating in the classroom, elimination of handwriting or late work penalties, extra time for work completion, extra copies of books and work, and written reminders of schedules and deadlines. Skill transfer involves direct instruction to help students acquire organization, communication, social and time management skills. This can be embedded in the regular curriculum as a ‘hidden’ curriculum, or taught directly as study skills and other direct instruction. These skills would then be available to help students more independently navigate through the harder levels of school and out into life. Internalization of these skills while they are still school children will likely also help esteem, self-confidence and self-advocacy. And, although the needs of children with ADD are great, conscious skill transfer as a secondary ‘hidden’ curriculum would benefit all children, as would a dedicated study skills curriculum. Most middle-school children would benefit from conscious organizational skill transfer.

Social Skills
There is implicitly a role for initiatives to help individuals with ADD while they are still school children to improve interpersonal skills. Adults with ADD were found to underestimate of both the breadth and depth of impact of ADD related challenges on spouses, friends and family members. Social skills require direct instruction, modeling and practice, with the goal toward generalization to novel situations. This instruction should ideally encompass a child’s understanding of their impact on those around them, including classmates, teachers, and their own families.

Acknowledging the Changing Face of Education
Skill transfer in general may become more important to the way we view education in its entirety over the years ahead. In general, with the availability of internet search engines, it will be more important to teach children the skills of critical thinking, information gathering /synthesis, and communication. It could help the student with ADD if these skills could be taught around individual interests. The interviews showed that in almost all cases, attention and focus were improved when the subject matter was of interest to the individual with ADD. This suggests that schools can support and allow children more latitude and opportunity to write and learn about things that are of interest to them, mastering research, critical thinking, analysis, and communication around areas of personal connection.

Further, all of these interventions would likely be more effective if the starting point became early self-awareness. Many schools have begun to provide their students with the tools necessary for each child to understand his or her own learning style. In this way, classroom differentiation and interventions would have a context for the individual, and ideally, include their active participation. This would help all children become self aware and invested in their own interventions. Further, each child would understand that every individual has strengths and weaknesses; be able to apply self-knowledge and take an active part in his own interventions; leverage her individual strengths; and be able to self-advocate. On a higher level, giving all students a way of discussing their strengths and weaknesses would promote understanding and acceptance. Some schools do this as an exercise, but few help sustain this view through the children’s internalization.

During their interviews, adults with ADD shared similar self perceptions of their problems in school, including that they were “dumb” or a “screw-up.” They tried to keep their problems hidden. They “hoped there was a reason.” They asked themselves why they were having these difficulties, and began to doubt themselves. Some worked harder, and some used humor to get attention and buffer their difficulties. At least two became “self-destructive” to some degree. “The most disturbing feature of ADHD children’s behavior…is the difficulty many of these children have in complying with the requests and prohibitions of parents and teachers.” (Wender, 2000, pp. 24-25). The absence, type, timing and experience of school reaction and intervention have huge consequence for an individual with ADD across his/her life span. When asked, “What would have helped you when they were students to cope and excel?” The universally offered response was “knowing about it” when they were in school would have been “huge;” knowing that it is biological difference and not something that was “wrong” with them. Knowing about it also suggests understanding personal strengths, and receiving nurturing and appropriate support in the school.

Why not create self-awareness and begin to transfer impacted skills among children with ADD during their early school years? Cognitive self-awareness, organizational, time management, and social skills would likely support the improvements in the children’s behavior and school achievement sought early on. Skill transfer that is begun in elementary school and integrated into an individual’s self view and functioning are key elements of a solid beginning for all children, but critical for the child with ADHD.

Featured Author: Diane Ferber-Collins, MA, C.A.S.

Diane Ferber-Collins is a school psychologist and learning support specialist practicing in CT. As the School Psychologist for an independent elementary school, Ms. Ferber-Collins works collaboratively with teachers, parents and children to promote an optimal learning environment that focuses on the strengths and needs of each individual child. Her goal is to bridge the understanding of how a child learns into classroom strategies.

As an independent assessment practitioner, Ms. Ferber-Collins conducts actionable and understandable psycho-educational and neuro-psychological evaluations for students grades K through 12. She received both her master’s degree in school psychology and her sixth year certificate in advanced study in school psychology from Fairfield University, and brings experience in teacher consultation and student services. She is the mother of two teenage boys.

She can be reached through her LinkedIn profile and at the, Pear Tree Point School

Tags: Article ADHD School Psychology Newsletter 24 June 2011