Into Focus

ImageWe’ve all heard about the “epidemic” of ADHD with our primary school students. It’s become the new term for those students that struggle with any variety of childhood behaviors: focus issues, excess physical energy, boundless curiosity and questioning, the need for kinesthetic learning experiences. While I will not deny that some students truly struggle with ADD/ADHD, I have found through many years working with elementary school children that this is often used as a blanket term that can cover up other challenges, many of which may be addressed without any sort of medication.

My views are based on experience and I do not profess to be an expert in child behavior. Yet, in conversations with educators, colleagues, friends with children, I often find that we are all in agreement – many of our students labeled as having ADHD likely have other influences in their lives that are causing or exacerbating their challenging behaviors, and that medication is a cover – not the answer. It’s often not enough of an explanation to say to people concerned with focus issues in students, “Well, they’re kids. They’re 6. Of course they have a lot of energy,” so we label them instead of trying to find other (admittedly more time-consuming and complex) ways to help children focus and learn.

With the national conversation around Expanded Pre-K, Transitional Kindergarten, etc many educators and behavior specialists are thinking about how having more formalized education for even younger students could relate to these continuing issues around behavior and diagnosis. After reading a recent article in the New York Times (link can be found here and below), I had conversations with a volunteer and then Angie about my feelings surrounding how we talk about children with focus and behavior issues. Below, you’ll find a synopsis of an experience I had as a child.

When I was about 8 I was tested for ADD. I remember sitting in this little, very cluttered office inside a portable building on some campus in my hometown district. I was put in front of a computer and asked to click a computer mouse every time a white box appeared on the screen outside of the large white square in the middle of the screen.

There was a bee in the room, and I remember being so nervous about the test and then this bee that was clearly out to get me that I became terrified I’d be diagnosed with the ADD. When I walked out the man testing me told me I either didn’t have ADD, or I’d outsmarted the test. I remember thinking, “Wait. I’m 8. I didn’t outsmart a test on a computer. Was the bee part of the test? What was I being tested on that I could possibly outsmart?” The test ultimately revealed I didn’t have ADD.

Around this time, I was actually getting into a bit of trouble at school. When my family moved from LA to to Chico, I enrolled late for 3rd grade and was overall quite unhappy about leaving Southern California (little did I then know Northern California is so. much. better.). The school I began attending had an accelerated program that was full, so I went into the “other” class. This class had a mixture of students; some that were more advanced, others progressing at a basic level, and others that had some learning challenges but didn’t fall into any sort of special education program. I remember we took 2 months to learn double-digit multiplication, which my father had taught me the summer before. I’d talk to other students, distracting them.

I’d pull a book out from my desk and read instead of listening to the lesson. I’d draw elaborate pictures. Or, I’d just take off into long daydreams as I am still prone to do. My name was on the board every day, often with a couple check marks next to it meaning I’d had multiple warnings. My parents were told I was developing behavior issues. My report card that year read,

“Lauren is a creative and bright person. She consistently produces excellent school work, as well as turning in special creative projects of her own. She is doing less visiting in class- nice improvement!  I would like her to work on remaining in her seat at the appropriate times and to remember not to read or color during class discussions.”

This is the nice teacher way of saying I am creative, but challenging. Underneath those carefully chosen words there was a student that would literally stand up and walk around the classroom, doing as I pleased, talking to other students, finding a new book to read, and generally not paying attention or respect to the lesson at hand. I mean, I was making my own projects up and handing them in – what in the world was she supposed to do with that?

I’ve seen this same behavior in many of my students. Thankfully, my 3rd grade teacher was a calm and kind person that was willing to talk to my parents about ways to find a better space for me. I was soon tested again, moved schools the next year, and was placed into a full-time “gifted” program. Turns out I didn’t have any sort of attention disorder, I wasn’t a rebellious scallywag trying to get out of my work… I just wasn’t in the right place, and didn’t have the right teachers, mentors, or peers around me.

A year or so ago I read through my elementary school report cards. On each one I was mentioned as a bright and quick learner. Then, in the nicest terms possible my teachers would explain I talked too much and this was a challenge for other students that needed to focus, and made classroom management all the more frustrating. By the end of 6th grade, the remarks were laughable. Today, many of the traits my teachers mentioned as challenging are what make me successful. I can talk to people, I can multi-task. Just because I’m put in a position that doesn’t suit me doesn’t mean I just give up; I do what I need to do to keep myself motivated and learning.

Again, I recognize some students have very real challenges with focus and behavior. I know that this is just one story. I just worry that ADHD has become a catchphrase for an endlessly diverse and complicated spectrum of what kids go through as they grow up. I grew up, I learned more appropriate boundaries, and I still work on turning my more challenging traits into strengths. Some of this was just natural, some of this took mentorship and guidance from my family and teachers. That’s where folks like you come in.

Read this article, and let me know what you think:

Look for tips on working with students that may display some focus challenges in the next 
Tips for Tutors.







About Experience Corps Bay Area

Experience Corps Bay Area recruits and trains adults 50+ to tutor and mentor elementary school children, with a focus on K-3 literacy.
This entry was posted in Behavior Issues, Focus, Mentoring, Oakland, San Francisco and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Into Focus

  1. Denis Mathewson says:

    What if your behavior disturbs the rest of the class.

    Denis Mathewson 12 Monte Ave Piedmont, CA 94611 Phone: 510-332-4071 Fax: 510-654-0252

    • Hey Denis:

      Yes, of course it is important to take into account the experience of the other students in the classroom. I agree with Spencer that for some children, medication is absolutely the best course of action (especially if it’s to get them through a year or so of challenging development). That said, our job via Experience Corps is not to diagnose but simply to do as much as we can by working with the student where they are – what are the behaviors you can help them change and how.

      Inevitably, some students will be more disruptive in class. As volunteers, you can help your students reflect on how that behavior affects others and see if they can start to make more respectful decisions.

      Thank you for reading, and let me know if you’d like to talk about any of this further.


  2. Barry Phegan says:

    Nit picky grammatical correction. It is ‘students who’, not ‘students that.’

    I was also a disruptive student, for just those same reasons. The school tries shaping students to the same box, rather than the box to each student. Understaffed and underfunded, I understand the cause of this school originated issue, that is then blamed on the student. I am mortified when a student is sent to the Principal’s office for behavior that primarily comes from the school system. An excellent lesson in hypocracy. But I see no choice for the teacher, caught in the Catch22.

    Fortunately people are flexible, students mostly grow out of these personally adaptive, though socially disruptive, behaviors. I have a lifelong (hopefully healthy) distrust of authority and a cynicism towards bureaucracy, that is partly rooted in these early, miserable years.

    As corporations say, “When there is money to be made in education we will support large Federal education budgets.” Now the profits are in the military-industrial area so that’s where the budgets are. Such a sad truth. So when I see these little people behaving so appropriately (acting out) to their situation (from their point of view) I must look in the mirror and see the problem is mine for supporting a culture that places bombs over babies.

    I hate being the problem.

    Barry Phegan

    • Hi Barry:

      Thanks for the grammar check!

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Clearly, the issues you bring up speak to why a program like ours is so important. Students need many different role models to help them challenge and question, to build a healthy and constructive curiosity.


  3. Spencer Larsen says:

    I am largely in agreement with this. As volunteers, who work with children one-on-one, ADHD is usually not too much of an issue. Since we can pay personal attention, we can get a child back on track multiple times during a session, with the result that the educational effort is productive. I have had one student, however, whose attention span was literally not longer than 2-3 seconds. This was so pathological that even with the closest of personal attention, he was able to learn very little, and the classroom experience was, needless to say, a total disaster. It was tragic, I think, that this child’s parents refused to consider medication. If some children can profit by one-on-one teaching, but suffer because of attention in the general classroom, medication may result in significantly improved academic progress. Although the medications can be over-used, it is fortunate that they do seem to have a relatively benign profile in terms of any injurious effects. This is a conclusion that has held up for many decades. As a pediatrician, I did prescribe stimulant medications to a few children, perhaps too many. However, I did get a great deal of feedback that a child’s self esteem and academic progress did improve in many cases. Usually, most children take medications for a limited period, probably averaging a year or two. Last year, I attended a medical conference where the results of a long term study (in Pennsylvania) compared two groups of kids who were diagnosed as having bona fide “ADHD” by rigorous testing and evaluation by experts. One group was treated with medications and the other was not. With long term follow up, it was found that the treated group did MUCH BETTER in the long run with respect to measures such as education completed, income, marriage success, avoidance of substance abuse, criminal behavior, physical health outcomes, etc. Date: Fri, 14 Mar 2014 18:45:54 +0000 To:

    • Hey Spencer:

      Thank you, I really appreciate you sharing a bit about the other side of this issue – when medication is needed and helpful. I’ve worked with a few students that I believe did truly benefit from having been diagnosed and medicated for a year or two.

      Do you know if there are any publications of the study you cite that I could share on here? It would be great to add that perspective, if only for a few that would want to read it (like me!).


  4. Charlotte Hennessy says:

    Lauren: What a wonderful piece you’ve written, and the info was not surprising, as I often think that children who are gifted will display unusual behavior in the early years of school, and unfortunately, teachers may not recognize this. You were lucky.

    Upon reading the NY Times article, I cringe when I think of how many kids are being medicated when they should absolutely not be. The push for pre-K expansion is overdue, and let’s hope that it happens. It does seem that children are pretty hyper these days, and I don’t recall this being so when I was that age, but I think there are so many contributing factors, with constant technological stimulation, it would be a miracle if this didn’t adversely affect them.

    Sometimes I think that kids are being pushed too hard too early. Could this be detrimental? Maybe the children are “acting out” because they instinctively know that this is happening, and they’re trying to stand their ground as children – to let themselves be children a little longer. Just a thought. I’m obviously not an expert on any of this, but my instincts tell me that this may be part of the problem.

    Anyway, you asked for a response, and there you have it. 🙂


    • Hi Charlotte:

      Thank you for the kind words. I was definitely lucky.

      I love the reflections I can get from working with all of you, about the changes in behavior with different generations. I’m so grateful that you and the rest of our volunteers are willing to take a step back and note that students may act differently now, but that there are reasons for it and many ways to support them.

      I do always love responses. It’s nice to know that mine and Angie’s posts are read and thought about!


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