Graham Chatterley is an assistant head at a school in Warrington for pupils with a range of SEMH needs. He has 4 children, of which the youngest 2 have varying ASD needs. One is very high functioning with some social and understanding difficulties, however managing well in mainstream primary. The other having significant ASD, ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder needs requiring an SLD setting. This has put Graham in an unusual position of experiencing both sides of SEND which has aided his understandings of both. He has kindly provided this guest post for the Axcis blog.
Is variety in the curriculum the prescription children with ADHD need?
Here’s the thing – I’ve got instant credibility when talking about ASD because I live it everyday. I can fall back on real life – every hour of the day, every day experiences which add to my professional experience and give my opinions added validity.
My experience of ADHD is different. Yes, I encounter it every day to varying degrees at school and I have years of experience in that respect but other than it being a side-dish to Daniel’s severe ASD and other needs I can’t claim the expertise of living with it at home.
I witness children struggling with ADHD at school, I see them with and without their medication and how they change. I see how they see themselves as different and what this does to their self- esteem and anxiety. They become shrouded in anger and negativity because they are different and misunderstood. So often it is believed they are doing things on purpose or just not listening. This is usually far from the truth.
I talked about High Functioning ASD being about trying to fit a square peg in to a round hole. ADHD is so similar in many respects. There are so many crossovers and the two go hand in hand in terms of sole focus and borderline obsession. The differences are also there if we are willing to see them. A child with High Functioning ASD may be super smart and when fixated on a topic will want to know everything there is to know about it. They will more than likely be happy with knowing and be more than happy talking about it endlessly. They are the great researchers of our society and if interest is peaked in a topic then there will be no end to their questions about it.
This is something I have experience of because Max is learning about the Romans. I have a little knowledge of the Romans from my days as a primary teacher – but a little knowledge isn’t enough for Max. He wants to know everything that happened in 500 years of the Roman Empire whilst he has me trapped for a short car journey across town! Thank goodness for Google and Siri who do have the answers to the barrage of questions being fired at me!
It is brilliant that Max is so interested in the Roman’s because in this topic, he will get a brilliant report. The problem is that the rest of the class have now moved on to maths or literacy and Max is still thinking about Rome’s failed invasion of Gaul! This will cause difficulty for Max getting on task for maths but he can usually be refocused and get back on track.
A step further
ADHD is similar but can be more intense. If this child is focussed on something, it is the only thing in the world and refocussing back onto the Maths lesson is very difficult. They are blinkered to everything else and similarly HAVE to know everything they can about that topic. The difference for the child with ADHD is that they also have to know why. If there is a problem then it has to be solved, if there is a mistake it has to be corrected and if something is incomplete it has to be completed!
As a teacher, you might spend hours trying to get a child with ADHD to write something in literacy, but then when they write about the Romans you can’t get them to stop!
This desire to finish, fix and solve means that if these children can be focussed on something practical, they will often achieve amazing things.
This desire to finish, fix and solve means that if these children can be focussed on something practical, they will often achieve amazing things. I’ve seen children who find classrooms impossible go on to become incredible mechanics or computer engineers because of their desire to take things apart, put back together and improve. The myth is that the need for them to be practical is to do with their physical hyperactivity. When in fact the need for them to be practical, is to challenge their mental hyperactivity with a problem solving task!
Positive or negative? Obsession or passion?
Some will see this desire to know, solve and develop as being obsessive, the child will be made to feel that obsession is a negative thing and therefore they will feel like they are different and doing something wrong. This contributes to the child’s self-esteem taking a knock and we end up left with an anxious and unhappy child.
In many adults with ADHD, when finally working in the “right” work field the same traits are seen as passion, the desire to know is seen as positive and the problem solving appreciated and nurtured. What was once a negative thing is lorded by bosses and recognised as a great thing. The adult can finally achieve, belong and that self-esteem gets a well deserved boost.
Unfortunately they have to find their way to the right work field. Often they have to do this with poor exam results because despite being really intelligent, their organisational ability sucked or they couldn’t focus themselves. They end up in jobs that they aren’t passionate about so bounce from job to job and experience failure after failure when in reality they have so much to offer the right person/organisation. If we can identify that that passion and see it for what it is rather than looking down on it as an obsession which must be eliminated, you end up with incredible achievements. Just think, what would have become of Jamie Oliver if his love of food had been seen as an obsession and a negative, rather than a passion…
This is where we often go so wrong, and I don’t blame schools. Schools have to produce children who fit a type (children who have learned a balanced curriculum so that we may tick a variety of boxes). Education is a production line of round pegs who are intended to go about their lives with a steady job and for many this model works fine. However, for some children, this production line holds them back, it’s tells them they are different, it tells them they are doing it wrong and it tells them they are bad. So many children come to me seeing themselves this way and seeing school as negative. Every single one though can tell me a subject they like, every school report contains a mixture of bad behaviour and brilliance. For many by the time they get to me the damage is done, too much negativity is associated with school and we look for an alternative for them. These children are often completely different when they get to college and are doing an activity they are passionate about like joinery, landscaping etc. If we are lucky though, we get them early, we find a passion for music or art or sport and we can use that as a vehicle in school to drive them. We know what their outside passions are and use them as a go-to whenever that child is distressed. Whatever it is, we don’t make them feel like it’s obsessive or wrong because it is our tool to help their mental health and a way to ground them and prevent them from getting into trouble.
If I have a child who is distressed in class about writing about something he cannot (despite all his best efforts) focus on or interest himself in, what if we tweak the lesson and he writes about something he’s passionate about instead? Which will probably be good quality, is that the end of the world? Or should we force him do it the same as everyone else; disrupting and getting into negative behaviour, probably producing a much more mediocre piece of work, if any.
We also need to look at an alternative classroom
My opinion is that much more topic based learning has to be on offer for children with significant ADHD. Whether it’s about Roman’s, Dinosaurs or Volcanoes, it doesn’t matter! What does matter is that they all present an opportunity for literacy, history, geography etc. but they do it in a way that engages our harder to reach children. Being less prescriptive and allowing these children to do what they are exceptional at lets them problem solve, write with passion and research independently. Skills that many other children may not be capable of.
What you might find is that the child who is easily distracted and cannot focus on a task, now cannot be dragged away from their work. The pen will need to be wrestled from their hand and the sponge that has absorbed so much information has been rung out onto the page. Surely this is better than mediocre?
Why does being out of the classroom and outside help the child with ADHD so much? I struggled for years to understand why a child who could not sit still in a classroom for more than 2 minutes could sit fishing on a lake for hours on end, but when you live in a world with so much external stimulus attacking your senses, removing them and being able to focus on one thing is a welcome relief. It’s not about resting the body, it’s about resting the mind!
Therefore being outside, reducing the lights, the noises, the other children etc gives them a rare opportunity to focus and some relief from a school world where they are bombarded with over stimulus and expected to fit in a box. ADHD once served as an incredibly important tool that kept people alive. Whether it’s Spiderman’s ‘Spidey Sense’ or Daredevils heightened senses, these are seen as superpowers – but the child who notices every sound, change, smell and is hypervigilant is seen as troublesome because they can’t focus. In the past their ADHD would have been the difference between them having food and becoming food but now it’s seen as a disability. Skills like these on a sports field, or attention to detail in an art class cannot be taught.
Resilience and working out of their comfort zone
We have so many children who want us to prescribe them everything and because we are teaching to such a stringent curriculum this becomes the normal way of learning – and when it does come to being creative or having a debate, many children find this really challenging. They don’t like to come out of this comfort zone they are used to and many are faced with apprehension and anxiety. Now the child in class with ADHD lives in apprehension and anxiety all the time but given the right topic, the desire to pursue and explore gazumps those feelings every time. The thirst for knowledge and blinkered enthusiasm means that being out of the comfort zone is an adventure and they will be able to stay on task.
Brainstormers and team leaders
Given the right topic, a child with ADHD can excel in group activities, thinking outside the box and motivating the group
Given the right topic, a child with ADHD can excel in group activities, thinking outside the box and motivating the group. They can take an idea and run with it. Many classes have a child who is difficult to engage but the other children look up to. As staff if we can engage that child then the rest of the class will follow their lead, all too often though we take the easy option and withdraw this pupil.
If their confidence hasn’t been destroyed by the time they leave school and they can find the right work field, this child will be a brilliant brainstormer and an infectious team leader. It is one thing to be able to complete a task well, it is something else to motivate others with your enthusiasm.
We put emphasis on whether a child is a visual, audio or kinaesthetic learner. Surely we are missing a trick by not teaching these children in a way that gets the most from them. What if we pooled the skills of our children with high functioning ASD and ADHD to a research and development team in school and just allowed them to learn in a way that their brain is designed for rather than trying to prescribe the same stuff they struggle to focus on everyday and setting them up to fail. These children are labelled as ‘naughty’. Were they ever labelled as naughty when they were reading their favourite dinosaur book, searching the garden for minibeasts or trying to fix something?
They may have been labelled naughty for breaking it in the first place but is it still destructive if you break something just to learn how to fix it?
A final thought is that if your child with ASD has a thirst for knowledge that allows them to be an incredible researcher and your child with ADHD has the desire to be an incredible developer, then your child with a combination of both really is a 1 person research and development team who many employers dream of. So what do we do with these abilities? We train it out of them and try to make them a round peg! We give them their prescribed education programme. Then either; at best they manage it, supress their desires and we delay them reaching their potential. Or they fight the system, get labelled naughty and disruptive. They spend their days in education believing that there is something wrong with them and they are bad. The only question then is how much damage is done by the time they reach the right education and how long will it take to repair?
Graham would like to invite ideas for contributions, so if you have any SEND issues you’d like to hear from him on, why not get in touch with Axcis today? And don’t forget to register or check out our jobs pages if you’re seeking SEND work or staff!