By Steven A. Richfield, Psy.D.
Children with learning disabilities (LD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) challenge and enrich the daily experiences of teachers and school counselors. The vulnerability of a fragile ego, the unthinking behaviors rooted in impulsivity, or the steep decline of yet another emotional meltdown can prompt a call for help from even the most experienced educator.
The above-mentioned scenarios fall under what I have come to call the “Now what do I do?” syndrome. It is a question that echoes through the minds of adults trying to help kids in the throes of emotion but realizing that we’re not sure what will help. No doubt it’s a familiar position to parents of all children.
Today’s children are often bombarded with social, academic, familial, cultural, and personal pressures that sometimes make growing up feel like living in a boiler room. Add to these situations the diminished resources of ADHD and LD, and such pressures intensify. Since the children I treat as a child psychologist are among this group, I have developed coaching tools to help them prepare for and effectively manage these pressures.
“Coaching” is the term I use to designate how caring adults use informed knowledge to help all children—especially those with special needs—manage the bumps and bruises along their childhood paths. This knowledge is used to help children improve upon their self-control and social skills in a world with high expectations and sharp penalties.
The selection of the “coach” role grows out of my belief that those who guide children benefit from a reference point to guide their own efforts. While much of my professional time has thus far been devoted to developing and expanding upon the parent coaching approach, the tools and techniques lend themselves directly to educators. If you are one of the millions of teachers or school counselors who seek to steer ADHD and LD kids straight along the path of growth, I offer these tips to you. Hopefully, these notions will provide some answers during the “Now what do I do?” moments.
1. The coaching role stresses that adults demonstrate through words and actions that they are on the same “team” as the child.
When emotions are peaking, children with ADHD and LD tend to perceive adults as taking sides and rushing to judgment. Sometimes these perceptions are accurate. Therefore, the coaching approach requires a nurturing tone of voice and an open mind to listen to the child’s point of view. Foremost in the coach’s mind is the thought, “I want to make this child feel safe enough to let me use this situation to help them improve their handling of it next time around.”
2. When it’s time to huddle, have your “verbal playbook” ready.
Once you have built a trusting dialogue, it’s time to offer them your explanations about what went wrong. Explain how their thinking side (the part of their mind that makes good decisions and watches over their behavior) sometimes loses control over their reacting side (the part of them that reacts emotionally to triggers in their life). This commonsense dichotomy resonates with most children’s experience and allows you to explain how certain traps in their life trigger the reacting side. Typical traps include being teased, insulted, or feeling embarrassed by some difficulty. Give examples of how this has happened in your life and perhaps in the lives of famous people.
3. Offer “thinking side messages” as preventive strategies.
Many children don’t appreciate the significance of how their thoughts fuel their actions. This internal language is often running in the background of their interactions with others, sometimes spurring them on to an impulsive response to one of their traps. Explain how the way we talk to ourselves when we are facing one of our traps sets the stage for whether the thinking side or reacting side wins the battle for control over our behavior. Emphasize “we” to reduce the chances of sounding accusatory or blaming. Give examples of how if they say to themselves, “I’m going to get even with that kid,” the results are going to be much different than if they say to themselves, “I’m not going to take the bait from that kid.”
4. Offer “talking tools” to manage the power of peer dynamics.
One reason that kids succumb to their traps is the wish to “save face” during potent peer encounters. But well-chosen words—to which ADHD and LD kids may not have quick access—convey power. Here are several responses to propose to the child who becomes inarticulate when the pressure builds: “This is just the kind of situation that leads you on the wrong road; Be my guest, but don’t wait for me to follow because you’re on your own; I don’t have to prove anything to you that I already know to be true; If you can’t see where this is heading, then I suggest you take some time to think it over.”
5. The prevention of future trouble is aided by practicing and processing.
You can prepare the child for improved coping by speaking beforehand about what is likely to happen in a given situation. Self-control is also fostered by rehearsing situations with the child so that they can practice their silent self-control strategies. Afterward, process the child’s experience by reviewing how well they coped with their trap. Reassure them thatit requires a lot of practice for all of us to use our thinking side when our traps are tempting us. Praise them for their willingness to discuss and desire to change for the better.
Please accept these suggestions as my expression of appreciation and offer of help to those who devote their professional time to enriching the lives of children with ADHD and LD. It is my sincere hope that some of these ideas will make for more meaningful experiences for you and those you teach and/or counsel.
Steven Richfield, Psy.D., is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly self-control/social skills-building program called The Parent Coach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-238-4450.
Products by Steven Richfield: The Parent Coach