I struggled all my life in school, until I started college. Suddenly, my GPA skyrocketed to a 3.9. What happened?
I learned study skills, but not the ones given to me by the learning resources department. Their strategies were complicated, and I had trouble remembering the steps. I didn't care for the extra work, either. So I created shortcuts. Instead of doing the popular "SQ3R" reading strategy (survey, question, read, recite, and review), I did "Q1R" (question and read). The learning center recommended that I record lectures, so I could listen to them again later. I had no patience for that! I read the textbook, Q1R-style, before class, so I could understand the lecture the first time I heard it. The shortcuts worked! Now I understand that I was following my ADHD brain's biological needs.
Your Brain on ADHD
During those years of struggle in elementary and high school, I never knew I had ADHD. I found that out only 16 months ago, when my seven-year-old son was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. Our combined diagnoses prompted me to study the biology of ADHD; I wanted to understand as much as possible about the disorder, so I could make the best treatment decisions for us.
Of the many things I learned, the most surprising was that simplicity is a biological need of the ADHD brain. As it turns out, my shortcuts in college were not optional; they were essential!
To understand the importance of simplicity, stop thinking of the brain as one organ. Instead, compare it to the digestive system, which includes several different organs that work together to process food. Likewise, the brain is comprised of several different regions, each of which processes different types of information.
The frontal cortex, the region most challenged by ADHD, is the organizing center of the brain. It orchestrates everything — from your five senses and feelings to the thoughts you generate in response to them. All regions of the brain communicate through a massive network of wires called neurons. These wires create pathways for every thought and movement you make.
Although the brain has billions of neurons, any one of those neuron connections is like a string of holiday lights. The first bulb is your frontal cortex. It receives information, determines what to do with it, and then sends directions to the rest of your brain. Imagine what happens if you cut the circuit between the first bulb (frontal cortex) and the second bulb (the rest of your brain)? The power goes out!
ADHD is a chronic condition of power outages caused by a shortage of chemicals that power brain connections (such as norepinephrine and dopamine). With a weak power supply, the frontal cortex sends weak signals to the rest of the brain. Sometimes the signals connect. However, many signals never reach their destination.
Simplify Steps in School
How does all this affect your ADHD child's doing well in school? Fewer steps in learning cause less strain on your child's underpowered frontal cortex. Look at the traditional method of organizing papers into separate folders. When a student is handed a homework assignment in class, it requires a sequence of 20 steps in the brain's circuit to put it away: grab the paper, set it down, reach down, open the book bag, slide books back, flip through folders, find the right folder, grab it, open it, slide the paper in, close the folder, pick it up, reach down, grab the book bag, open it, move books, hold other folders back, slide the folder in, set the bag down, and return to an upright position.
Every step is an opportunity for the ADHD brain to lose power. It is more effective to have one binder with separate subject folders inside. Now, it takes only a handful of steps to put homework away.
Here's a three-step plan for simplifying lots of things for your child:
> EXAMINE YOUR CHILD'S LEARNING AND ORGANIZING HABITS. Choose one that represents a major challenge. How about shortening your child's set-up time in starting homework?
> BREAK THE STRATEGY DOWN. Observe your child one evening as she starts her homework. Document every step.
> NOW SIMPLIFY! Seeing the steps in writing will make potential shortcuts obvious. When your child takes forever to start homework, you'll see that a lot of time is spent digging through her book bag, searching for assignments, and looking for a pencil, ruler, or calculator. Simplify this process with one binder (instead of individual folders) and one bucket or caddy that contains all of her homework supplies. Centralizing things can eliminate most of the steps required to start homework. This takes pressure off the frontal cortex.
Simplifying things sounds too simple to have such a big effect on your child's performance. But it will. Taking pressure off your child's frontal cortex will allow the rest of her thinking to shine through!