I’ve been sitting at a dining room table for almost two hours now, observing my son, Matt, as he works with a student. Matt’s a professional tutor and so am I. I’ve enlisted Matt’s help with this particular girl, because history’s not my forte and it’s one of Matt’s specialties.
This student (I’ll call her Eva) is home schooling due to chronic fatigue syndrome. On top of that, she’s got attention deficit disorder (also known as ADD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD). Yet here she is, for two hours now and counting, totally absorbed in a very complex and detailed discussion of political and economic dynamics between world powers after World War I.
You would think that we tutors see a lot of ADHD in our line of work.
We certainly have enough students with that diagnosis. Probably a third of the kids I work with take attention-regulating medications (Concerta seems to be the most common).
So I guess the ADHD is there. But I don’t feel like I see it a lot. After decades of working one-on-one with students and naturally engaging with them on their level, ADHD is simply not a part of my day-to-day tutoring interaction. Perhaps I’m just so inured to it, so automatically flexible and accommodating toward all sorts of learning styles and needs, that ADHD doesn’t hit my internal radar anymore. Or maybe students don’t exhibit their ADHD when they’re engrossed in material at their level.
I like to believe that the latter is at least partially true. Certainly, as I observe Matt and Eva bantering away (it’s Matt, now, who’s looking a little bit tired, while Eva keeps asking eager questions and making connections), I don’t imagine anyone could watch this lesson and imagine that Eva has unmedicated ADHD.
Now, it’s true that I’ve seen Eva’s eyes glaze over a few times during this marathon history lesson. Matt had to take a few detours to explain some very technical detail or another, something hard even for me to understand (the differences between communism, socialism, and fascism, for example). They’ve been going for about an hour and a half at this point, and Eva looks a bit dazed and tuned out. I wonder if this is where Matt will lose her and the lesson will be over.
But, no. Eva suddenly perks up, shakes her head as if shaking away the fog, and pitches right back in with another question. Forty-five minutes later, it’s Matt who cries uncle. He’s worn out, whereas Eva, attention deficit disorder notwithstanding, would have happily kept on discussing the intricacies of world war politics, economics and social dynamics.
I was eager to discuss the topic of ADHD with Matt and compare notes.
In general, because we’re tutors, focused on one student at a time, Matt and I don’t experience ADHD as a learning problem. We can roll with the needs and interests of the individual student, instead of having to shoehorn a lesson into a classroom framework or a limited amount of time.
As Matt points out, ADHD has no impact on a person’s overall intelligence, ability, or talent; this is why ADHD warrants extra time on standardized tests such as the SAT with no penalty. To him, it seems to produce a different kind of intelligence.
Matt reports that some of his fellow students who have attention deficit disorder have issues focusing on any single subject for an “acceptable” length of time, but these same students may have a surprising amount of general knowledge. Instead of learning well from a “specialized” high school history class which spends 45 minutes to an hour discussing European history, ADHD students Matt’s worked with have shown a remarkable ability to jump easily from history, to physics, to mathematics, to English, with comparatively little fatigue. Writing a single 5-page paper on a single topic may be difficult, but five 1-page papers on different subjects may come easily.
And then there’s Eva, who can keep going on a single subject that interests her, for hours! What kind of ADHD is this? Yes, she’s highly distractible under certain conditions, but capable of intense and sustained focus under others. Discussing these different students makes me notice that not all ADHD is the same, that this debatable concept is even less clear than I had thought.
Matt also points out that in a world such as ours, with ever-increasing access to dense and difficult information, with ever more rapid change and upheaval, we may want to pause and evaluate what skills will be truly beneficial to individuals and society as a whole. People who are better at jumping from topic to topic, at branching across subjects and making connections, may find their skills highly valuable in the very near future. So, certainly, will be people like Eva, who can delve deeply into a single topic, to the exclusion of others.
Both Matt and I are thinking more now about the positive aspects of ADHD, and appreciating our students and their unique skills even more.