Might Schools Be Teaching ADHD?
Tessa had the worst case of ADHD I’ve had to deal with in a long time. She was a high school junior who’d been in special ed classes her entire school career, and I was recommended to tutor her for her SATs.
Upon first impression, Tessa seemed, frankly, dull-witted. Her speech was slow and her eyes were listless. Her lengthy psych ed. report indicated a number of vague and (to me) not especially helpful prognoses: a processing problem, a memory problem, an executive functioning problem. And, yes, ADHD.
Intriguingly, Tessa’s IQ score was well above average.
It’s rarely a problem for me to engage with a student. I’m adept at getting them talking and thinking and involved with the material. Some of this comes from experience. But a lot of it, I believe, lies in the naturalness of the one-on-one human interaction. Tutoring is like a dance, where each partner follows the cues of the other. It doesn’t take long to develop a rhythm and a rapport. I expect every student to have a unique learning dance, and I let them lead, until they can’t or won’t, and then I gently guide them until they regain their confidence.
But Tessa wasn’t like this. She would not engage. She was marginally polite, but also clearly, openly disinterested. Her answers to my friendly questions came out as grunts. She fidgeted, she squirmed, she doodled, she took lots of bathroom breaks and every other minute she asked ‘Are we almost done?’
Tessa’s SAT scores were at the very bottom of the scale, little better than random guessing, which is exactly what Tessa had done. On every practice question I gave her, Tessa passed her eyes rapidly over the material, and then selected an answer without actually reading, calculating, or using her mind in any meaningful way. When asked how she got her answer, her reply was ‘I dunno.’ And when asked to re-do a question, Tessa would simply make a different blind stab.
It was easy to suspect that Tessa just wasn’t trying, that she was being stubborn and uncooperative. Yet, she was trying. I could feel it! Tessa simply could not marshall her attention long enough to do any better than what she was showing me, and it was painful for her. She was using the bathroom trips and the doodling to escape from the mental discomfort.
Two striking qualities of ADHD are the record number of diagnoses and the controversy behind them. Scientific debate about ADHD swings wildly; at the same time some are claiming to have found hard genetic and psychological causes, others argue that the condition doesn’t even exist. This debate has raged since the 1970s (which is when I began tutoring) and there’s no resolution in sight. Meanwhile, ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric disorder in children, with some numbers estimating 16 percent of the school-age population being afflicted. What can this extreme polarity of opinion tell us about ADHD?