Reading requires focus. Learning to read requires even more. For a child that is easily distracted and seeks intense stimulation, learning to read can feel daunting. Drawing out the sounds, writing each letter, saying words slowly one phoneme at a time, can seem dull and tedious to kids with ADHD. A child with ADHD may prefer to memorize text, draw, spin or do jumping jacks during reading time.
Kids with ADHD are often misunderstood. They are labeled as naughty. They struggle to perform well in school due to their unique brains, so they are often labeled as unintelligent (even when they have high IQs). If you’re a parent or teacher of a child with ADHD, you might find that your student is:
- often fidgeting
- does not seem to listen when spoken to
Given the symptoms above, you can see why these children are often labeled as bad, defiant children. A teacher might see a child often get up in the middle of reading time to spin, whack a peer, and then fidget with pencils in his desk. Parents might notice that their child doesn’t listen, as if he cannot hear their voices. These behaviors–though frustrating for caregivers–are truly not within the child’s control. Notice the other ADHD trait? Impulsivity. A kid with ADHD is unable to restrain his thoughts and behaviors.
ADHD is a physiological condition that shows up on brain scans.
For a long time people didn’t understand kids who were extra hyper, bold, and impulsive. Some (unfortunately) assume that ADHD kids are not disciplined enough, come from bad homes, ate too much sugar, or are choosing to behave the way they do.
However, given the work of Dr. Phlip Shaw, a lead investigator at the National Human Genome Research Institute, we know that ADHD shows up in brain scans. There are differences in ADHD brain structure. Dr. Shaw and his team got together lots of kids with ADHD and lots of kids without ADHD. They found differences throughout the brain, though there were more anomalies in the prefrontal cortex.
ADHD is highly heritable.
Dr. Shaw also states that ADHD is highly heritable, “with an estimated 70 percent of affected phenotype explained by genetic factors (from Genome.gov).” In other words, if a parent has ADHD, it’s a lot more likely that the child will have ADHD. For example, the base rate, or typical diagnosis rate in society is 10 percent. In contrast, if a parent has ADHD, there’s a 35 percent likelihood that their child will have ADHD–this is a huge jump from 10 to 35 percent (more than triple the typical diagnosis rate).
However, many adults with ADHD remain undiagnosed. The hyper aspect of ADHD tends to fade into adulthood. Therefore, adults with ADHD may appear calm. The inattention, however, persists. Therefore, adults with ADHD might grow bored easily, constantly seek stimulation, have difficulty sleeping… among other symptoms. Since a parent with ADHD might remain undiagnosed, parents of a child with ADHD might not see the link between genes. They may not know there’s a genetic factor at play.
Dr. Shaw and his team found that a receptor gene DRD4 was associated with ADHD.
The presence of this gene is linked with thinner tissue in brain areas that control attention.
If you’re a parent or educator who loves your students with ADHD, Dr. Shaw’s work is vindicating. For a long time, people thought ADHD was not a real condition. Now, we have clear science that shows ADHD is genetic, heritable and shows up in brain scans.
If you want to frequently punish a child with ADHD, think twice.
Kids with ADHD cannot control their behavior. If a kid with ADHD is punished excessively, he will begin to identify as being a bad kid. If a child internalizes that they’re a bad kid, then his behavior will worsen in the long-term. We know from psychological studies that social labels are prophetic. The child who is labeled as good will go on to behave and abide by social standards. The child who is labeled as bad will go on to behave badly (from The Person and the Situation by Lee Ross, pg. 227).
Therefore, we must be careful when we work with kids with ADHD. They do not deserve excessive punishment. If they act impulsively (hit, spin, draw in class…etc.), they need our guidance, not our scorn.
What works in reading sessions?
If you’re teaching a child with ADHD how to read, I recommend ignoring their fidgety behavior. If they are spinning, jumping, drawing… etc. simply hold a sound card and have them say the sound. You can also hold words up and have them read one word at a time. Go at their pace. Sessions may take longer. You’re going to need to ignore their energy levels.
Ideally, have younger kids read 6-10 words per lesson. Kids in the second semester of Kindergarten-Grade 2 can read 15-20 words per lesson.
Have younger kids spell 2 words and a sentence each lesson. Kids in the second semester of Kingergarten-Grade 2 can spell 6 words and a sentence.
In terms of actually reading books, younger kids can read phonics stories for 10 minutes. Older kids can read for 15-20 minutes.
In addition, praise good behavior. Remember that kids with ADHD are truly doing their best. They’re not misbehaving on purpose. Thus, praise them when they complete that spelling task, when they say a sound, when they read a word…etc. Don’t ever praise a child for accuracy. Praise only effort. Lower your behavior standards a bit. It’s unreasonable to expect a kid with ADHD to sit as silently and quietly as their peers.
If you really want to protect kids with ADHD make sure they are NOT punished excessively.
If you’re a teacher, maybe you can inform your principal that you suspect your student has ADHD. Maybe you need to bring this up to the parents. If a child is diagnosed, then parents can seek techniques that nurture the child. Sometimes deep breathing, ignoring innocuous fidgety behavior, and teaching the child how to process his emotions can lead to better outcomes.
If you’re a parent, maybe you can do little blitz style reading lessons throughout the day. In addition, you might want to think about hiring a reading specialist to ensure you’re child stays in step with his peers. Kids with ADHD seek stimulation. Your child is habituated to you and may not be as coopertive with you as he would be with an outsider.
Find activities that help your student focus. Some kids with ADHD will focus on read-aloud stories. Others will focus while coloring. As those familiar with ADHD know, kids with ADHD can hyperfocus on certain activities: this means, they can enter an activity and the world around them seems to disappear. These sorts of activities can help calm and engage a child with ADHD.
And, of course, use direct, systematic phonics instruction.
Don’t wait for kids with ADHD to fail. Don’t leave reading to luck ever, but especially for a child who struggles with focus. Instead, use research-based methods first. Teach phonics sounds one at a time. Review old phonics sounds. Teach your student how to spell and read phonics stories sound-by-sound.
Once your student with ADHD breaks the code, you might find that he/she becomes an avid reader. And that’s what we all wish for.