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You’re a professional tutor and there never seems to be enough time during the sessions. Even in the small space of the meeting room it is often difficult to maintain your student’s attention. If the parents allow a phone, it is always out, and even when turned off it seems to have an enticing presence. If the parents do not allow a phone, the student reaches for yours, or looks out the window, or draws pictures on the notebooks or plays with pens, tears up paper, and bounces an erasure on the table.
Does this scenario sound familiar? ADHD is a neurological disorder, but it is also a disorder that is affected by the environment in which a person lives. We have created a society that is full of sense stimuli, convenience, and ubiquitous advertisements promising all manner of immediate gratifications. And despite all the conveniences of modern technology, no one seems to have any time. The world we live in, full of self-service and push-button routines, is beginning to look and sound like a giant pinball machine. And we wonder why our children have trouble sitting still or listening for hours at a time.
In a New York Times column published in 2014, Richard Friedman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College, outlines a method of educational planning aimed at creating benefits out of the perceived limitations of ADHD. Friedman emphasizes a need for fast-paced teaching in a fast-paced world, which can provide benefits for all students involved, but particularly for those who are hardwired for rapid responses to new and novel stimuli.
“Novelty-seeking,” as Professor Friedman describes it, is a common inclination that, for those with ADHD, becomes highly accentuated. “Compared with the rest of us,” Friedman writes, “they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits.” To compensate for this, those living with the disorder become desperate for exceptions to the mundane status quo that governs modern life. And for young people, education represents that status quo, both in its institutions and its activities. The school system becomes an often difficult and regimented structure in which they are forced to integrate.
This is where the role of the private tutor can provide critical guidance, and even inspiration. The advantage of regular one-on-one sessions with students is something that is for the most part absent from the classroom setting. And for the ADHD child, this difference is crucial, as the private setting is much more conducive to their needs. It's a lost opportunity when tutoring becomes simply another routine in the life of a child already bored from long days of school work and classroom lectures. This is not to say that tutors, or teachers for that matter, are doing anything wrong. There’s nothing particularly boring about common teaching practices, but as Friedman points out, if you're having these attention-deficit responses to your environment, the problem is that most of what you experience on a day-to-day basis feels “not very interesting.”
The difference begins with your approach. Professor Friedman’s point about things not being interesting to a child with ADHD is a generalization. Obviously, if you have any experience at all with ADHD-diagnosed children, you know they have interests. In fact they are exuberant about many things much of the time, even appearing “hyperfocused” at times. It’s a tutor’s job to draw in that energy and make use of it in the best possible way. As writer and parenting specialist Denise Foley points out in her article “Growing Up With ADHD,” “we learn how to give instructions to a child whose short-term memory is impaired and who finds it tougher than normal to keep distractions at bay.”
Foley goes on to describe an ADHD paradox, which baffles parents as children with the disorder can seem driven at times with obsession over a particular activity, yet fail to accomplish dozens of relatively simple goals throughout the week. For tutors, this paradox is something they learn to deal with on a daily basis, repeating their instructions and pleading with students to focus. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even the most scattered and disruptive ADHD student can be reined in when there’s something genuinely interesting at hand.
So what’s interesting? This depends on the student, of course. But if one can generalize at all in this regard, making a game of things is a great place to start. If a subject is challenging for a student, boost them up with review activities then tackle the new challenge as a puzzle, piece by piece, one item at a time. Tutor by numbers, but let the student make jokes, ask random questions (because they will), or take breaks. Let them take out their frustrations. Let them change the subject (because they will), or even opt for a different subject, so long as they return to what they were doing by the session’s end. And most importantly, repeat the lessons. Repeat the work. Repeat everything. Your students will thrive given the chance for concentration, and for a child with ADHD, concentration means repetition. Structure is important, but structure can also accommodate a student's curiosities, and make allowances for moments of lost interest.
ADHD is not going away. Its rates are increasing by the year. But for children diagnosed with the disorder, their education does not have to be compromised. And given the chance for private tutoring, the educational experience can not only be tailored to their specific needs, but can also be impactful, individualized, and modeled for longstanding academic achievement. With an adaptable teaching style that incorporates a student's interests into the lessons, you can achieve what you may not have considered possible, because a more tailored approach speaks to their nature, and to their psychology. To pique interest is to inspire. And where one is inspired, whatever the nature of their limitations, they will remember, and they will learn.