What George is pointing out – in terms of classroom experiences – is that many of the children who come into our office oftentimes are diagnosed as attention deficit disorder. A good portion of these kids have been placed on one kind of medication or another, and anxiety is a secondary issue. Physicians, the parents, and the school counselors see the behavior as attention deficit. It fits the criteria as attention deficit. So, the first thought is that this is an attention deficit disorder, rather than a child with a set of learning differences that are creating anxiety for that child. So, that a child who learns spelling in a different way, or a child who learns math in a different way, is instead now anxious about how they learn.
They may do what we all do in learning environments. They may say, “It’s time for me to take a mental lapse and check out because I’m not interested in this. And the reason that I’m not interested in it is that I know that I am probably not all that good at it.” These are the things that they are saying to themselves. We have kids sometimes who learn the myth that ‘I am not a math person’, or ‘I am more of an English person than a math person’. That always fascinates me.
It may be easier to learn one subject or another for a child. It is not an identity. That’s really important to understand. Math skills are skills. If I really wanted to get good at being a mechanic and spent more time working on being a mechanic, I probably could pick that skill up. Right now, I am not the world’s greatest mechanic, but I haven’t spent a lot of time in and out and upside down in my car. If I did, I’d learn what each part was. I’d learn how to manipulate and maneuver each part. Pretty soon, I’d become a master at it. Dale Carnegie proved this ages ago when he said, “If you ever want to become the master of a field, spend eight years every day, one hour a day, reading from the masters in that field, and you’ll become a master of that field.” There are people who study the Carnegie methods to this day doing exactly that – some of them with diagnosed learning disabilities.
George mentioned mental drift. There are some children who have mental drift, which is not simply a coping mechanism. There may be something where the brain has difficulty assimilating a portion of information, so it becomes wrapped up in trying to problem solve that one piece of information. Now 3, 4, 5, or 6 other bits of information have gone past the child and they’re still stuck on bit 1 or 2 because they don’t have an understanding or there is something difficult about it. Now they’re behind their peers, and it looks like they are attention deficit because they have a difficulty with organizing or working with one particular piece of information.
That particular piece of information that they got stuck on now gets a secondary anxiety associated with it and becomes one of those where the child might take a mental drift anytime they come close to that kind of information. So, if a kid has difficulty with a concept developmentally in math, as they’re learning this math concept they get stuck. They may be a little bit younger than their peers. They don’t quite understand division, and the rest of their peers start leaving them behind.
They have enough social awareness that ‘I’m not in the top here’. They may begin to say, ‘Alright. I don’t get it. What do I do if I don’t get it? Think about something I get. Think about something that’s a whole lot more fun. This is a pain in the butt. I’d rather not think about it.’ So, they begin to drift.
When they drift in that way, you end up with a kid who has learned to drift relative to a certain subject. That is not necessarily an attention deficit disorder; it is an attention deficit relative to a context, relative to an environment that’s not global.
There are kids who drift in global environments. We see kids with head injuries and kids who have difficulties that are related to another medical difficulty. They may have a drift that will then be an attention deficit. That’s usually far more global.
A child came in with an attention deficit diagnosis…
“What grade are you in?”
“Wait a minute. You look a little small for fifth grade.”
“Oh, yeah, well I skipped ahead two. My parents know I am very bright, but I am attention deficit.”
The kid was not attention deficit. The kid was up two grades and what interested fifth graders did not interest a third grader. He got the label ADD and he was on Ritalin by the time he arrived at my office.
George said something about free associating. Some children have a very strong imagination. Three, four, and five year-olds have learned how to function with their imagination, and it helps them problem solve a wide variety of problems. Now, they come into a classroom where they’re being taught not to use what has become one of their strengths – their imagination. They get a worksheet placed in front of them. They begin to imagine themselves filling this worksheet out. Time passes much faster than they think it ought to, and they’ve drifted. Now, a teacher says “Hey, where did you go?” It’s a pretty normal process. That kid, who has that very strong imagination, sometimes also gets labeled ADD. They’ve learned to imagine, so they naturally drift.
What we ask for in the classroom we call “narrow-focused behavior”, rather than “open-focused behavior”. When I have an open focus, I’m able to contemplate all kinds of things around me and take in stimulus. When I have a narrow focus, I have one thing that I have my mind on; other things I pair out. There’s a difference in those two types of attention. Unfortunately, we keep teaching narrow focus, narrow focus, narrow focus, narrow focus, narrow focus.
Most of life is not a narrow focus issue. We create attention problems also because we are in a culture of narrow focus. Rather than teaching a child to have a wide focus that allows them to observe and take things in, we tell them “pair down all this stimulus and put your attention right on that one thing”, and we do it while we’re sitting on top of them going “Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention.”
What does this do to their adrenalin? It cranks it up. As their attention now is focused on that one narrow area, other things are left behind. They become a little bit more anxious about how they learn, and they can develop difficulties that can become what later gets labeled as ADD – two totally different ways of focusing.
Free associating is open focus. Freud taught that people would get better if they would free associate, rather than abreact (an emotional release) when he did his psychoanalysis in the late 1800’s; it was the big thing. If I can get somebody relaxed enough so they can free associate, they’ll get better. We’re teaching kids in school, “don’t free associate, we’ve got a time schedule, we’ve got testing that we have to be able to push you through”. So, that free association kind of disappears. Kids, who have learned to be imaginative early on, now all of a sudden, they’re being told, don’t be imaginative. They’re pretty adaptable. Some of them let go of their imagination. Others, they’re so good at it, they do not want to let it go. They can also be labeled attention deficit.
Thousands of years ago, there was a real smart man who wrote a proverb, and it said, “Train up a child according to his bent and when he is old he will not depart from it.” The man was named Amena Menes. He was an Egyptian. The proverb was then borrowed and then incorporated into the Proverbs of Solomon about 300 years later in the Book of Proverbs – pretty smart nugget. We oftentimes arrogantly think that we’ve figured out more than others have known before us – not so much.