A mother walks in with her 11-year-old daughter, who is sweet and polite. When her mom starts talking to me, a child psychotherapist, the young girl slumps in her seat and puts her head down. Her mom continues: “I just don’t get it. She is so verbal, so creative, bright, a good kid, but she is doing awful in school. She wastes time, doesn’t complete her work, doesn’t get her homework done unless I sit with her, has a hard time keeping friends and can’t follow directions! I have scolded, punished and pleaded, what more can I do?” I ask the usual follow-up questions and listen. Brittany says she is really trying hard. I believe her. She is sad that her mom is so frustrated.
The term ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is bantered around today as an excuse for a too direct remark, an abrupt change in the conversation, or a messy home. “I am so ADHD,” adults like to joke. However, ADHD is a serious neurodevelopmental disorder affecting 7 to 11 percent of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Challenges with organization, regulation, distraction, forgetfulness and impatience are the typical symptoms. But symptoms of rambunctiousness, boundless energy and impulsivity are key in making the diagnosis. Children with ADHD who lack hyperactivity are not easily diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and often fall through the cracks. They are often described as lazy, flaky, unmotivated, “in their own world” or dreamers. Most are girls. Boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, the CDC reports.
Many children with ADHD struggle academically because paying attention, organizing and task completion are huge challenges for them. In addition, these kids may lag behind socially. Since they are typically unfocused, they often miss subtle social cues such as body language and facial expressions. Without thinking of consequences, they might say the first thought that pops into their heads. This can also make them exciting and fun.
Jewish children with ADHD/ADD face another set of challenges. Religious studies, learning Hebrew and preparing for b’nai mitzvah mean more classes for a child who has trouble sitting still and focusing. Some synagogues have developed programs giving ADHD children the special support they need to complete their studies.
Cantorial Soloist Susan Burden of Congregation B’nai Israel, who prepares children for b’nai mitzvah, personalizes the study program to meet the child’s needs. “For example, when an ADHD student is primarily an auditory learner, we spend time singing together and building small memory units. I may create personalized songs that fit the tunes of the prayers we are working on to help the student master the tune first before adding the Hebrew.”
For children who are overly fidgety, Burden said, “I provide simple hand movements that exaggerate the flow of the prayers so that the student can chant to the rhythm that he provides himself through movement. As the portion is learned, the student usually drops away from the large gestures and towards a smaller, less noticeable movement that still triggers memory.”
Daniel Quigley, Marcus JCC director of soccer, was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school. “What was hardest for me was the small stuff, the day-to-day tasks that I had to write down or they would just not get done. The big, interesting projects were not a problem since they held my focus.”
Quigley, now 32, discovered that he could apply his high energy to sports and soccer, which also built his confidence, improved his problem-solving and provided socialization. “I was the goalie in soccer and was under a lot of pressure. I would often get very angry when the other players scored goals or my team lost points. One day some of the boys let me know that I was acting like a jerk and that got me back on track.”
Quigley encourages parents to involve their children with sports too. “At the JCC, all the coaches have a special passion for kids and sports. We treat each child individually and try to keep them moving.” Nobody sticks out when everyone is moving, he said.
In addition to sports, Quigley was involved in Boy Scouts and his synagogue. To help him study for his bar mitzvah, his mother played Hebrew tapes in the car to practice while being driven to activities. She also helped him get started with his school work by breaking down large tasks into small chunks.
“The hardest part for ADHD kids is getting started. Once we get started, we may even get hyper-focused and be unable to stop an activity. My mom would encourage me to ‘ just do 15 minutes and then take a break.’ Often after the 15 minutes, I became engaged and wanted to do more. Even now, as an adult, getting started is difficult.”
Once diagnosed, Brittany also was able to find her way. Her parents received medical intervention from a doctor and used me to help with emotional regulation, organization and social skills. They also asked the school for helpful modifications.
Her father noticed Brittany’s acting talent and she joined a children’s theater group. Performing increased her socialization, status with her peers, and her self-esteem. As a psychotherapist, I see first-hand how success in one area brings confidence and success in others. We don’t want our kids to feel defeated when there is help.
Vicki M. Leopold is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Fayetteville.