Gifted-Ed Guru

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The Highly Distracted Gifted Child: You Can Help

Formal ADHD diagnosis or not, here are some tips to keep you from giving up.

Recently, I was asked to sit in on a child study meeting for one of the students I work with in the gifted program. For those of you who may not know, a child study meeting is one in which the parents of a child and a variety of professionals in the education field sit down together to discuss (and brainstorm solutions to) any troubles that the child may be having in school. Typically, these meetings grow out of behavior concerns: defiance issues, perhaps; attendance concerns, maybe; and, more typically, concerns about distraction or attention. In cases where there is a clear and previous diagnosis of ADHD, the suggestions for assisting the child are fairly routine. The teacher might, for example, be sure to sit him away from distractions (out of the path of, say, the pencil sharpener or the water fountain); she might make sure that the child consults a “backpack checklist” to inventory what he’ll need to do his homework that night before he boards the bus; she might try a behavior modification program that offers a reward of some kind if the child remembers to raise his hand before blurting out answers or if he asks permission before running off to the bathroom.

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For those who are reading this column I suspect that, interested as you are in gifted education, it comes as no surprise that gifted students can also have distraction issues. Some may have an official ADD or ADHD diagnosis, yes, but many others may not—despite the fact that they may be as equally affected, even in some cases debilitated, by the problems of chronic distractibility. The reason? Their intellectual gifts help them cope with it in ways that keep them a bit lower under the radar. Take, for example, the gifted student’s ability to rapidly assimilate new information with less practice than his peers. This trait affords him the opportunity to miss his teacher’s review of two-digit multiplication three out of the four times because, the one time he did tune in, he got it. (In fact, because he often has a knowledge base that exceeds those of his chronological peers he may even have known the material already!)

When that child is at school, there are some things that the teacher can do to help, which is the reason why committees (such as our “child study”) meet together periodically to discuss, assess, and revise the progress of such distraction issues. But it is certainly fair to say that in these circumstances—whether or not there is a formal ADD/ADHD diagnosis—both parent and child are likely continue to face hardships even after the school day has finished. The very real problems that these gifted children face—poor organizational skills, an inability to focus, perhaps even a long-suffering attitude about school in general—can turn completing a homework math worksheet into a battle for sanity. Here, then, are a few tips for parents who find themselves ready to throw in the towel with their distractible gifted child.

Limit distractions. Make homework time is part of a larger predictable household routine, and make sure your child is equipped to succeed during that time. Pick a place to work with adequate light for reading. Gather all the supplies she will need for completing the assignment in advance and lay them out. If your child would like a glass of water to sip while she works, have it ready.  Whenever you are having any discussions about school or schoolwork, be sure your child has the benefit of being able to hear you clearly; and make sure she is given to opportunity to share her own thoughts without others interrupting or competing for attention. 

Consider the space. Many families use the kitchen table for homework. But is the TV on in the background? Are there lots of other family conversations going on around the child as dinner is prepared? If so, consider shifting to a different work place, or moving the homework to a different time in the evening.

Avoid over-organization. Your child arrives home with a backpack full of wrinkled papers, unable to locate the week’s spelling list (or that critical permission slip that is “absolutely needed by tomorrow!”). The parent thinks, “Aha! We’ll set up a separate folder for each subject and have an extra one for teacher notes!” This is a common trap. The trouble for the highly unfocused child, who already struggles with organization, is that she has now been given the monumental challenge of becoming ultra-organized—a paradox if ever there was one. Find a happy medium. Maybe you’ll have three folders: one for office notes; one for completed homework to be turned in the next day; and a final one to be used for all papers given out in class, regardless of subject. At home, you can model how to move through and organize those folders for the next school day.

Stay positive and don’t lose your cool. Honestly, when your child has misplaced a paper for the hundredth time that week, or has quit working on her homework in favor of inspecting the contents under the couch cushions again, it’s hard not to blow your stack. But of all the suggestions you can heed, this is primary. Find ways to praise (“Hey, you’ve put your name on the paper! That’s a great start!”) and remain calm. Breathe deep, refocus your own energies, and remind yourself that this is better than getting into the ever-predictable power struggle that would inevitably occur otherwise. 

Finally, ask for help and advice.  Relatives, teachers, and fellow parents are the best sources of hints. Chances are pretty good that whatever you are experiencing, others have gone through it before. Benefit from their trials and tribulations! Talk it out, be flexible, try suggestions, and see what happens.

You’ve got three-quarters of the school year still to go, so take heart. That’s plenty of time for both of you to practice.

Your Turn: Do you have a gifted child that is highly distractible? Or were/are you, perhaps, one of those people? What strategies seem to work for you? Share your thoughts in the comments. We’d love to hear your ideas.

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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