Understanding the Mental Skills Affected by ADD and ADHD (Part 1)
(ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder and ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyper Activity)
It can be tough having ADD / ADHD, especially if you are a child. ADD and ADHD are actually two names for the same condition.
These two articles discuss the types of mental abilities affected by ADHD, give examples of academic tasks that use these mental abilities, and provide examples of strategies to improve each of the skills. If you know how your child’s mental abilities are affected by ADHD, you can predict what kind of tasks he will have difficulty with and provide support in those areas.
The key to understanding ADHD is realizing that the symptoms go far beyond “difficulty paying attention” and often affect many aspects of a person’s life. Each person’s symptoms are different and each person is affected to a greater or lesser degree. One thing is certain, however, ADHD affects learning, relationships, self-esteem and, ultimately, your child’s career.
What do kids with ADHD experience in school?
Students with ADHD can have a very hard time with academics. They may have difficulty managing their thoughts, emotions, memory, motivation, and attention. For example, they may find it very hard to listen and remember what the teacher says. They may have trouble getting the ideas organized in their mind and understanding how all of the pieces fit together. They may have trouble with sequences; young children may have trouble learning the alphabet, or the order of the months.
Executive Skills Are Affected by ADHD
Psychologists refer to the mental abilities affected by ADHD as executive skills because we use these abilities to manage and direct our lives. Executive skills allow us to plan and organize our behavior, make well-thought-out decisions, overrule immediate desires in favor of longer-term goals, take conscious control of emotions, and monitor our thoughts in order to work more efficiently and effectively. The following listing and brief description of executive skills illustrates the range of abilities needed to effectively manage our lives. Following each skill description are suggestions for improving that skill.
Planning and prioritizing
This is the ability to make plans or develop strategies to achieve a goal. In order to effectively plan and prioritize, students must make decisions about what is important and what hey should pay attention to. This involves making a complicated set of related decisions about what to focus on, what to ignore, and the order in which to complete each task. For example, when students are planning their homework routine for the evening, they need to decide which tasks are the most important, how long to spend on each one, and the order to complete them so they get the most benefit from their study session. Another example is completing a book report or an essay. Tasks that require multiple steps and cannot be completed in one sitting can be particularly challenging to students who have ADHD.
To improve your child’s ability to plan and prioritize, try these activities:
Encourage your child to put things in written form by making lists of helpful study strategies for each subject, or nightly “to do” lists.
From an early age, involve your child in discussions about the importance of things in his/her world. For example, around the dinner table, get your child’s opinion on what is the most important quality in a friend, what is the best party venue, etc.
This is the ability to realize that “time” is an important concept, the ability to accurately estimate how much time a task will take, understand how to apportion one’s time, and the capacity to stay within time limits to meet deadlines. This skill comes into play every day. A great example is efficiently taking a test; a student needs to stay within time limits, not spending too much time on any test item. Another common example is realizing the need to begin a large project early so there will be enough time instead of waiting until the last minute. It is easy to see the extent to which time management depends upon the ability to plan and prioritize!
Related: Managing Time for Adults with ADHD
To improve your child’s time management, try this:
Pick an activity your child enjoys, such as coloring a picture, or playing a board game, and ask him/her to guess how long it will take to do that task. Keep track of the actual time and compare to the guess.
In the academic area, encourage your child to evaluate each assignment or test prep session on a four-point scale of 15 minutes or less, 15-30 minutes, 30-60 minutes, or a “long term, multi-session task”. Have your child write the “guesses” down and keep track of the actual time used for each task. Help your child evaluate the accuracy of the guesses and learn how to make better guesses on future assignments. (Adjust the time limits for your child’s grade level or abilities, if necessary.)
Many life tasks and school tasks require the ability to arrange ideas or objects in a certain system, such as grouping like items or ideas into the same category, understanding a sequence of events, or identifying cause and effect relationships. Organization is necessary for a student to properly write an essay, for example. The paragraphs need to be put in the best order to convey the message, and each detail must be in the correct paragraph. Objects can be arranged in terms of their physical qualities such as size or shape, or based on their use, such as separating school clothes from dress clothes.
Try these activities to develop organizational skills in reading:
To encourage reading comprehension and organization, have your young child put the events of the story in order. Younger children can use a simple comprehension template that consists of the character’s name and category (Harry Potter, a young orphan), problem (fights evil, unearthly forces), and solution (to save his life and defend his friends and school). Older students can use outlines or concept maps to visually depict the relationships in the text.
This is the ability to remember information while using that information to perform complex tasks. When your child does math problems in her head without writing anything down or looking at the numbers, she is using working memory skills. One of the most difficult working memory tasks is taking notes from lectures.
To encourage working memory:
Silly sentences: have your child develop a simple sentence (without writing it down) and recite it backwards. For older kids, have your child repeat the sentence backwards, substituting a name of a candy for every noun! Or have your child list the names of 7 friends and then say them to you in alphabetical order.
When your child uses this extremely important executive skill, he is able to evaluate his performance or behavior in order to determine if his approach is effective. This skill helps him keep on track to achieve his goals by giving him information about how close he is to the goal and what adjustments he should make to be successful. For example, a student uses metacognition when he compares his unsatisfactory grade on a test to the limited amount of time devoted to studying and decides that he needs to study more for the next test. Another example of metacognition is your child’s realization that he/she is anxious during tests.
To improve metacognition:
Introduce your child early to the process of asking him/herself questions to monitor performance. For example, “Am I doing this right?” “Is this making sense?” “What is the next step?” “Can I do this a better way?”
This is the ability to adapt responses and plans, when necessary, in order to achieve goals. Flexible people don’t get locked into one way of looking at something; they adapt. Students use this executive skill every time they stop using ineffective methods and try something else, for example, when they actually follow through and study more for the next test, or “learn from their mistakes” and try a different strategy.
Flexibility and metacognition are closely related skills. Students who know what the options are, and have a realistic view of the present situation, are more likely to pick a different approach when things break down. I have also found that being inflexible is closely tied to feelings of insecurity. Parents can help their kids feel “safe” about trying new things, and this will increase their willingness to change and adapt in the future. Some ways to help your child feel safer are to explain the benefits of the new approach, to offer to help them get started, and to be sure kids have clear, step-by-step directions for the new task. Remember, change takes time and small steps really do add up!
Part Two of this article continues the discussion of the executive skills affected by ADHD.
Dr. Kari Miller is a board certified educational therapist and director of Miller Educational Excellence, a Los Angeles based educational therapy facility whose mission is to bring about unlimited possibilities for students with complicated learning needs by guiding them to discover their true brilliance and use it to change their lives.
This post originally appeared on our January/February 2011 Magazine