ADHD? Hyposensitive? and what old Soviet school (maybe) got right.

30 May

I want to talk more about our kids. “Our” because I also have two children like that. They need to fidget. They need to move. They are bright but make silly mistakes. They struggle with transitions. They struggle starting their work. The struggle finishing their work (unless they LOVE what they do – then they will do it non-stop, forgetting about eating, sleeping and bathroom). They are impulsive.  They are labeled as ADHD.

I don’t want to start a discussion about whether ADHD exists (and why so many children are diagnosed in the US and so few are diagnosed in France). But one thing is certain in my mind: like Autism, ADHD became a huge umbrella for a range of different symptoms, and those symptoms might not have the same etiology.  For example, some of those ADHD children indeed have a non-“mainstream” neurological wiring, some of them suffer from a diet which is wrong for them, some of them face challenges created by anxiety (and it is actually anxiety that makes them fidget, not so much ADHD itself). Some of those kids are creative, bright and sporty. Some of them are loud and angry. Some of those kids are sad, introverted and quiet  (and still making silly mistakes on tests when asked about material that they know perfectly).  Because ADHD (or labeled as ADHD) kids are so different, what I will write won’t help everybody. But, I hope, it will be helpful to some.


The need to move results from a need for stimulation. It is a variation of what we call sensory-seeking behaviors.  It goes together with running around, standing up, jumping, squirming in her seat (poor kid, she wants to RUN), sucking her thumb, chewing her clothes, doodling and so forth. One thing that I was horrified to learn about the American schools is that kids go from one class to another practically without breaks. They are supposed to transition perfectly from Math to English without any time in between.  If you ask me, I would say it’s humanly impossible for any healthy child (or even an adult). Watch yourself please. When you work, how do you transition between tasks? Right. You go get tea. You go to the bathroom. You stretch. Basically, you move.  At the very least, you will check your email or even Facebook just to take your mind off work if only for a moment.  American kids do not have such a luxury.  An 8 year old (or even a 5 year old) is supposed to sit quietly in her chair (or on a rug, and I will get to the whole “circle time on a rug thing” later) without unnecessary movement, and close her English book and then open her Math book and continue to work without bathroom, email checking, fidgeting or even stretching.  When I hear about this “structure”, I want to remind people that cruel and unusual punishment is unconstitutional in the United States.

In the “good old USSR” we started the 1st grade not younger than 6, and most kids were 7 (compare to America where kids start Kindergarten – and get labeled as ADHD et al – at 5). Therefore, our stamina, endurance and, hence, the ability to sit still was much greater. In addition, in good old USSR every class lasted only 45 minutes (no more than that).  In between classes we had a 5-10 minute break (and there was a “large recess” which was 15-20 minutes).  That was the time for us to go crazy – run around, scream, even fight if needed (within reason of course). It was also the time to transition from Math to Russian, and so forth.

Furthermore, many ADHD kids struggle with writing. Writing requires a lot of concentration on many level (sentence construction, spelling, control over fingers, and so on).  I remember how in good all USSR my elementary school teacher (who was not such a great teacher to be honest) interrupted our Russian classes just to have us stop writing and MOVE our fingers (we moved fingers to a short rhyme which went like this : “We’ve been writing for so long, our fingers are tired, we’ll give our fingers a short break, and start writing again”).

The teachers were simply mindful of the simple fact that kids do not need to be labeled, or medicated, kids need to move!  Frequently, during the class, when the teacher detected that our attention flew away, our teachers asked us to do 5-10 sit ups.  That was enough to satisfy our sensory systems and bring our focus back to the classroom.  Here I was shocked to find out that completely natural need for movement which many young children have is pathologized and even criminalized.


Children crave structure.  Spacial structure is achieved through careful and reasonable ways to divide space with physical bodies. Temporal structure is achieved through reasonable dividing time with changing activities (e.g., from waking up, to brushing teeth, to having breakfast, to going to school etc – time is divided with various activities which create structure). Children (and adults) want to trust their structures to be solid and not to collapse.  Solid structures are those that are predictable. When children know what comes next, they are able to transition, they are less anxious, and their behavior is easily managed. American elementary schools effectively destroy the structure with the so called “rug activity”.  When I first saw that rug, I got a warm feeling, thinking how my kid will be lying comfortably listening to a story. Then I got the phone call from school that my child was lying comfortably (just like I imagined!) on that rug, during the circle time.  That completely threw me off.  If the teachers don’t want the children to lie comfortably, why set them up with that rug?  If you or I are placed on a rug during the day, I bet we will be lying comfortably pretty soon, and then fall asleep too.  But our kids are not allowed to be comfortable on that rug. They have to sit up. But if they have to sit up, wouldn’t be more reasonable to leave them at their desks? Sitting up is hard, but at their desks our young kids are not tempted by that rug.  Overall, the golden rule is: kids cannot be quiet and still when there is no structure.  And, I think, the teachers have to decide: should they be really progressive and allowing our kids a reasonable level of comfort (e.g., lying down and maybe even falling asleep on that rug) or let go of the progressive education, move children back to their desks, where they will be sitting quietly (only interrupted for sit ups every 20 minutes, like we were back when USSR existed and America was good).

Temporal structure is as important. When our time was divided into classes and recesses not only we got to move, we had predictable temporal structure to hold on to, and we had time to transition between activities.  We always knew what our next lesson will be. We were counting the minutes till the bell (the bell rang when the lesson was over). We made plans for next recesses. Overall, we existed within a clear temporal arrangement which reduced our anxiety.

To create solid structure, one needs tools.  For example, THE BELL.  I personally hated the sound. Even when the bell meant the end of the class, it got on my nerves. Half of the time though it meant the beginning of the class and got on my nerves even more. Still, better hate the bell than the teacher.  Bell is so much preferable to teachers’ screaming and asking pupils to be quiet because the next class started.  It’s also much better thatn parents’ nagging the child to do HW. That’s why I strongly recommend that all parents of those kids use technology. When the alarm goes off, the child starts homework, when it goes off in 15 minutes, your child is allowed to take a bathroom break.  You don’t have to be nagging or screaming. Let the Bell nag your child and be hated.

Rituals are extremely important tools. We had quite a few in school (some of them were crazy). But among more reasonable one was a simple ritual to stand up in the beginning of each class, when the teacher enters the room. This standing for several seconds (no more than a minute), helped us transition from running around like maniacs to becoming quiet, diligent students. While standing quietly, we were able to found the board, the teacher our pencils and collect our brains. Once we were allowed to be seated, we were ready to open books and start working. And of course, having to stand up for the teachers instills some respect, which never hurts.

Notebooks are super important. The usage of notebooks was very simple. All our HW was done in the notebooks and not on separate pieces of papers. Nothing was lost. We could easily find and check our HW from weeks ago. Notebook is more difficult to lose than a single piece of paper. Notebooks were handed to the teachers in the morning. They were returned to us with HW checked by the end of the school day. No lost HWs.

I could go on.  And I am not a big fan of Soviet schools, and I was never a fan of Soviet Union. But some of those things worked. I want to tell you quickly what happens to kids in an American school.

Did your child’s teacher complain to you that s/he makes silly mistakes? Of course. All her energy, all her concentration goes into restraining from forbidden movement! No fidgeting, no doodling (I hate that one, as I doodled my way from Siberian elementary school to Princeton University, and I’m the biggest supporter of doodling).  Of course, poor kids would make mistakes, they are exhausted from keeping still!

Did your child’s teacher complain about behavioral outbursts? Of course, when your child has to sit for hours processing a lot of new information without any recesses or breaks s/he will be overloaded and having all kids of meltdowns.

I will try to write another post about what we, American parents, should do. But, right now, I just want you to realize that your child is not a villain, not a monster and, definitely, not stupid. He simply tries to operate and survive within the system that is stack against him (and his sensory system).


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