Raising Irving: Life With ADHD

My dad, Irving, used to tell me that when he was a school boy in the early 1950s, his teachers would give him important errands to run all over the city of Chicago, during the school day. They were important ones, he told me with pride in his voice—school documents that had to be delivered to the department of education in sealed envelopes. 

Last year when my son was struggling to sit still and behave in the classroom, and we started Occupational Therapy to try to help him, I told my dad what we were doing. In his 70s now, he seemed to understand: “I think I could have used that!” he said. I asked him if he thought the teachers were just trying to get him out of the class for a while, with those errands around Chicago. “Probably!” he laughed. But the 1950s ad hoc solution for a kid with attention issues kind of worked—it gave a talkative, hyper young boy a real purpose and a mission, even if the teacher really did just need a break from him.

I suspect many teachers and volunteers who have been in charge of my son could use a break from him, too. They can’t send him across town on errands, but I wish there was a method that would solve the immediate distraction while allowing my son to feel good about himself, like it did for young Irving.

My son talks. A lot. He’s disrespectful when he doesn’t want to do something. He can’t sit still and doesn’t want to focus on the assignment at hand and fidgets with anything he can get his hands on. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD, but it’s mild, the doctor says, and for that reason, does not recommend medication. The doctor did recommend a specific kind of Occupational Therapy, but says it can take up to six months to see any change. 

In the meantime, though, my son is keenly aware when the adults in charge don’t care for him so much. Many don’t even try to hide their disdain for such characteristics in a child. The doctor told me that it’s common that many kids with ADHD exhibit what she called “class clown syndrome.” She told me, “They use what they consider to be humor to deflect attention away from ‘getting in trouble’ and being embarrassed by that.” This is definitely true for my son, and I’m writing about it today because when it comes to class clown-type behavior caused by ADHD, I believe empathy and understanding from adults is in shorter supply than it is for other disabilities and types of behavior.

Is the bossy child sent to the office for repeatedly not minding her own business? Is the emotional child disciplined for crying too much? Is the struggling reader expected to just pull it together and catch up on his own? Is the physically disabled child asked to get up from her wheelchair by sheer force of will? Of course not, but for kids with attention issues, the standard is different, even though their struggle to sit quietly in class is real.

Our doctor recommended that teachers and caregivers “need to explain to him in a private setting that his humor is actually causing him more problems rather than deflecting attention from getting in trouble,” she said. “It can be helpful for teachers to develop a signal system to help him learn when his behaviors aren’t funny.” While I know that in a large group setting, this is easier said than done, I wish more adults could recognize the struggle behind the behavior. Because, when it comes to any group situation where sitting quietly and conforming is placed in highest regard, we are losing him.

The truth is, though, he’s an enthusiastic communicator, has a clear, loud voice and large vocabulary. He stands up for himself, asserts himself, constantly asks questions, and apologizes quickly and often. I think that most parents would agree that in the grand scheme of things, these are good qualities. But if you possess these qualities as a child, you get in trouble.  

As I write this, I don’t have all the answers (or any, really), as we are just beginning to learn about ADHD, and have not yet gone in for our first new OT appointment. We do ask our son to try to meet teachers and caregivers half way, try and understand their position, and think about how his behavior affects others. We pray for strength and wisdom on how to positively guide an impulsive child. My hope and prayer is that a few adults will start to do the same for him.