Labeling children can often be more destructive than helpful, and can prevent us from discovering the real reason behind the behaviors being manifested.
I recently heard a fourth grader I am homeschooling in math and language referred to as being ADD. His supervising teacher said, “I’m sure you already have noticed signs of ADD.” I find that this term is used far too often and misused in many cases. In his case, I do not agree with her assessment, because what I have seen in the short time I have worked with him, is a boy with some deeply seeded beliefs and emotions connected to to an unrealistic expectation of perfection in his work.
As with a procrastinator, ADD may be a sign of being overwhelmed with expectations that are unrealistic. Often, reluctance to complete work and what appears to be distraction are a result of underlying fears of not living up to parents’ and teachers’ expectations. This is the case with this fourth grader.
I watched my student struggle with a math assignment that would have taken confident students 3 minutes to complete. It not only took him 10 minutes to get started, and once he began, the stress displayed through his body language was excruciating to observe. He had a very tight grip on his pencil and hesitated prior to writing every number and symbol. He could articulate exactly what he was going to write, but avoided putting it on paper. As he gripped the pencil tightly, he also guided his pencil with his other hand. His work was almost type written in appearance. The problem for him was not competency. It was the inability to meet perfection expectation in written form.
I asked him to answer reading comprehension questions using complete sentences. He was reluctant again. Seeing him struggle with the math assignment, I reassured him I didn’t care what it looked like, but wanted to read his ideas. He stood and fidgeted while writing the first sentence. The words got progressively larger as he wrote.
I gave him permission for sloppy writing. He was reassured that no one other than he and I would see it. Once he believed me, he was able to write a paragraph at fifth grade level. It was sloppy but the paragraph structure was present. It was clear that the being free of not being perfect was releasing tension in his body. His struggle did not appear to be related to attention issues, but more related to the stress of the work having to be perfect.
I asked him, “When did you get the impression that you had to do everything perfectly the first time? Who might have said something that would made you worry about your writing being not perfect?”
“That’s easy. It’s my dad. If it isn’t perfect, he makes me do it over until it is. Sometimes it takes me 5-10 times until he thinks it is okay. I try to do it perfectly the first time, so I don’t have to do it more times.”
This is a tremendous pressure to place on young children, especially one’s whose fine motor skills are not fully developed. Boys tend to struggle with pencil control when they are younger, because they will be huge one day. They are working with muscles that allow for the growth to occur. I call them puppy dog paws. Puppies are clumsy at first, but once they are fully grown, they gain more muscle control.
I assured him that when he is working with me, I want him to put the worry away and work at increasing the speed at which he records his ideas and his math problems.
This helped a little, but his beliefs are so deeply rooted with negative emotions attached to them, that it will take more time to get him to relax into not being perfect.
Next time we want to label a students, let’s ask the question, “What underlying belief does this student hold that results in this behavior.”