Attention Deficit Disorder
Hey mom, I just can’t pay attention in class—what should I do??
Written by Dr. Robin H. Holmes
More than ever students are complaining about their inability to pay attention in class. Many feel they may have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and wonder if medication or some type of treatment would be helpful. Are more young people suffering from ADD than ever before? Why is it that so many students are complaining about not being able to pay attention? What is ADD anyway, and what should you do as a parent when your student states there inability to pay attention and to focus is effecting their academic performance??
What is Attention Deficit Disorder?
ADD is characterized by symptoms such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, distractibility and difficulty sustaining attention. Symptoms may be different in each person with ADD. Some may have more of a problem with inability to focus, while others may have the most difficult time with impulsiveness.
The acronym of ADD is normally used whether or not hyperactivity is present. It is estimated that between 3% and 5% of the population have ADD. Males are diagnosed with ADD more often than females, although ADD is considered to be as prevalent in females as it is in males. One theory for this is that ADD (Inattentive type) may be more prevalent in females and is harder to diagnose than ADD with hyperactivity.
Individuals with ADD can often “hyper-focus” on things that are really interesting to them. People who can focus only on things that interest them, and disregard less interesting things, are often faced with additional problems such as an academic underachievement, lack of social skills, an inability to stay organized, or complete important tasks. These often result in difficulty with personal relationships, staying employed, or completing an education. People may also stimulate themselves by doing reckless or dangerous activities and thus complicate their lives with physical and legal problems.
There are two major types of ADD: ADD with hyperactivity and ADD without hyperactivity ("inattentive" type). Here are diagnostic criteria in a condensed form:
difficulty sustaining attention in tasks;
- seems not to listen;
- fails to follow instructions or finish work;
- difficulties with schoolwork or homework;
- loses things like school assignments, books, tools, etc.;
- easily distracted;
- has problems with organization and follow-through;
- forgetful about daily activities.
ADD with Hyperactivity
- fidgety in a squirmy sense;
- doesn't stay seated;
- often "on the go" or acts if "driven by a motor" or feels edgy;
- often talks excessively;
- blurts out answers to questions;
- difficulty waiting in lines or waiting turns;
- often interrupts or intrudes on others.
Technically, ADD is not something you can suddenly come down with. "Symptoms" such as excessive daydreaming or hyperactivity must be present by the age of seven in two or more settings and cannot be explained by some other psychological condition such as depression or anxiety. A student who finds it difficult to concentrate in college but did not experience this difficulty in primary or high school is most likely not suffering from ADD.
Symptoms of ADD in Adults
An ADD adult may have problems in achievement, organization, perseverance, social skills, and emotional control. Specific symptoms may include:
- time management --always late, taking longer than expected to complete a task
- financial problems--checkbook unbalanced, bills late
- problems with paperwork
- taking on too many projects then not completing them
- frequent moves and job changes
- inability to stay in a long-term relationship--history of divorce and remarriage
- history of taking up multiple interests then dropping them
- pattern of making major decisions without appropriate planning
- history of under-achievement in school and career
- difficulty concentrating
Emotional control problems
- prone to depression
- pattern of substance abuse
- low tolerance for frustration
- difficulty controlling temper
Social skills problems
- interrupting others when speaking
- speaking without thinking of potential reactions
- prone to "care-taker" relationships
Doesn’t everyone have problems paying attention these days?
The answer is yes. We live in a fast-paced, distraction prone culture that seems to feed into many of the symptoms described above. Many of us multi-task shift from thing to thing and find it hard to sit still for long periods of time. This does not mean that all of us have ADD, but it does mean that our culture is stressful. Many students come to the Counseling and Testing Center at the University of Oregon stating they think they have attentional problems. Although a small percentage truly does have ADD, a vast majority is more accurately assessed as having difficulty adjusting to college, or experiencing anxiety, may require help with study skills or are perhaps excessively using drugs or alcohol.
For the person who may have ADD, it is not just about adjusting to college or anxiety. It is also not about trying harder or being “lazy” with their studies; problems with attention and focusing are long-standing and chronic—college just exacerbates a condition that has been present for quite some time. Additionally, symptoms are present in more than one setting (such as school and work), and these symptoms are having a severe effect on their overall success in college.
What can I do as a parent if my student is having difficulty with attention or with ADD?
Students with ADHD can have a difficult time in college. They may be unprepared to leave the structure of high school and home. They may not have the support they need or may not know how to receive accommodations in college. But college and ADHD do not need to mean failure. If students attentional problems significantly interfere with his or her ability to perform in college, accommodations can be made to allow the student to become more successful.
ADD should be diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist who is knowledgeable about ADD as well as giftedness and creativity. A comprehensive assessment that includes academic, social, occupational behavioral symptoms is highly recommended. Just placing a person on medication without completing a comprehensive evaluation is problematic.
When seeing a practitioner for an assessment, encourage your student to ask what an ADD assessment will entail. A good assessment typically runs several hours and will include tests for IQ, learning disabilities, family history and other psychological problems. Avoid anyone who simply asks a few questions and then prescribes medication to "see what happens." Although medications can be helpful, other techniques such as coaching and or therapy can also be quite effective and may be more appropriate.
Below are some recommendations from national experts for coping with ADD. Feel free to share this with your student:
- Try to avoid classes with lectures more than 1 hour in length (Mon, Wed., Fri., schedule is better than Tues.-Thurs.., the worst is weekly three hour classes)
- Be realistic about your energy level and sleeping habits (If you are a night owl, don't set yourself up for failure by taking early morning classes. Likewise, if you tire late in the afternoon, avoid scheduling classes late in the day).
- Ask around and learn who the most interesting teachers are. You'll stay awake and listen!
- Look for small classes and seminars which allow student-professors interaction. This will keep you engaged and improve your concentration.
- If concentrating while reading is difficult for you, don't schedule more than one class per semester with a demanding reading schedule.
- Learn how you study best.
- Some ADD students concentrate better and memorize faster if they talk out loud while reading (thus the importance of a single room - the library and roommates won't appreciate this)
- Some students find that reading concentration is enhanced tremendously by taking notes or underlining while reading, even if they don't plan to review their notes in the future.
- Organize a small study group prior to exams. Many ADD students learn best through active interaction with others.
- Listen to tapes while walking or jogging. (You may be eligible to have any book taped through Disability Services, and you can make your own tapes while reading or reviewing notes.)
- For many ADD students, the movement of walking or jogging allows them to remain in a relaxed, alert state.
- Don't kid yourself and try to study in bed. You are likely to be asleep in 10 minutes. Set short, attainable goals while studying (ex. I'll finish half of this chapter before going to eat dinner, and finish the second half later this evening). Don't set aside an entire evening or weekend to study, you won't be very efficient. You'll find that you keep up more easily by setting aside an hour here and an hour there with built-in breaks.
- Don't try to deny that attention, concentration, time management and organization are difficult for you. This attitude can lead to poor performance or even failure.
- You can still benefit from medication through college and even in your working life afterward. Many students are tempted to quit using the medication in college, wanting to prove to themselves that they "don't need it."
- Counseling can be highly beneficial to ADD college students. Don't wait until you feel you are falling apart. Form a relationship with a counselor as soon as you enter college. This will provide you a built-in support system as you encounter difficulties later.