Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not a mental illness, it is not an intelligence problem and it is not a bad behaviour problem.  Rather, a child with ADHD sees and experiences the world differently, what might be seen to be a disorder in one setting may be a success factor in another.

The positive characteristics of ADHD suggest that dopamine, hyperactivity and distractibility may have played a part in the survival rate of ancestral man, and are part of a highly desirable make up that served hunting and gathering communities.

Today these characteristics may be seen on the sports field.  Athletes scan, tracking and read their surroundings, moving their bodies through time and space.  They then need to make good decisions with a fast reaction time, to hit a gap or break their opponent’s line of defence.  In a high pressured athletic contest these skills are praised.

In the classroom, however, scanning the room, noticing too much extraneous activity or responding to questions without all of the information, is frequently labelled as distracted and impulsive behaviour.

To understand how an individual with ADHD experiences life, imagine you and a friend want to cycle from one side of the city to the other.  You are both of a similar fitness level.  One of you will ride on a specialist road bike, travelling down a highway via the most direct route uninterrupted by traffic lights or road delays.


The other will ride a mountain bike and go cross country over hills, through valleys and along winding, rocky dirt roads.  The road cyclist will arrive first.  Just like the mountain bike rider, an individual with ADHD sitting in a classroom has to transverse a learning terrain filled with diversions.  These diversions are not rocky dirt roads or steep valleys, but distractions of a different kind – the sights, sounds and movements happening in the classroom.

An individual with ADHD sitting in the back of a classroom will notice every bit of distraction between themselves and the teacher – someone walking past the window, students whispering in front of them, someone fidgeting.

In addition, they may have a noisy internal dialogue (busy mental thoughts).

The combination means there is always a lot of distraction, both inside and outside their heads.  They may be contemplating a sentence previously heard or noticing the activities of a disruptive peer. Either way, they may miss the teacher’s instruction.  Most of their classmates, on the other hand, have a filter in place that allows them to ignore distractions and concentrate on the teacher and the information being delivered.


The distracted student with ADHD may question a friend because they have missed something and then get into trouble for not listening.  They may blurt out a comment because their impulsivity doesn’t give them a moment to pause and then get into trouble for not putting up their hand.

In the latter part of the school day their inattention may increase because it takes a lot of mental energy to continue to focus with such a busy head space, and they get into further trouble for not paying attention.

The heavy bias in education towards reading and writing, over visual and interactive learning, may result in many intelligent individuals with ADHD underachieving, not because they are incapable, but because learning is not presented in a format that resonates with their preferred learning style.



Suggestions to help a child with ADHD shine

  • Present information in a visual format or via group discussion.
  • Provide opportunities for oral presentations.
  • Let them talk to their great ideas.
  • Colour code time-tables and school subjects into matching plastic folders so their locker is organised.
  • Give them movement breaks.  Physical movement increases dopamine for concentration and focus and time in nature improves cognitive function.
  • Play sport before attempting homework.  Trampolines are great and movement helps with focus.
  • Get creative.  A child with ADHD driving for 2 hours to the mountains to ski throughout winter doesn’t want to spend the two hours reading Macbeth.  Get an audiobook, listen to it as a family in the car while driving to their favourite recreational activity.  Stop the audio at key points and discuss the text.  Have them make some notes on an ipad.  They can play weekend sport and complete a draft for their English essay on the same day!

by Psychologist Gayelene Clews – author of Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete