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Posted at 1:07 PM ET, 06/21/2010

Understanding ADHD -- Willingham

By Valerie Strauss

My usual guest on Mondays is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of both “Why Don’t Students Like School.” He is away this week but here is a piece on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder that he wrote originally for the American Educator magazine, the professional journal of the American Federation of Teachers .You can find the full piece, complete with references and footnotes, here.

By Daniel Willingham
Question: What can you tell me about ADHD? Is it even real—or is it just a faddish diagnosis? How can I recognize it in a student—and how can I help a student who has it?

Answer: ADHD, short for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is indeed real. It is a complex condition with variable symptoms. The American Psychiatric Association (2000) estimates that 3-5 percent of kids have it. The biological basis is becoming better understood, but is still not completely clear. Fortunately, it is treatable, and the treatments that you have no doubt heard about—stimulant medications—are effective for most children. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that purely behavioral or talk therapies are as effective as medications. In this column, I’ll tell you some of the basics about ADHD, and I’ll describe what role teachers have in helping a child with ADHD get the most out of school.

* * *

ADHD is a real disorder, despite seemingly widespread beliefs to the contrary. I have met more than one person who snorts with disgust when ADHD is mentioned, saying something like, "In my day, if a kid had too much energy, you told him to run around on the playground for a while. Now they give him drugs!" Other doubters suggest that there are probably more kids with attention problems these days, but it’s because this generation is easily bored due to excess television viewing and permissive parents who buy them too many toys. To make matters worse, ADHD’s high incidence now (compared to its apparent absence a generation ago) gives the diagnosis a faddish feeling.

But all of these impressions are based on inaccuracies. ADHD is not new—it has been identified since the early 20th century. Until 1980, ADHD went by other names such as "restlessness syndrome" or "hyperkinetic impulse disorder." Sophisticated studies tell us that it is not caused by bad parenting, too much television, or playing video games. A large number of studies have examined the relationship of these sorts of social practices and found that they do not cause ADHD. And further, there does not appear to be anything about American culture in particular that breeds the disorder; research demonstrates that ADHD exists in about the same percentage of children in other cultures.

What Is ADHD?
ADHD is a medical disorder for which there is very strong scientific evidence. It has three recognized subtypes, predominantly Hyperactive, predominantly Inattentive, and Combined, each of which looks a little different. Kids whose ADHD is predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive, show mostly hyperactive and impulsive symptoms, i.e., they seem to fidget nonstop, they have a hard time playing quietly, and they don’t seem to think before they act. Those with predominantly Inattentive ADHD show more inattentive symptoms, i.e., they don’t seem to listen, they often seem to be daydreaming, and they have trouble organizing tasks. The third group, with Combined ADHD, shows both types of symptoms.

Interestingly, children with ADHD (regardless of subtype) can sustain attention when they find something in the environment of interest, for example a video game or movie, or a building project. The problem comes in controlling their attention; that is, directing and maintaining it when the object itself does not have properties that maintain the child’s interest.

Researchers have a fair idea about at least some of what goes wrong in the brain of a child suffering from ADHD. A brain circuit is affected that involves structures near the center of the brain called the basal ganglia, and part of the prefrontal cortex—the front part of the outer covering of the brain. Brain imaging studies show that these structures are smaller and less active in ADHD sufferers than in non-ADHD control participants. We also know that there are particular problems in the way these brain structures use dopamine, one of the chemicals that nerve cells in the brain use to communicate with one another and that play a crucial role in the basal ganglia and prefrontal cortex.

That’s the biology behind ADHD. But what causes these biological differences?

Geneticists have shown that ADHD is one of the most heritable psychiatric diseases known. Heritabilty refers to the extent to which one’s genetic inheritance influences an outcome (i.e., the likelihood of developing ADHD). Some important studies of heritability have examined twins. Of course, twins can be identical (and so share 100 percent of their genes) or fraternal (and so share 50 percent of their genes). Studies show that if one twin has ADHD, then the other is much more likely to have it if the twins are identical than if they are fraternal. Note that the home lives of either identical or fraternal twins are likely to be quite similar. Thus it is the greater shared genetic component that drives the effect. Further, geneticists have identified several candidate genes that may be the culprit, most of which are implicated in the regulation of dopamine.

How large is the genetic contribution? One way to think about it is to compare the effect of genetics on height and on ADHD: The heritability of ADHD is about 80 percent; the heritability of adult height is about 90 percent. In short, whether or not a child develops ADHD depends largely on his or her genetic inheritance, not the amount of television watched or a particular parenting style.

This description of the brain basis of ADHD makes it sound as though kids won’t just "grow out of it," and indeed, they don’t. Kids with ADHD for the most part, but not uniformly, grow up to be adults with ADHD. And as they grow, these kids, if untreated, are at significantly increased risk for a host of problems. They are much more likely than other kids to drop out of school and to have few or no friends. They are also at increased risk for teen pregnancy, drug abuse, clinical depression, and personality disorders.


It is not currently possible to diagnose ADHD via genetic testing (as we can, for example, for Huntington’s disease) or by an analysis of the brain’s chemicals. Rather, it is diagnosed via a careful analysis of behavior. A child must show six of nine symptoms in one of the two lists shown below to be diagnosed as either predominantly Inattentive or predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive. If the child has six or more characteristics from both lists, he or she is diagnosed as Combined. These characteristics are evaluated relative to the child’s peer group.

Further, the symptoms must be present for at least a year, they must occur in at least two different settings, they must appear before age 7 (a rule that acknowledges ADHD’s biological basis in the brain, which means the disorder would likely appear by age 7), and they must be severe enough that the child is impaired in major life activities, such as school work or getting along with friends (i.e., the symptoms actually cause problems).

Together, these constraints work to protect against unmerited diagnoses. In addition, other possible causes of the symptoms must also be ruled out, e.g., other neurological or psychiatric disorders, a reaction to a stressor such as a chaotic home life, and so on. It may seem suspicious to you that there is not a 100 percent accurate marker for the disorder. But other diseases—for example, Alzheimer’s disease—are likewise diagnosed via a set of symptoms coupled with exclusion criteria.



Inattentive symptoms:
*Failure to give close attention to details; prone to careless mistakes
*Difficulty sustaining attention and in persisting with tasks until they are complete
*Often appears as if his or her mind is elsewhere
*Frequent shifts from one uncompleted activity to another
*Difficulty organizing tasks and activities
*Dislike and avoidance of activities that require sustained mental effort
*Disorganized work habits; materials necessary for tasks are scattered, lost, or carelessly handled
*Easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli; frequently interrupts tasks to attend to trivial events easily ignored by others
*Forgetful in daily activities, e.g., misses appointments

Hyperactive/Impulsive symptoms:
*Tendency to fidget and squirm when seated
*Tendency not to remain seated when it is expected to do so
*Engages in excessive running or climbing where it is inappropriate
*Difficulty playing quietly
*Appears to be often "on the go" or "driven by a motor"
*Talks excessively
*Difficulty delaying responses; tendency to blurt out answers before a question is completely stated
*Difficulty waiting one’s turn
*Frequently interrupting or instruding on others

This is a brief description of the symptoms of ADHD. A more complete description is available in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.


Ever since ADHD became a hot topic in the media, there has been much public discussion of overdiagnosis. It would seem that if you define “inattentive” relative to an age group, you are guaranteeing that the least attentive kids have a “disorder.” But the criteria for diagnosis—for example, that the inattention must be causing a real problem for the child—are supposed to protect against that danger.

Still, when a disorder gets a lot of press, it is possible that it is so much in the forefront of physicians’ minds that it will be overdiagnosed. Researchers have investigated this possibility, and the data are mixed. Thus, an appropriately cautious attitude would indicate that ADHD may be overdiagnosed. But, we should also bear in mind that it may well be underdiagnosed in communities with poor access to healthcare.

The best known and most comprehensive study on treating children with ADHD was sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Eighteen well-known researchers at six medical research centers participated, and nearly 600 children, aged 7-9, were assigned randomly to be treated with (1) medication alone; (2) psychological/behavioral treatment alone; (3) both therapies combined; or (4) routine community care alone.

The first results were published in 1999, and the study is ongoing. Results thus far indicate that either medication alone or combined treatment are more effective than behavioral therapy or community care alone in reducing ADHD symptoms.

Other analyses indicated that these conclusions hold across race, ethnicity, and gender. A recent follow-up study tracked the original participants and found that subjects who stopped taking medication had a return of ADHD symptoms, but those who had continued their medication did not. Further, those who had not taken medication as part of the study, but then began taking it when the study ended, showed a reduction of ADHD symptoms.

This research concerned the reduction of symptoms, which doesn’t guarantee improvement in more complex behaviors like performing well in school or getting along with peers. When these more complex behaviors were measured, the NIMH study indicated that the combined treatment of medication and psychological/behavioral treatment held a slight edge over either treatment on its own. But other recently published work came to the conclusion that training in social and academic skills combined with medication provided no advantage to children over and above medication alone.

Still other behaviors of concern are the risk factors mentioned earlier, such as increased risk of substance abuse, antisocial behavior, and so on. These risks are meliorated by medication. This protective effect is not an inoculation, however. The meliorating effect lasts only as long as the child is taking the medication.

Obviously, different risks are associated with different ages, depending on the time of life. A 6-year old will not be at risk for dropping out of school, whereas a 16-year old might be. One might, in particular, think that medicating children with stimulants would put them at greater risk for abuse of stimulants (or other drugs) later in life. That appears not to be the case.

It is fair to ask whether these children really need medication. Most children (and adults) don’t like to pay attention to things that are not inherently interesting. Many overcome this dislike, and we attribute their ability to stick with a task as a sign of good character; their behavior shows perseverance and diligence.

Couldn’t kids with ADHD overcome their problem with some gumption? Are we perhaps depriving children with ADHD of the opportunity to develop strong character if we provide medication?

Character is doubtless important, but children with ADHD are not just fighting a disinclination to do uninteresting work the way others do—they are fighting their physiology. It’s rather like asking a child with limbs weakened by polio to do ten pushups, just as everyone else does. Greater perseverance will help that polio-impaired child, but even great perseverance won’t bring him or her to the athletic level that a normal child could reach with far less effort. Likewise, strong character is not unimportant for the ADHD child, but without medication, his strong character simply won’t be able to produce as much concentration and focus as could the non-ADHD child with less strength of character and less effort.

What are we to conclude from these data? Obviously, there is solid evidence that medication is effective, and there is less evidence that behavioral or psychological treatments work as well. But we should not conclude that these latter treatments should be abandoned.

There is variability among children. Some don’t respond to medication or cannot tolerate it due to side effects. Some show better response to behavioral interventions than others. It should also be borne in mind that across different studies, the behavioral treatments will vary in their design and in how effectively they were implemented.

There are also differences among kids in what their home and school environments are like without these interventions—some parents and teachers already provide a fairly structured, predictable world, whereas others do not. The behavioral intervention would make a much bigger difference to a child in the latter situation.Another feature of these studies is noteworthy. Medication was effective, but the children were very closely monitored in terms of their responses to different doses, presence of side effects, and so on. Everyone who advocates medication for kids with ADHD must also advocate very close monitoring of its effects.

What if you suspect a student in your class has ADHD?

Suppose there is a child in your class who seems to have many of the symptoms [of ADHD]. What should you do? Obviously, as a teacher you are not trained to make a diagnosis, and even if you were, you only see the child at school and a positive diagnosis requires observation in at least two settings. Nevertheless, as a teacher you are in a position to observe the child for extended periods, and you have a good idea of appropriate behavior for the age group. Your knowledge and opinion is critically important. Each school should have a clear, known process through which your concerns can be addressed.

Typically, the school principal would have a designee, usually a guidance counselor or psychologist, who is authorized to convene a meeting of various school personnel to consider the evidence and, if merited, recommend a formal ADHD evaluation. If you suspect a child may have ADHD—meaning you see multiple symptoms for several months—don’t keep it to yourself. Bring the issue to your principal or the designated staff person in your school. Bear in mind that if this child does have ADHD, he or she is at significant risk to develop further problems—and that risk can be attenuated with treatment.

What if a child in your class has diagnosed ADHD?

Suppose instead that you have a child who has been diagnosed with ADHD in your classroom. What can you do to help him or her get the most out of school? Again, the first thing to keep in mind is that you must coordinate with others. Your school counselor or psychologist should be helpful in coordinating your efforts with those of the child’s parents and physician. Obviously, it is vital that any changes you make in your classroom are supported by changes made in the child’s home and vice versa. Here is a list of the sort of changes that might be suggested to you:

*Make it easier for the child to pay attention
Subtle changes to the environment may help the child with ADHD focus attention. Sitting close to you may help him or her maintain attention on class work. If your desks are arranged in circles or clusters, make sure that the child is oriented so that he or she can see you most of the time. ADHD kids may also frequently seem not to listen, even when directly addressed.

Try using the child’s name any time you directly address him or her.
Immediate and frequent consequencesKids with predominantly impulsive ADHD don’t think about the consequences of what they are doing before they do it. Making the consequences immediate may help them to make that connection. For example, a child may be told to play alone for a few minutes if he grabs a ball from another child during recess. Positive consequences should follow positive behaviors, as well. The child should be rewarded or praised when he politely asks to share the ball instead of grabbing it.

Break tasks into smaller chunks
Because kids with ADHD have trouble focusing attention and trouble staying organized, you may be asked to make tasks shorter and more manageable for them. For example, rather than telling a high school sophomore to write an essay on the causes of the American Revolution, the teacher may provide a series of steps for the student: find relevant research materials; read and summarize the materials; write a brief outline; expand the outline with more details; write a rough draft; edit the rough draft. The teacher would evaluate the work at each stage and provide immediate feedback. The teacher thus takes over from the child some of the requirements for organization and self-regulation.

Use prompts, especially for rules and time intervals
Students with ADHD have a special problem with regulating their own activities and so will benefit from prompts or reminders. For example, other children may readily learn the rule that students must take a hall pass to go to the bathroom and that it must be replaced on the hook when they return. The child with ADHD will likely need to be reminded of this rule many more times than other kids. Another aspect of regulating one’s own behavior is anticipating how long it will take to complete an ongoing task and allocating effort on the different stages of the task accordingly. Again, the child with ADHD will benefit from prompts about time, e.g., “Everyone has five more minutes to complete their graph, so you should be about halfway done by now.”

Artificial rewards
Soetimes a child responds very well to a reward system, such as a token economy. The child might earn points or plastic coins for each instance of appropriate behavior (e.g., a class period in which he doesn’t get out of his seat). These artificial rewards can later be exchanged for a desirable toy or other tangible reward. The goal in such programs is not to “buy” appropriate behavior, but rather to shape behavior toward the target so that the rewards can be reduced in frequency and eventually discontinued, with the desirable behavior remaining.

Contact with parents
You will likely be asked to be in frequent touch with the child’s parents in order to update them on his or her progress, alert them to any problems that arise, and so on. Sometimes a daily "report card" is used, which briefly summarizes the child’s progress on targeted behaviors.

You’ll note that many of these suggestions are rooted in the idea of putting more regulation for the child in the environment since the child is not able to regulate himself or herself very well. Another goal is to make the environment more predictable; if the child knows what’s coming, he or she may more easily learn to self regulate.

As much as ADHD is disruptive to a child’s academic performance, the possible long-range consequences of the disorder are still more dire: academic failure, social isolation, and increased risk of drug abuse and other self-destructive behaviors. Early intervention is the child’s best hope, and teachers have an important role to play in triggering and providing this intervention.


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 21, 2010; 1:07 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning Disabilities  | Tags:  add, add medication, adhd, adhd and school, adhd and symptoms, adhd medication, all about adhd, all about attention deficit disorder, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, children and adhd and dignosis, daniel willingham, diagnosing adhd, is adhd real?, kids with adhd, symptoms of adhd, treatment for adhd, understanding adhd  
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Dr. Willingham has a huge blind spot in this analysis. Lead poisoning exhibits many of the same symptoms as ADHD. There is even research which indicates lead poisoning may cause ADHD because it both shrinks the pre-frontal cortex and interferes with dopamine chemistry. Others suggest that lead poisoning symptoms are just misdiagnosed as ADHD. But when you encounter the typical symptoms of ADHD you should first rule out lead poisoning. This is particularly true in inner-city schools where lead poisoning is endemic and rarely appreciated.

As for treatment, research has shown that many abusers of illegal drugs are actually self-medicating their ADHD symptoms because the illegal stimulants have a similar affect as Ritalin. Plus, children with ADHD who are treated with Ritalin have been shown to have a far lower incidence of illegal drug use as teenagers compared to ADHD children who are not treated with Ritalin.

Finally, ADHD is not confined to children. Many adults suffer from ADHD along with the misconception that it does not exist in adults. It can be treated in adults as well.

Posted by: zoniedude | June 21, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Readers should note that children who are the victims of childhood trauma (violence, family dysfunction, divorce) often become"hyper-aware" of their surroundings. They focus on everything around them as a threat and they become unable to focus in class.

I have seen this is many of my more poverty stricken students.

Posted by: quiktake | June 21, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

The other issue here and I say this from experience is that since ADHD so inheritable parents will struggle with bringing the routine to the child as they themselves have similar problems. I also find that a lot of teachers keep saying well by this point the child should be able to and yes under normal circumstances they should but they can't and it is very hard to get them to help with more detailed information on homework or other projects.

Posted by: Brooklander | June 21, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

yes, I have sometimes heard teachers suggest schedules for homework and a very involved specific contract for these kids and their parents and I wondered would any parent be able to keep up, let alone one with AdHd.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 21, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

Hearing loss, even mild hearing loss, is often misdiagnosed as ADHD. This has happened to several kids I know who eventually were found to be hearing impaired. Once appropriate amplification was provided (hearing aids and FM system) the symptoms magically resolved. If you think a child has ADHD, test his or her hearing first!

Posted by: bkmny | June 22, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

@zoniedude, @bkmny right, differential diagnosis is part of the picture, as mentioned.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | June 22, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

NOt only is ADHD heritable, but many of the parents who have it don't realize it. My father never understood why my brother quit his job so impulsively when he got angry at his employer or changed jobs when he got promoted to a position that involved mostly paperwork. He, however, would become angry with no warning (never violent, just storm away cussing from a repair job), could never find his tools, would make a trip to the tool box for the proper tool as he came to the need for it instead of taking everything he might need, and resisted learning anything new unless he needed to for his job. If he was reading an article out of the paper and we interrupted him with a question about a detail, he would have to go back to the beginning of the paragraph and start over because he couldn't skim the material for the item he wanted. If he used the last of the catsup at dinner, he would add it to the shopping list, check in the refrigerator to see if he also needed to add mustard, notice the paper towel roll was empty and refill it . . . and so on, and then sit down at the table again and complain that his food was cold.

He never saw that his wandering was the same implusiveness as my brother's job changing, and he honestly didn't know that others read better; I once talked about skimming a paragraph for specific information and it was clear he had no idea what I was talking about. I wonder how different my brother's life would have been had my father recognized the similarities and offered him tips on coping instead of criticizing him.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 24, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

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