You know who I’m talking about. It’s those kids that can’t seem to sit still. They can’t quiet themselves. There’s always a bit of chaos around them. Whether it’s a messy room or another missing homework assignment, they just can’t seem to pull it together. And yet in all the ways they drive us crazy, they’re quite content in their world. When left on their own, they’re happy. They’re bursting with ideas, activity and even joy because they way they see the world is full of so much possibility.
Where’s the disconnect?
Artsy, visual, ADD kids are living in the right side of their brain. It’s the place of ideas, limitless possibilities. It’s unstructured, lively, free flowing and exciting. But when they get to school or other structured situations, they have a hard time engaging the left side of their brain – the order, control, logic and even timeliness. These kids are struggling to learn in traditional classroom settings.
Several years ago I was teaching Young Rembrandts classes after school at a private elementary school. This particular school was for gifted kids ages 6 to 12, and while they were kids, like every other after school art class I taught, it was a very stressful situation, with little success. Every week our small group of twelve students would gather around the table to draw and learn, but it was a constant struggle. There was always at least one kid that needed to draw standing up, and others that wanted to wander the room, sit under the table or do some other lesson not related to the class they were in. Week after week this continued despite my best classroom management techniques.
Looking for insight and suggestions, I reached out to a few of their teachers and eventually the principal. They didn’t seem to understand the problem I described. They thought these kids were so creative and gifted in their thinking, they needed to be able to be spontaneous and free to think like they wanted to, whenever they wanted to. The school and parents felt too much structure or expectation would dampen their gift. Cause them harm. Crush their natural abilities.
YIKES. That was not at all how I saw it. And as much as I tried to find a happy medium, I eventually stopped offering classes at that location. They had a sister school a few towns over with the same philosophy, and eventually I stopped teaching there too.
Bridging the gap?
I must say, I admired the school’s respect for their student’s natural abilities and thinking style, but it wasn’t working in the classroom. I also felt it was doing them a grave injustice to sort of ‘give in’ to it at every turn. While the ability to think creatively is a tremendous asset that often goes unnoticed and unappreciated, life also requires structure. Deadlines. There will always be timelines that need to be met. Homework that needs to be done. We need to honor kids for who they are and how they think but our kids need to learn there are times the creative flow has to be turned off. Harnessed. Our artsy, visual, ADD kids have to be able to quiet themselves.
Empathy or Sympathy?
With a PhD in animal science Temple Grandin, is a professor, best-selling author and autism activist who has achieved remarkable things as a woman with autism. In her book, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, she describes herself as a visual learner that struggled to control her physical body and emotions, while trying to understand the world around her. She credits her mother, Eustacia Cutler, with setting some pretty firm expectations as far as what behavior was acceptable. Her mother had tremendous empathy for her struggles, worked tirelessly to understand and find ways to help, all while expecting her to behave. Too often we confuse empathy and sympathy and make excuses for our kids. In empathy we understand and can relate to another person’s feelings. In sympathy we understand but feel sorry for the person’s misfortune and the emotion of that can keep us from expecting.
Yes, our artsy, visual, ADD kids are disorganized, sloppy and unfocused at times, but we can work with that. Being a visual learner, often thought of as ADD, is a brilliant, remarkable, powerful way to think and see the world. We don’t need to feel sorry for these kids. The injustice is expecting them to just do it, no matter how we teach or the situation they are in. But when we honor who they are and meet them with the tools they need to learn effectively, they can meet us with their best learning behaviors.