Understanding ADHD with Lainie DonnellOct 11, 2023
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Understanding ADHD in kids and how to best support them can be pretty overwhelming (I know from experience), so today I’m so excited to have an expert here with me to help you through it!
Lainie Donnell is an educational therapist, a college counselor, and the cofounder of Lila Learning. For the past 16 years, Lainie has been in private practice as an educational therapist and college counselor, bringing to her clients an empathic, enthusiastic and pragmatic approach to their educational journeys.
Her philosophy has been to meet her students where they are currently functioning and help to develop their skills, providing them with a “toolbox” to meet their challenges head-on.
She’s here today to share her expertise on ADHD - from how it might show up in kids to ways you can address challenges related to ADHD and find support for your child.
Lainie’s own experiences with dyslexia, auditory and visual processing issues and ADHD led her to this work. During college, she fell in love with teaching and the classroom and got her Masters degree in special education.
She says that as a child, even though she had a lot of support, she continued to struggle. Finally being diagnosed with ADHD in the 10th grade gave her a new understanding of herself and how she functions (in her case, meds helped a lot, too).
Lainie’s children also have ADHD, so it is both a professional and deeply personal topic for her that is infused into all areas of her life.
Parents of kids with any kind of neurodivergence often feel fear around their future and ability to be successful.
Lainie says, “There are so many success stories, and I just think it's a matter of approach and attitude and a willingness to embrace.”
What is ADHD?
ADHD refers to issues with self-regulation, working memory, sensory integration and the self-management part of the brain.
Beyond the general diagnosis of ADHD, there are also three subtypes: inattentive, hyperactive and combined.
The inattentive subtype is actually over-attention. The child is paying attention to too many things at a given time. There is too much stimulation, and they can’t prioritize where their attention should go. These kids may not have a lot of behavior issues because they sit quietly, drifting off. Think of a classroom setting with many other students around, stuff hanging on the walls, sounds out in the hallway, etc. all competing with the teacher’s voice.
The hyperactive-impulsive subtype is what it sounds like. The child doesn’t think before they act. They understand consequences but just don’t think about them ahead of time. These are the kids who are often labeled “bad” early on because their hyperactive and impulsive behavior is much more obvious.
The combined subtype combines elements of both. Inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity might show up at different times and in different situations.
ADHD affects many areas of executive function. Think of executive function like the conductor of an orchestra in your brain. It tells you when to get started with a task, when to manage your time, when to shift to another task, etc.
Working memory is one piece of executive function. It allows us to hold on to information while we’re manipulating it and doing something else. It shows up in so many areas of life, including math, writing and social interactions.
In kids, this might look like interrupting or not responding to social cues. It doesn’t mean that they don’t understand those cues. It’s simply a challenge for them to notice the cue, pay attention to the other person and also hold on to what they want to say.
In the ADHD brain, development of executive function is delayed 3 years, on average. This is one reason why kids with ADHD struggle in relation to their neurotypical peers.
Understanding ADHD Challenges and Self Esteem
Between the ages of 2 and around 5 or 6, the developmental question kids are trying to figure out is, am I good or am I bad? It’s very black and white at this age. And at this age good/bad is largely based on behavior.
As they grow between ages 6 and 12, the question they’re answering is, am I capable?
If the answer is no, they don’t think they’re capable, it creates more struggle in academics, learning and trying new things.
As Lainie explains, school can be a challenging environment for kids with ADHD. Their self esteem gets wrapped up in recognition, success and benchmarks - academic and social. If they aren’t getting the stars, stickers and check marks, it starts to tear away at kids’ self esteem and there becomes a clear divide between ability levels.
And the cycle perpetuates itself, because when kids have low self esteem and are unhappy, the learning stops.
To parents and caregivers, ADHD can look like a disorder of choice or motivation. They might even view it as laziness. But in the vast majority of cases, no kid wants to fail or let down their teachers or parents. Kids are motivated to please and do well. If they’re not meeting the expectations, it’s because something is in their way.
Signs of ADHD
With little kids, we (the parents) act as their executive function, but you might notice issues with impulse control or dysregulation, hyperfocus at some times and inattention at others.
During adolescence, the signs might become more clear. Some common observations include:
- Living in the gap between intention and follow through
- Not writing down school assignments
- Piles of wrappers and stuff in their backpack
- Sensory integration issues (when combined with other signs)
As moms, it’s often hard to know what’s “normal”, especially since there is such a wide range in development among kids. But you might have a feeling in your gut that something is off.
Your pediatrician is a great place to start the conversation. You can also seek out a developmental physician specializing in ADHD, a neuropsych evaluation or other experts.
If a diagnosis comes, it can actually be a gift to your kid. The challenges they’re facing aren’t their fault, and it takes that weight off of them. That doesn’t mean they don’t have to pay attention or do homework. It just means that you can work together to figure out a different way that works for them. The diagnosis will help inform what skills you need to be teaching and what support will help your child most.
Tips for Parenting a Kid with ADHD
Lainie shared some of her top tips for parents of kids with ADHD.
Teach using the “I do, we do, you do” approach. We can’t expect to go totally hands off as our kids get into middle school and high school and expect them to manage their time, schoolwork and other responsibilities all on their own. We have to teach it so that they can do it.
Stop “shoulding” your kid. Instead of thinking they should know this already or they should do something differently, meet them where they are and help them along to where they can be.
Create structure and routine. The ADHD brain thrives on structure but is unable to create it.
Start early working with kids on due dates and planning. Include them in the planning process and choose a paper planner or calendar.
Create a workspace that feels calm, clear and spacious.
Keep morning and afternoon routines very simple and limit the amount of toys, clothes, shoes, etc. so it isn’t overwhelming.
There will likely be resistance, but it is so worthwhile to help your child learn these skills that will support them throughout the rest of their life.
If you’ve been nodding along, this all sounds SO familiar and you want more support, Lainie offers lots of great resources, including the planner, binder, workshops for parents and students and college counseling (links below).
- Why understanding how your kid’s brain works can be so helpful in parenting
- When you might see intense attention or hyperfocus in your kid, even if they often struggle to focus
- Common signs of ADHD and what to do if you think your kid may have ADHD
- How to support your child with ADHD and give them the skills they need to thrive
Connect with Lainie:
- Learn more about Lainie’s work and services on her website.
- Get the LiLa planner or binder system (created by Lainie and her business partner) and check out workshops at www.lilalearning.com
- Search for an educational therapist near you through the Association of Educational Therapists
Connect With Darlynn:
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