When I wrote the post entitled The Underwear Principle and now, underwear. step by step., I mentioned that I had applied this principle in other situations in my life. One of those situations involved my son.
FavoriteSon attended a Montessori pre-school from age three to five. The Montessori philosophy encourages independent work and allows the students to physically move around the classroom during the day. The “lessons” are clearly defined as separate activities with very specific, step by step instructions which follow the “left to right” and “top to bottom” concept employed by reading. The classroom was lined with low shelves on which sat rows of restaurant trays. On each tray were most, if not all the components of each lesson. It was the perfect learning environment for FavoriteSon at the time. (There’s a lot more to the Montessori philosophy, but I’ve covered what relates to the background of my situation.)
When it came time for 1st grade, we moved FavoriteSon to a traditional classroom environment at a non-denominational Christian school and it quickly became apparent that he was having a difficult time making the adjustment.
Someone, I don’t remember who, used the term “ADD.”
So I applied the The Underwear Principle:
Step 1: I didn’t approach the situation from any pre-conceived notion of how things “should” be. I opened my mind to the possibility that I DIDN’T KNOW what the problem was. I didn’t assume that my current knowledge and past experiences were enough to lead me to a conclusion, a diagnosis, a punishment strategy, or a resolution. I admitted that the “answer” might be different than anything I could think up on my own. Even worse, I had to consider the possibility that my parenting style was influencing the situation as well. (yeah. not liking that idea.)
Step 2: I tried to stay focused on the fact that my little boy wanted to learn. He wanted to behave appropriately. I understood that he was faced with an obstacle he couldn’t overcome without our help. We didn’t punish him or lecture him. We didn’t want him to feel defeated by school in the first grade.
Step 3: I analyzed what was happening. I took into account as much information as I could – the actual behaviors, the time of day, any possible cause and effect or trigger, his seating assignment – if there was ANY information available, I wanted to include it in my analysis.
The classroom layout was structured and decorated very differently from what he had experienced before, with the “lines” for each learning activity now blurred. There were no more distinct, individual tasks or lessons. Rather, unrelated information surrounded him on every wall. Not only was FavoriteSon no longer encouraged to move around the classroom during the day, but now he was actually discouraged from doing so. No more independent study or activities. Now, everyone worked on the same lesson together. When the teacher spoke to the children, she most often spoke to them as a group, rarely speaking directly to each individual child and making eye contact. The teacher reported that FavoriteSon frequently spoke out during class – but often, when he did so, it appeared as if he was talking to himself. He sometimes didn’t seem to hear her when she spoke to him. He often continued with lessons and activities after the teacher had concluded and moved on to the next lesson. Almost every morning he disrupted the class by talking to his classmates.
Step 4: I began researching the possibilities. I read books and articles, searched the internet, talked to other parents, teachers, counselors and even kids. The first thing I did was read some books on ADD.
FavoriteSon was displaying a few signs of ADD. One I noticed immediately was “hyperfocus.” If he was fully engaged in a task, he didn’t seem to notice anything around him. That’s what he was doing when he continued the lessons after the rest of the class had moved on to the next activity. I used to do that as a child when I was reading, and I never thought much of it. But FavoriteSon took it to the extreme. If he was interested and engaged in what he was doing, it was VERY difficult to get his attention. And not so much fun to get him to stop the activity. So what did this mean? Was there anything I could do about it? Back to the books.
I zeroed in on Chapter 10, Addressing the Imbalance: Non-Drug Treatments for ADD, in the book, “Running on Ritalin,” by Lawrence H. Diller, M.D. In the section entitled Behavioral Training: An Indispensable Tool, he suggested an interesting concept: (emphasis added)
Structure tasks into smaller components. For example, instead of telling a child, “Clean your room,” break the job down into stages: “First pick up your clothes off the floor and then put them in the hamper.”
I had an “Ah HA!” moment. I realized that, for my son, the instructions “Clean your room.” or “Do your homework.” were:
1. Too abstract. With so many things to do in order to accomplish that task, he was paralyzed and didn’t know where to start.
2. Too overwhelming. The job seemed bigger than it really was.
3. Too confusing. We didn’t have the same ideas with regard to what “clean” was when it came to his room. To him, it was clean. There were just toys and clothes on the floor.
(I read a LOT more and talked to a LOT more people, but it’s just too much to relay here. I’ll note some book resources at the end of this post.)
Armed with a plethora of information, it was time to turn all this knowledge and theory into action.
First, I wanted to rule out any physical problems, so I took FavoriteSon to the doctor for a checkup and had his hearing checked. His pediatrician didn’t discover anything unusual and his hearing was fine.
Secondly, I tried Dr. Miller’s suggestion to break things up into smaller components. I started at home. I gave short, step by step instructions for chores, homework – even bathing:
Instead of “clean up your room,” I said, “Pick up all your Rescue Heroes and stand them up on the shelves, please.” The first time, I said “put them on the shelf” and he PILED them on the shelf – but he had done what I asked. After a few times, he started to put all the water guys on one shelf, all the firefighters on another . . . my freakishly organized tendencies manifesting themselves in my son. I was so proud.
Instead of “Do your homework.” I said, “Hmm, how old are you? 6? If you do 6 math problems you can play for 12 minutes.” The first time he did his 6 problems in less than 5 minutes. After a few times of this “little bit of homework, little bit of play” he did his 6 math problems, I set the timer for 12 minutes and when the time was up, I said, “Hey bud, it’s time for 6 more problems.” He grinned and, without even looking up from the video game he was playing, he said, “Nuh uh. I finished all my math.” Little stinker had done ALL his math problems in one sitting. Because when he sat down to do them, he was only faced with the small, manageable task of completing 6 of them. (microactions, gotta love ’em) I wondered why it took him a little longer that day. I just thought the problems were harder.
Instead of “Take a shower.” I said, “Pop in the shower and get your hair wet, please.” followed by “Get some shampoo in your hands and make bubbles before you put it on your head.” He used to spend way too much time in the shower and come out dry and dirty. Now, he had a clear understanding of what to do. I just walked by the bathroom door every few minutes to remind him what he was supposed to do next. If I didn’t, he would get distracted and we would hear him singing – and not washing.
It was amazing. Everything I asked FavoriteSon to do, he did. Fast. With fairly good attitude. So, I spoke to the teacher and explained what I had learned and what we had tried at home. She began modifying the way she gave instructions and reported that she noticed immediate, significant improvement. Lessons were completed, there were less instances of hyper focus and generally, he was doing better in school.
But he was still talking in class – to himself and to the other kids. I recalled something I read in Dr. Miller’s book, Running on Ritalin:
“The family of drugs to which Ritalin belongs – the stimulants – has been both a blessing and a blight on humankind. The stimulants, which include such drugs as caffeine, cocaine and amphetamine, are so named because of their generalized effects on the body’s organ systems, particularly on the heart, blood vessels, and brain. Stimulants increase blood pressure; they make the individual less sleepy. Stimulants such as coca leaves and tobacco have been used for centuries by indigenous peoples for there energizing, pain killing or medicinal properties. Many of us can’t start the day without our hit of caffeine.”
I drink coffee every morning. At least two cups. And we’re not talking 8 ounce cups. Who’s to say FavoriteSon couldn’t have a little Coke instead of a little Ritalin? And weren’t those tiny little half size cans just perfect for this little experiment? Bingo. He had his little can of Coke during snack every morning and the talking lessened. Significantly. (He was in 1st grade, did you really think he would completely stop talking in class?)
A few years later, we had his vision checked and found out that FavoriteSon was nearsighted and needed glasses to correct his vision. Was that another problem for him that we didn’t discover at that time?
So, looking back, I’m not sure. Did FavoriteSon have mild ADD? Or did he, like his sister, have problems with his blood sugar? Or both? Did his experience in Montessori school lead to some of the problems he had adjusting to the traditional environment? Was I a bad mom all those years for not realizing that one of the reasons he seemed so disinterested looking at alligators in the lake we drive over was because he couldn’t see them?
I’m not going to spend time on the diagnosis (or blaming myself) now and I didn’t focus on it then. What I DID do was take action. I applied The Underwear Principle, step by step.
For us, it worked. And make no mistake, as nice and neat as this wrote up, we didn’t live it out so smoothly. See, it’s easy to do all the stuff we did. But to do it consistently, over and over and over, every day, without giving in?
Now, THAT. Was hard.
Some of the books I read:
Running on Ritalin by Lawrence H. Diller, M.D.
Should I Medicate My Child? by Lawrence H. Diller, M.D.
Beyond Ritalin, Facts About Medication and Other Strategies for Helping Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders by Stephen W. Garber, Ph.D., Marianne Daniels Garber, Ph.D. and Robyn Freedman Spizman.