Understanding Attention Deficit Disorders (ADD/ADHD)

Learning and Behavior Problems Usually Accompany Attention Deficits

A Girl Trying to Study
Attention Deficit in Classrooms. Credit: Getty Images

An attention deficit disorder (ADD) is a weakness in the brain's ability to focus on important sensory information. ADD school can impact a student's ability to processes information from a teacher's words, music, video, and written text. An attention deficit may also affect the brain's ability to filter out information that is not important. People with ADD cannot tune out distractions that others may barely notice.

The Difference Between ADD and ADHD

People with the symptoms of ADD who also have hyperactivity are described as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While people with ADD who do not have hyperactivity may appear dreamy or "off in another world," people with ADHD are likely to have difficulty in sitting still, and may need to move or pace simply to pay attention. They may also be more likely to engage in risky activities such as unprotected sex and drug use. Because people with ADHD are more likely to display overt symptoms (and are often considered to be "troublemakers"), they are also more likely to be identified with and treated for the disorder.

ADD/ADHD and Sensory Dysfunction

In addition to the issues described above, people with ADD/ADHD may have sensory dysfunction, meaning that they are hyper sensitive to and aware of sound, light, and physical sensations. Even the sensation of clothing on skin or the temperature in a room can be a distraction in ADD.

An attention deficit exists when the brain cannot maintain focus on important information. People with ADD cannot filter out unimportant information or prioritize important information. Problems controlling impulsive behaviors and thoughts are common.

ADD/ADHD In School

School can be extraordinarily challenging for children with ADD/ADHD.

While this is true to a degree in preschool and kindergarten, it can become increasingly difficult as children complete the early grades and move on to settings in which sitting still, focusing on spoken words, and maintaining focus all become extremely important.

Students with ADHD may experience:

  • Inability to attend to a teachers' instructions.
  • Auditory and visual confusion.
  • Memory problems are common.
  • Hypersensitivity to visual and tactile sensations may exist as well in ADD. Those with the disorder may feel overwhelmed by pulsing fluorescent light or electrical sounds.
  • People with ADD may feel overwhelmed by large assignments. Processing directions is difficult as well. Complex problem solving is likely to be difficult.
  • Hyper-sensitive olfactory systems can also be a problem for people with ADD. An attention deficit may cause everyday smells to seem overwhelming.

Other issues that become increasingly difficult include:

  • an expectation that students will be able to manage multiple tasks and deadlines
  • a need to organize school materials and plan ahead for tasks ranging from getting permission slips signed to completing long term assignments
  • the requirement to sit through multi-hour standardized tests
  • withdrawal of opportunities, such as recess, to move around and engage with others

Managing ADD/ADHD in School

Very often, children with ADD/ADHD are prescribed medications (usually stimulants) to take the edge off their symptoms. These medications make it easier for children to manage their own impulses, stay focused, and avoid distractions. They may also, however, create side effects that can become problematic in themselves.

In the school setting, many children with ADD/ADHD have received special accommodations through Individualized Education Plans to make their educational experience more successful. In some cases, these accommodations involve the use of tools and resources to support memory, focus, and recall; accommodations may also include extra time for testing or designated quiet spaces where distractions are minimized.

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