ADHD: Recognizing the Symptoms

Children who have ADHD present predominantly with symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, or a combination of these symptoms. The disorder has had numerous names over the last several decades: minimal brain damage, minimal brain dysfunction, hyperkinetic reaction of childhood, attention- deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity, and, since 1987, attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Diagnosing ADHD

Symptom lists that are used for the diagnosis of ADHD are split into inattentive and hyperactive- impulsive criteria. If an individual has six or more symptoms from both lists, he or she would be diagnosed with ADHD, combined presentation. If an individual has six or more symptoms in one list but not the other, he or she would be considered to have ADHD, predominantly inattentive or ADHD, predominantly hyperactive- impulsive form.

Symptoms of inattentive ADHD include poor attention to details, difficulty sustaining attention, not seeming to listen when spoken to, failure to finish tasks, disorganization, avoidance of work that requires sustained mental effort, a tendency to lose things, significant distractibility, and forgetfulness. Symptoms  of  the hyperactive-impulsive form  include frequent fidgeting, difficulty remaining seated, running and climbing excessively (or restlessness in adolescents and adults), difficulty playing quietly, frequently being on the go, talking excessively, blurting out answers to questions before the questions are completed, difficulty waiting one’s turn, and  interrupting  and intruding on others’ activities.

 Manifestations of ADHD in the Classroom

ADHD is a commonly occurring mental health disorder affecting many students. Children and adolescents who are hyperactive and impulsive are easy for teachers to identify as having classroom difficulties. They tend to be boys (there is a 3:1 ratio of males to females in this group, compared with the 2:1 or less in the nonhyperactive group), and they may become impatient, frustrated, and disruptive. The symptoms of students who exhibit a combination of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and distractibility are often most pronounced in the classroom where they are required to sit still for extended periods of time, focusing on a specific task. These students are very noticeable to teachers, as they tend to fidget, have difficulty remaining seated, appear to be unfocused, and, at times, may be disruptive. They may act without thinking, and their impulsivity may cause them to make significant errors in their schoolwork and to have significant difficulties with behavioral control. They may have difficulty being quiet in the classroom and may become bored easily.

ADHD may manifest in a student rushing through schoolwork, having difficulty paying attention to details in class, and appearing not to be listening to the teacher. Tasks are often left unfinished, and the student may be very disorganized and forgetful. The student’s desk may appear chaotic and the student may have difficulty finding class assignments. It may be very difficult for students who have ADHD to keep track of assignments that are due, and to pace themselves to study for tests, complete homework, and to allot the time necessary for various schoolwork demands.

Some children who have ADHD, combined type or hyperactive/impulsive type, become less hyperactive as they grow older, but continue to have symptoms of distractibility, poor attention span, disorganization, and other symptoms of inattention. Thus, a high school student who has ADHD may appear to be work avoidant and oppositional to following through on assignments when, in fact, he or she may be having great difficulty attending to the work, organizing written work, and so on.

Another group, the predominantly inattentive students, is easy to miss. While they are not disruptive they often have poor study skills, are inattentive in the classroom, are disorganized, and tend to achieve at a level significantly below their potential. They are often seen as being lazy, lacking motivation to do schoolwork, and simply being poor students. This is especially true for girls and young women, and their peers may describe them as scatter-brained, spaced out, flaky, ditsy, or social butterflies who lack interest in schoolwork, finding it boring. Meanwhile, their underlying difficulties in remaining focused and on task go unrecognized. Their ADHD is frequently not diagnosed, and they, their families, and their teachers are often unaware that they suffer from a treatable disability. Hyperactive and impulsive children and adolescents comprise the majority of those diagnosed by mental health professionals, but the nonhyperactive ones with ADHD may comprise an equally large number of students.

For Discussion:

Jenny is a 14-year-old ninth grade student who has been having increasing difficulty mastering her school assignments. She is a bright student and was able to succeed in the past when school demands were less intense. She has been having problems organizing her work assignments in order to finish papers, be prepared for tests, and keep up with school demands. She has become increasingly frustrated, and her school counselor has wondered whether she is depressed. She was seen in psychiatric consultation. Her parents noted that she has never been disruptive or hyperactive, but has a long history of difficulty focusing, distractibility, and disorganization. She was diagnosed with ADHD and responded well to a combination of medication treatment and skills training for study skills and organizational skills.

Reflection Questions:

Although the combined form of ADHD in males (inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms) is the most common form seen in clinics, the inattentive, nonhyperactive type often seen in females is frequently underidentified. What red flags are present in predominantly inattentive ADHD that educators can be on the lookout for in students who have this problem? Looking back, were there students with whom you have worked who, in retrospect, had evidence of predominantly inattentive ADHD? What would you do differently now, in working with students who have this profile?

William Dikel, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who consults with educators nationwide, in settings varying from general education classrooms to self-contained special education programs for severely emotionally disturbed students.

This post is an excerpt from William Dikel’s new book, Student Mental Health: A Guide For Teachers, School and District Leaders, School Psychologists and Nurses, Social Workers, Counselors, and Parents (W. W. Norton).

Media Literacy: Argument, Persuasion, and Propaganda in English Education

English educators are generally familiar with the topic of propaganda, as it is a theme of much of the literature that is emphasized in courses for high school and college students. For many teachers, it may seem as if dystopian young adult novels have become the default genre of a generation. Dystopian literature like Huxley’s Brave New World and other works critique mindless consumption, instant gratification, reliance on technology, and the resulting atrophy of language and critical thinking. When reading this novel, one teacher asks her students to reflect on these questions: “Is life easy for us today? Is it too easy? How do people escape from everyday life? Is it necessary to do so? Why or why not?” (Wilkinson, 2010, p. 24).

M.T. Anderson’s young adult novel, Feed is a popular work that considers the ubiquitous nature of advertising as propaganda. The novel uses satire, humor, and exaggeration to depict the world of the future, where the Internet is implanted into your brain as the Feed. As people grow up, their brains cannot function without the Feed. They attend a classroom run by corporations where students learn how to use technology, find bargains and decorate a bedroom. Through education, in this dystopic world, students are trained to be consumers.

Books and movies like The Hunger Games series explicitly address the power of propaganda in relation to the anxieties of the current age. After all, learners are growing up in a time period marked by multiple wars, economic crisis, environmental degradation and the dehumanization of the other. In this popular trilogy, readers encounter an oppressive society in which the teenagers are selected to participate in annual televised competitions to the death. These brutal spectacles are required viewing. The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, has been immersed in propaganda her whole life. But as she struggles and survives in the games, she also begins to understand and appreciate the usefulness of the media as a tool for revolution. In discovering the value of propaganda to shape public opinion as part of the revolution, the book demonstrates how information and media literacy competencies are “powerful tools of resistance for people oppressed by totalitarian governments” (Latham & Hollister, 2014, p. 34).

Despite the relevance of the subject and a wealth of literary resources on the topic of propaganda, propaganda education in English language arts education is not as common in 2020 as it was in 1940. In fact, since the rise of the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts, the study of propaganda has virtually disappeared in English. These standards call for students to be able to:

  • Determine the central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas;
  • Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone;
  • Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole;
  • Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words;
  • Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence;
  • Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

The framing offered by these standards may explain why many English teachers focus exclusively on argumentation and do not pay much attention to persuasion and propaganda. Notice that none of these bullet points includes any attention to how language activates feelings and emotions. An intense focus on argumentation by teachers of writing seems to have displaced the study of persuasion and propaganda, which requires respect for and attention to the cultivation of attention and emotion. 

What is the relationship between an argument, persuasion and propaganda? An English teacher may go to great lengths to point out that argumentative writing activates logic and reasoning to prove a point; from this perspective, persuasion merely appeals to the reader’s emotions and propaganda is seen as downright evil (Taithe & Thornton, 1999).

In the real world, labelling content with such bright lines is not so simple, because argumentation, persuasion and propaganda are woven into a seamless mix of expression and advocacy. By using a rigid set of definitions, students end up with the false message that propaganda is always negative. As we will see in the pages that follow, propaganda’s ethical dimensions, social value and utility can only be evaluated in context.  Clearly, the study of propaganda calls upon practices that involve considerable nuance, including the consideration of content, form, context, interpretation, meaning, impact, and the consequences of expression and communication for both authors and audiences.

Some critics may argue that the study of propaganda has disappeared from English education because the skills involved in analyzing it are not on the SAT test. While analyzing propaganda may be a valuable life skill, it is not yet considered a central component of college readiness. Instead, high-stakes tests measure reading comprehension by asking high school students to find evidence in an informational passage that best supports the answer to a question. When informational texts were given special status by Common Core and the testing companies, many media literacy educators cheered. Finally, students could read and analyze a New York Times news story and apply media literacy concepts as part of the reading comprehension process. Optimists hoped that this would increase the likelihood that students would get exposed to media literacy concepts and instructional practices.

But when concerns about students’ ability to express ideas in academic language are narrowly positioned in the context of college readiness, reading and writing for the real world may get short shrift. To do well in college, competence in reading and writing academic texts is considered a requirement for success. As Catherine Snow and colleagues note, “assessments requiring written essays in persuasive or analytic genres are often graded using criteria that refer implicitly to academic-language forms” (Snow & Uccelli, 2008, p. 111). According to these authors, a focus on academic prose is valued because it is authoritative, detached, and dense with formal language. In an argument, authority is constructed by acknowledging an imaginary non-interactive academic audience. Authors present a neutral, dispassionate stance, using reasoning and evidence to make knowledge claims.

Against this background, it’s no surprise that propaganda analysis has disappeared from contemporary English education. If argument is seen as high culture, then propaganda is seen as low culture. If argumentation is seen as academic and sophisticated, propaganda can be seen as simple and inferior.

 Propaganda may well be the absolute opposite of academic prose. Propaganda is subjective and emotional: It responds to the needs of readers and viewers and it relies on familiar symbols accessible to all. The analysis of propaganda is unlikely to meet rigid Common Core guidelines about the required complexity of texts now that text complexity has become a mantra in English education. Propaganda that targets teens is unlikely to have a lexile level of 1200, with advanced vocabulary and complex sentence structure. For this reason, many students get little opportunity to analyze the most powerful and emotionally-resonant messages that circulate in contemporary culture.

The consequences of ignoring the study of propaganda for more than 20 years are beginning to be felt in the society as a whole, and educators are beginning to feel a little guilty that they have not paid more attention to it. Fortunately, new momentum on the need to incorporate the study of propaganda and persuasion is beginning to develop. After the U.S. presidential election in 2016, a number of professional organizations responsible for teaching writing, composition and speech reaffirmed their commitment to teaching the responsible use of language as a form of social power.

In 2019, the National Council of Teachers of English issued a resolution on critical literacy in English education, calling for educators to promote pedagogy and scholarly curricula in English and related subjects that instruct students in analyzing and evaluating “sophisticated persuasive techniques in all texts, genres, and types of media, current and yet to be imagined.”

These practice NCTE recommends are not yet normative in American public schools, but they could be. Teachers all over the world are feeling a need to demonstrate how attention, emotions and evidence are all fundamentally responsive to the search for truth. One scholar explained, “Rhetors must know the facts in order to mislead through lies; they must recognize the truth in order to deceive through fallacies, and they must understand reality in order to manipulate through doublespeak” (McComsisky, 2017, p. 8). The careful and systematic study of propaganda and persuasion should not be neglected in English education.

Renee Hobbs is a world- renowned authority on digital and media literacy education. She founded the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island and is director of its Media Education Lab.

This post is an excerpt from Renee Hobbs’ book, Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age (W. W. Norton, May 2020).

ADHD: Helping Students Regulate Attention

Is it an Attention Deficit?

One of the greatest misconceptions about ADHD is that it renders a person unable to pay attention. In fact, many educators contact me and say, “He can’t have ADHD! He can spend hours on the activities he wants to!”  What science has taught us is that because of the below-normal activity in the neurotransmission of dopamine and norepinephrine, some people struggle regulating their attention, leading some professionals to suggest that we rename ADHD “deficits in attention regulation disorder.” People with ADHD can pay attention, but not always when they need to, for as long as they need to, or on what they need to—especially when they are not interested or internally motivated. Sometimes, when a person is very interested in what he or she is focused on (such as playing a video game or building with blocks), the individual is actually “hyperfocused.” This means that the person is deeply and intensely focused to the point that he or she has shut out other thoughts or stimuli. This is why very often people with ADHD have a hard time transitioning from one task to another.

At other times, when people with ADHD are bored or uninterested, they struggle to stay tuned in to the current topic and resist more stimulating thoughts.  Many people with ADHD are actually often multi-focused, paying attention to many things at the same time at the expense of directed attention to one thought.  They may even feel that they have a “bombardment” of thoughts, making it difficult to focus on any one task. This raises the importance of understanding the science of ADHD. When the brain does not produce enough dopamine, the brain actually struggles to make the connections and stay alert. If a child is having trouble paying attention to the task at hand, sitting still may actually increase the difficulty he or she is experiencing. Movement can help stimulate the networks of the brain that control attention. I once observed a child who was continuously roaming the classroom (with permission of the well-informed teacher) while his teacher lectured. When the teacher asked this child a question directly related to her presentation, the child was spot on with the answer.

Since movement is not always practical or desirable, many people succeed in focusing by holding and manipulating an object. This is commonly referred to as “fidgeting.” Allow your student to hold an item (a “fidget”) that he or she can quietly, discretely manipulate. This item can be anything from a piece of felt to a rubber toy or a ring. Have a variety of objects available at school. It is important to help your student distinguish between “fidgeting” and “playing.” This is actually a great discussion to have with the entire class so that students can become more tolerant of one another’s differences and needs. To “fidget” means to passively manipulate the object in the background, secondary to the task at hand. To “play” means to focus primarily on the object and interact with it. Also, teach your student that he or she must not distract others with his or her fidgeting. Sometimes a little investigating, open-mindedness, creativity, and patience can go a long way in helping kids learn how they function best.

Other Tips:

  • Allow your students to move around within reason.  Sitting on an exercise ball chair or even a rolled-up sweatshirt can provide the right stimulation to help your student stay engaged in his or her work.
  • Allow your student the freedom to stand up while working, just as an adult often does. Just as with fidgeting, you may want to have a classwide discussion and provide guidelines for behavior.
  • Music is another great form of stimulation. If appropriate within the classroom setting, some students might enjoy the opportunity to listen to music as it may drown out other distracting noises.  They can experiment with different genres—it need not be classical to effective. It may be helpful to prepare (in advance) a playlist of songs your student finds are effective without creating too much distraction.
  • Interactive games for learning facts can be stimulating and fun at the same time. The next time your students need to memorize vocabulary words, for example, allow them to form pairs and play a game of catch. One student can toss the ball as they say a word and the other student can toss it back as he or she responds. Or play a game of concentration: Make two sets of flashcards—one with the word, a second with the definition. Lay them all out facedown and find the matching pair.

The greatest value you can offer your students is to help them become aware of what situations and environments help and hinder their ability to pay attention where needed.  Encourage them to experiment and share what they learn about themselves so that they can become effective advocates for themselves and responsible for their own attention regulation.

Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., ADHD-CCSP, a certified ADHD coach and mental health counselor, lives in Boulder, Colorado, and works with parents, teachers, and professionals nationwide to support children with ADHD and executive function deficits.

This post is an excerpt from Cindy Goldrich’s book, 8 Keys to Parenting Children with ADHD (W. W. Norton).

Bullying: How to Foster Empathy

Despite the intense pressure in public education for students to perform well on standardized tests, there is no research evidence indicating that test scores lead to better overall outcomes for kids in adulthood. There is abundant evidence, on the other hand, that having good social skills results in positive outcomes for young people during their school years and throughout their lives (Winner, 2013). Integrating SEL into standard school curricula, from the earliest years through high school graduation is a proven way to fortify kids with the skills they need to cope with bullying and to thrive in all of their interpersonal interactions.


Empathy is the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes—to understand how another person is thinking and feeling in a particular situation. In the world of bullying prevention, empathy is an important skill to develop in young people because kids who bully often get caught up in the social rewards they receive from their behavior (e.g., a sense of power and control over others, increased peer attention, greater social status) and lose touch with the hurtful impact their aggression has on their victims. SEL programming focused on empathy development plays a preventative role in bullying because it teaches kids to feel for each other in very human ways, rather than to view peers as pawns in a popularity game. Effective empathy development activities guide young people to be consistently mindful of how others are thinking and feeling.

Bullying Prevention Ideas for Kids

One particularly powerful empathy-building activity, simple to deliver and instantly applicable for kids of all ages, is this one, popular around the Internet and generally attributed to a wise but unnamed educator:

  • A teacher in New York was teaching her class about bullying and gave them an exercise to perform. She had the children take a piece of paper and told them to crumple it up, stomp on it, and really mess it up but not to rip it. Next, she had them unfold the paper, smooth it out, and look at how scarred and dirty it was. Then, she told them to apologize to the paper. The teacher pointed out that even though the kids said they were sorry and tried to fix the paper, the scars remained. She explained to her students that those scars would never go away completely, no matter how hard they tried to fix it. “That is what happens,” she said, “when a child bullies another child; they may say they’re sorry but the scars are there forever.” The looks on the faces of the children in the classroom told her the message hit home.

While the internet version of this activity ends here, an empowering follow up is to challenge kids to brainstorm a list of realistic actions they can take to support a person in the aftermath of a bullying incident. Specific examples of before, during, and after-the-fact interventions for bystanders are provided in Key 6. The message for adults to emphasize is that while words wound—and some scars do endure—a young person’s empathic act of kindness and demonstration of support does have the power to heal. Other effective, engaging, and easy-to-implement empathy-building exercises encourage kids to assume multiple points of view on a single situation.

  • For younger kids, develop realistic role-plays in which a child first has to take on the needs and wants of one character and then, without warning, is assigned to switch roles and plead the case of the character he had just been opposing. Follow up with questions that encourage the child to reflect on how she felt playing each role and how the process of switching roles helped her better understand each character’s point of view.
  • For older kids, learning the skills of debate not only look good on a college application but can also be tremendously useful in teaching kids to look deeply at both sides of a situation. Good SEL programming often integrates academic lessons with social ones.

Last, activities that teach kids skills for effective listening are a key part of empathy development. It is only by learning how to listen to others that kids (and adults) get an accurate window into another human being’s worldview.

  • Hearing versus listening: What’s the difference? Even though hearing is one of the basic five senses, actual listening does not come naturally to most people. Begin this activity by engaging kids in a conversation about the differences between the passive act of hearing and the active process of listening. Ask questions such as these:
    • What is the difference between hearing and listening?
    • How do you show, in terms of your behaviors, that you are truly listening to someone?
    • How does it make you feel when you know that a person can hear your words but is not really listening to what you are saying?
    • Can you share an example of a time this occurred? What did you do in the situation? Did you continue to talk? Did you stop talking? Did you say anything to the person about how they made you feel? Why or why not?
    • If you are talking, and someone jumps in right away to share her point of view, do you feel you have been truly listened to? Why or why not?

Allow kids ample time to explore the differences between hearing and listening, then follow up the discussion with this activity:

  • Assign kids to work in pairs. Assign the roles of Person A and Person B.
  • Tell all of the Person As in the group to spend one full minute telling their partner, Person B, a story. (The story can be about anything—a made-up story or a real-life event. The main point is for Person A to talk for a full minute.)
  • In this first round, Person B should be assigned to use poor listening behavior in response to the partner. The adult may offer specific suggestions (e.g., poor eye contact, interrupting, texting on a cell phone) or challenge Person B to come up with his or her own inattentive listening behaviors.
  • After the minute is over, lead a discussion about how both Person A and Person B felt during the round. For example:
    • What did it feel like to talk to Person B?
    • How did you know Person B was not listening to you?
    • Did you want to stop talking before the minute was up?
    • Did you feel like Person B cared about you?
    • How did it make you feel about Person B?
    • How did it feel to be so inattentive to Person A?
  • Next, assign a second minute of talking. This time, Person B should do the talking, while Person A uses good listening behaviors (e.g., good eye contact, nodding, leaning in).
  • Follow up with a discussion about how the good listening behaviors made each person feel.
    • What did it feel like to talk to Person A?
    • What were the behaviors that showed good listening?
    • How did good listening make you feel?
    • How did it make you feel about Person A?
    • How did it feel to be so attentive to Person B?
    • Did listening well help you understand Person B in a new way?

Conclude the activity with a summary discussion about the positive impact that effective listening has on a relationship with an emphasis on what an active process good listening is. Connect the skill of making a person feel listened to with the skill of empathy and making a person feel understood.

Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker, school counselor, and author, is COO of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute and presents workshops nationwide for parents and professionals on bullying prevention and helping kids manage anger.

This post is an excerpt from Signe Whitson’s book, 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools (W. W. Norton, May 2014).