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Do ADHD Brains Function Differently?

Years ago, I worked with a young boy whose labels included gifted and talented, learning disabled, and ADHD with hyperactivity. One morning while waiting in the cafeteria for school to start, this boy turned over an entire cafeteria table with seats attached. The principal, in an effort at fairness and understanding, said, “Bob, I know your medication had not taken effect. It’s OK.” What happened?

Was it really OK given the child’s disabilities?

Imagine a filter in the brain. The filter screens out excess sensory input. In most people, the filter works automatically when needed. Children diagnosed with ADHD have sluggish filters. Even when bombarded with excess noise, sights, or feelings, the filter does not do its job. The child feels flooded with sensations.

Stimulants such as caffeine and drugs such as Ritalin give a boost to the sluggish portion of the brain. One perplexed teacher offered a warm cup of coffee to a hyperactive child who mellowed out rather than becoming more active. With the jump-start, glucose utilization improves and the child with ADHD reacts more normally in terms of attentiveness, impulsivity, and excessive movements.


In order to discuss the characteristics of a child you suspect has ADHD, look for and document behaviors in three separate areas. A student may demonstrate behaviors in any one area, or in all three, which include being inattentive, impulsive, and or hyperactive.

Symptoms of Inattentiveness

To identify a child who has poor attention, look for at least six of the following characteristics. The child:

  1. cannot think in a noisy atmosphere;

  2. frequently asks for information/directions to be repeated;

  3. feels distracted;

  4. gets confused by details;

  5. has trouble concentrating except in a one-to-one situation;

  6. changes activities often;

  7. struggles with disorganization and can not stay on schedule

Symptoms of Impulsiveness

Another type of student with ADHD has problems with impulsivity. Consider at least four of the following behaviors. The child:

  1. acts without thinking;

  2. has trouble waiting for a turn;

  3. blurts out inappropriately;

  4. changes moods unexpectedly;

  5. makes noises;

  6. gets frustrated easily;

  7. becomes overly excited;

  8. cannot adjust to new situations;

  9. becomes upset by a change in the routine.

Symptoms of Hyperactivity

The student with hyperactivity creates problems at school and at home. The hyperactive student demonstrates at least four of the following characteristics:

  1. goes wild in crowded, busy places;

  2. has difficulty playing with friends;

  3. gives baby-sitters a miserable time;

  4. makes life unbearable for substitute teachers;

  5. runs or climbs on things excessively;

  6. moves constantly, even when sleeping;

  7. destroys and breaks things;

  8. fidgets and squirms in school;

  9. engages in purposeless behavior;

The challenge

The challenge includes staying calm while simultaneously setting limits. Children with ADHD or ADD struggle to maintain appropriate behaviors. The very wise mother whose son turned the table over in the cafeteria, held him responsible by saying, “I know your medication had not taken effect. I know you have to work harder at behavior than your friends. However, I expect you to maintain respect and make good choices. The mother stayed calm. She also held her son responsible. ADHD does not change expectations for unacceptable behavior. However, parents and teachers can show understanding.


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