Learning Through Action: The Importance of Teaching Skills to Kids Struggling with ADHD (& Other Behavioral Disorders)

by | Feb 28, 2016

energized kidsWhen I first began working as a school counselor, I sometimes got frustrated with children who didn’t seem to apply the social/emotional lessons I taught them.

“Why don’t they get it?” I asked my colleague Anne Bagwell, a counselor and an amazing mentor. “I explain things in a way they can understand. They nod like they get it. But their behavior doesn’t change.”

Anne smiled, “You’re expecting them to ‘get it’ through insight,” she said. “Kids in their early years don’t understand insight. They understand action.”

As we continued to talk, I began to see ways of better supporting children with attention weaknesses or other special challenges. Behavior is an action. It makes sense that we learn it best through action.

And really, this is something we all “already know” from our own experience. Practice and action are central to changing behavior. It’s not until our heart begins to race that we realize two cups of coffee are too much. It’s not until we step on the scale that we grasp one consequence of our recent lack of exercise.

Then we’re called to action.

Is Your Action the Right Action?

Sometimes when faced with a challenge, we opt for the path of least resistance – the easiest, most expedient solution we can find. In the case of children struggling with maintaining and/or shifting attention, many parents and caregivers opt immediately for Ritalin, Adderall, or other drug, and are grateful for their quick and powerful effects.

But there are consequences of medicating ADHD and other behavioral disorders – “side effects” beyond the drugs’ physiological impact. As we noted before,

Deciding whether to medicate a child is a big decision. It can give a child the chance to experience life with less anxiety and social conflict. Sometimes, medication is absolutely necessary. But often, there’s an unfortunate side effect: parents drop the skills-training and other support they were providing their child. And their child gets the message loud and clear: When you’re struggling, use medicine. No need to keep practicing your friendship skills or learning tools for attention and how to self-regulate. Put all your faith in the pills.

Now a new study has shown just how critical it is to pursue skills-training and other support, regardless of whether the parents choose to medicate or not. As the New York Times recently reported,

The new research, published in two papers by the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, found that stimulants were most effective as a supplemental, second-line treatment for those who needed it — and often at doses that were lower than normally prescribed.

The study is thought to be the first of its kind in the field to evaluate the effect of altering the types of treatment midcourse — adding a drug to behavior therapy, for example, or vice versa.

“We showed that the sequence in which you give treatments makes a big difference in outcomes,” said William E. Pelham of Florida International University, a leader of the study with Susan Murphy of the University of Michigan. “The children who started with behavioral modification were doing significantly better than those who began with medication by the end, no matter what treatment combination they ended up with.”

A related study further showed that going with behavioral therapy first cost a lot less, as well.

Skills & Rewards

Skills that are at the core of yoga – mindfulness, self-regulation – are one reason why the physical poses of Yoga Calm help as much with behavioral issues as the social-emotional activities. And it’s not just an activity confined to the classroom. The skills children learn are tools they can take home and use whenever they recognize the need to “self-intervene” and control their impulses.

classroom yogaMore, they get them in a supportive atmosphere, where they are encouraged and where their strengths and accomplishments are rewarded. That’s another thing the new research underscores: the fact that consequences and rewards help motivate us in life.

Some parents, educators and others grow concerned over the word “rewards,” thinking of them only as material things. But many rewards are natural, emotional, such as the pride of mastering a new skill or the happiness in making a new friend.

There are natural consequences, as well – breaking a toy when we’re rough with it, say, or experiencing the sadness of a friend when we act rude or uncaring toward them.

If we overprotect children from these natural rewards and consequences, we rob them of many valuable learning opportunities.

For more ideas about helping kids through teaching behavior, see our previous posts “9 Ways to Teach & Nurture Focus for Kids with ADHD,” “Helping Kids with Attention Issues” and “5 Tips to Teach Kids with ADHD Better Focus and Self Control.”

Top image by CK, Carl, Carlo, Carlito, via Flickr;
bottom image courtesy of Kathy Flaminio/1000 Petals

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