What is ADHD/ADD?
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), is really a group of symptoms that involve developmentally inappropriate levels of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Many people have trouble paying attention at times or can be impulsive, and many people have high energy levels. That doesn’t mean they have ADD/ADHD. The symptoms become a disorder when they are extreme for the age of the individual (developmentally inappropriate), and when they interfere with an individual’s ability to function in school, work and life.
There is no cure for ADHD/ADD, but there are a variety of treatments, from medication to behavioral therapy that can help children and adults with ADHD/ADD to function more effectively. Recent research in the field suggests that training cognitive skills, including working memory and other attention-related skills, may also be beneficial in helping individuals with attention issues, whether or not they rise to the level of an ADHD/ADD diagnosis, to focus and attend.
ADHD/ADD and Learning
Many children and adults with ADHD/ADD struggle in school and other learning situations. On the surface, the explanations are simple. If a child can’t sustain their attention through a lesson, there will be gaps in their learning. If they can’t sit at a desk but are constantly jumping up or moving around, it is hard for them to complete their work and they are likely to be distracting to other students. Reacting impulsively often results in behavior considered inappropriate in school (blurting things out, for example). But surface explanations don’t explain how a child with ADHD actually learns. So it is vital to look below the surface.
An ADHD/ADD diagnosis, like other diagnoses (autism, dyslexia, etc.), is a prerequisite for medication and for accommodations in school (through and IEP or 504 plan). These approaches seek to improve the symptoms, but may not fully address the child’s learning struggles.
Many children with ADHD/ADD have deficits in important cognitive skills, the skills our brains use to take in, understand, store, apply and retrieve information. These deficits impede learning.
Attention skills are usually the first skills that come to mind when we hear the term ADHD/ADD, but it is important to understand that there are different types of attention.
- Visual Sustained Attention. The ability to stay on task for a sustained period of time, dealing with visual information.
- Auditory Sustained Attention. The ability to stay on task for a sustained period of time, dealing with auditory information.
- Visual Selective Attention. The ability to attend to one input while not being distracted by other inputs, dealing with visual information.
- Auditory Selective Attention. The ability to attend to one input while not being distracted by other inputs, dealing with auditory information.
- Divided Attention. The ability to attend to two activities at the same time, such as taking notes while listening to the teacher.
- Flexible Attention. The ability to shift focus from one task to another quickly and efficiently, when necessary.
Individuals with ADHD/ADD also often have weaknesses in other executive functions, including working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility.
- Working Memory. The ability to hold and manipulate information consciously in the mind.
- Inhibitory Control. The ability to suppress a thought or idea and to refrain from doing something one otherwise would do.
- Cognitive Flexibility. The ability to change our mindset when the rules of the world around us change, to shift between mental processes.
ADHD/ADD is a medical diagnosis and is arrived at by a qualified professional, based on symptoms and assessment of information derived from various sources, including parents, teachers and others.
ADHD/ADD Symptoms include:
- Having trouble staying focused
- Being easily distracted
- Avoiding tasks that require significant mental effort
- Having difficulty remembering instructions and following through on the
- Fidgeting or squirming
- Running around or climbing in situations when it’s not appropriate
- Blurting out answers
For a more extensive list of symptoms, the Mayo Clinic provides a helpful list.