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Young Boy Trying to Let Go of Small Details

How to Stop a Bad Moment from Becoming a Bad Day

Children who are neurologically atypical are often extremely sensitive to changes in their routine, criticism (even when it's gently worded), and small disruptions from their expectations. For children with conditions like ADHD, what looks like a tiny blip in an otherwise great day can loom large and turn into a real problem.

Understandably, parents can be extremely frustrated by these reactions. After all, eating from the red bowl instead of the blue bowl or sleeping with two pillows instead of three doesn't seem like a real problem. Many parents and bystanders insist that the child just "get over it" and go about their day, but many children will insist that they can't do that. Instead, the disruption will be the trigger for meltdowns, tantrums, and emotional distress that can last for hours.


Perception is Shaped Early

One of the reasons that children with ADHD are so sensitive to what they perceive as negative feedback (even if it is not intended that way) is because their self-perception has often been shaped through negative reactions from a very early age. Research has shown that children with ADHD have often received 20,000 more negative messages about their behavior than a neurotypical child by age 12.

The impact of all of this negative feedback can be profound. Low self-esteem is often a problem in children with ADHD, and it is more likely to go overlooked because parents and caregivers are often focused more on managing behaviors to maintain a productive learning environment. While there are many statistics about negative long-term outcomes for people with ADHD—including poorer career, marriage, and educational outcomes—some experts question whether it is the ADHD itself or the resulting low self-esteem that contributes more to these results.

When children perceive themselves as less competent or less capable than their peers, that can hold them back in a myriad of ways and create a sense of extreme distress when something else goes wrong. The larger-than-life reactions to seemingly small missteps and problems is a sign that a child is lacking emotional resilience, and that lack of resilience is likely directly tied to their self-perception.

Resilience Matters for Facing Tough Days

Resilience is the ability to successfully adapt to adverse conditions. Resilience is not just important for children with ADHD; it's important for everyone. However, children with ADHD often encounter more adverse conditions during their daily lives, so the need for resilience can be even more apparent.

In the past, we have often talked about resilience as the manner in which we bounce back from major setbacks. We might think about how resilient someone is in the face of a life-threatening medical diagnosis, after losing a loved one, or after sustaining a serious injury in an accident. These major life events do present us with opportunities to practice and demonstrate resilience, but we now know that resilience is built in much smaller moments.

Today's understanding and discussion of resilience focus on the small, everyday moments of overcoming adversity and the lessons that come along with doing so. When a child takes a tumble out of a tree because she climbed using a fragile branch, she learns lessons about how to be more attentive the next time she climbs. When a child spills his milk because he was pouring it too quickly, he learns lessons about how to slow down and pay attention next time.

These small moments build up over time, giving children a blueprint for how to handle all setbacks—including major ones. The important thing is that they have the opportunity to learn and grow from these moments. Children with ADHD often need help utilizing tools of resilience and applying them to the many minor setbacks they are likely to encounter throughout the day.

Resilience Comes from Seeing Strength

The concept of resilience is closely tied to the concept of a growth mindset. Carol Dweck is a champion of growth mindset education, and she explains that "students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset)."  When students perceive their own abilities as something they can change and increase over time, they are more likely to face challenges with resilience.

One way to help students recognize their own talents and ability to grow is by focusing on their skills and strengths. This strengths-based approach can be applied to everything from education to hobbies, but it challenges the mainstream perception of students with ADHD. Often, everyone from researchers to parents to educators discusses ADHD in terms of its deficits. This approach can make it difficult for students to see themselves as capable and able to grow.

While addressing deficits is an important part of education, adopting a strengths-based model can show more promising results. In this approach, students' abilities and strengths are centered. Educators can help implement a strengths-based approach by creating diverse learning activities, praising students for effort instead of results, and encouraging self-assessment during moments of academic success.

Other Strategies to Build Resilience

There are many ways to build resilience and give students the opportunity to overcome small obstacles before they become big problems. Parents and educators can implement the following approaches:

Model Mistakes

Showing students that mistakes are a part of life is a crucial part of building resilience. Adults can model making mistakes and overcoming them, showing students that a mistake does not have to mean they are a failure.

Demonstrate Coping Skills

Walking away and taking a break, counting to 10 before reacting, breathing deeply: students need to see coping strategies modeled and promoted throughout their lives so that they can call upon these approaches when they need them most.

Allow Risk-Taking

Children build resilience by facing obstacles. When they overcome the obstacle, they gain confidence and skills. When they do not overcome it, they gain lessons and insight. Either way, risk is part of the process. Allowing students to take meaningful, measured risks on a regular basis is crucial to long-term success.

Don't Fix It, Ask Questions

Especially for children where a minor incident can become a major problem, the urge to rush in and fix everything can be strong. Instead, take a moment and ask the child calm, even questions about what's going on and what could be done next. When things are fixed for them, children get the message that they are incapable, but when they get the opportunity to fix it themselves, they see themselves as worthy and capable.

Kentwood Preparatory School knows that resilience is a key component of every successful education. We are especially aware of the need for resilience in students with ADHD, and we aim to create a learning environment that will help them see their unique strengths and build upon their talents.


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