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A child struggling with words and sounds can also seem distracted. Is she having trouble decoding the words or has she lost her attention for the task? For the teacher, understanding the differences between the disorders can sometimes be puzzling when working with a student who is struggling academically. The educator’s challenge may be in identifying if the student is struggling with a learning disability such as dyslexia or if the difficulty is related to ADHD, or both, as co-occurring disorders.
“You have to figure out what this child needs,” says Joan Teach, PhD. “It doesn’t matter what the child comes to the plate with; the teacher’s first job is to take a really good look at what the child brings. How many different things are going on with this child? What does the child bring that is good? And what are the things in his way?”
Dr. Teach is an educational consultant in Atlanta, Georgia; she is president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Georgia, and a former member of the CHADD Board of Directors. Throughout her career she has worked closely with students affected by ADHD, dyslexia, and related learning disabilities.
It’s important for educators to understand that ADHD and dyslexia symptoms can intensify the co-occurring disorders, Dr. Teach says. The frustration of trying to work out a word can become overwhelming to the point that a child loses interest and seeks new stimuli rather than sticking with the task, she says.
“Too often our kids (with ADHD) need a tremendous amount of stimuli to take information in,” she says. “But trying to stay still has to take all of their attention, and they don’t have anything left for the academics.”
She has seen students for whom the approaches designed for dyslexia are difficult for a child with co-occurring ADHD.
“(Dyslexia) programs are designed to be one-on-one, but (educators) end up putting students into groups of five,” Dr. Teach says. “It’s better than groups of 25 (students) but you don’t have someone there to guide your hand. Any child that has attention (issues) or impulsivity or any kind of neuro-difficulty like that has to have someone there to put him into the right space.”
“Dyslexic children, like children with ADHD, may have difficulty paying attention because reading is so demanding that it causes them to fatigue easily, limiting the ability to sustain concentration,” states the International Dyslexia Association. The association goes on to characterize the learning styles of children with dyslexia and those with ADHD:
Typically dysfluent; problems with accuracy, misreading both large and small words
May also be dysfluent, but not characterized by misreading words; may skip over punctuation, leave off endings, lose his/her place.
Dysfluency may negatively impact comprehension in both;
may avoid reading and derive little pleasure from it.
Typically has significant problems with spelling, grammar, proofreading, and organization
Often has difficulty with organization and proofreading
Neither ADHD nor dyslexia affects a student’s intelligence. Many students and their parents find getting help to be a struggle because a student can be doing “well enough” by working two or three times as hard as her classmates just to keep up. When a teacher intervenes and helps to support the student through an accommodation program, the student’s innate ability can shine through.
“I firmly believe most of these kids are extremely bright,” Dr. Teach says. “They just operate a little differently.”
What can educators and parents do to support a student with co-occurring ADHD and dyslexia?
“Know the student,” Dr. Teach recommends. “And then try a strategy and see if it works. And if that strategy doesn’t work, try something else. Keep trying different strategies because each child’s configuration of strengths and weaknesses will be different. What works for Suzy might not work for Sam. If a strategy works one time and not the next, accept it. We’re not the same each day. Keep the interventions going. If something worked a little while ago, go back to that. Our kids respond well to variety.”
Dr. Teach says that the educator’s role is to find out what the student needs by working closely with the student rather than applying a one-size-fits all program or approach.
“If people would stop, look, listen, get to know, and interact, it would be so much better,” she says. “I would love every teacher to approach every child, to have in her mind (the question) ‘what is it that is making this child act this way?’ and be to really concerned with knowing the answer.”
Being aware of the symptom of impulsivity and how it can affect a student’s self-esteem is also part of the approach, she adds.
“The real compulsion is they blurt out the wrong answer,” she says. “It can be embarrassing. The kid tries to answer too quickly. Or they listen to the directions only halfway. It’s a disaster looking for a place to lay down. You can only be wrong so many times before you either run away or fear makes you a frozen popsicle and you don’t know where to go. Or you completely fall apart and you’re so angry that you get into a fighting situation.”
Dr. Teach suggests educators talk with their students about what works best for them individually or what would make a student more comfortable as she approaches her work, to allow students some choice and input in the strategies used. By building on successes, students are more able to take on challenges in areas of study that are harder for them, she says. Additionally, parents and teachers need to use newer technologies to help students―including computers and online tools, recording lectures to listen to later, and audio textbooks that students can listen to while doing the assigned reading.
To learn more about dyslexia as a co-occurring condition with ADHD, visit the International Dyslexia Association.
For information on teaching students affected by ADHD, visit CHADD’s National Resource Center’s section For Teachers where you’ll find information on working with students affected by ADHD, classroom management, Tips for Teachers video series, and CHADD’s Teacher to Teacher: Classroom Interventions for the Student with ADHD.
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