A difference in cognition.

Introduction

In a time where everything seems to be competing for our attention, there has been an increase of epidemic proportions in the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in elementary-school aged children. That is not to draw correlations between the two phenomenons, but there is no question that our ability to successfully focus is constantly being tested by the lure of distraction.

ADD/ADHD has been studied from many angles—there is a lot we know, but there is an equal amount of information that scientists have not reached consensus on. What we do know is that it is not curable—only treatable. In well over 60% of the cases, the go-to treatment is prescribing stimulant medication, sometimes as early as four or five years old.

It’s important to know the symptoms and outcomes in order to understand why so many parents resort to medication. Children with ADD/ADHD struggle with a constant inability to focus, stay organized, retain information, and many battle with hyperactivity which often presents itself as the inability to sit still or refrain from fidgeting. In many cases, these students fall behind in academic subjects like math and writing as a result of their symptoms.

How might we equip teachers to reverse the alarming rate of ADD/ADHD diagnoses in elementary school children?

A growing problem.

130,000,000+

Globally affects over 130 million youth under the age of 18.

42% increase

in ADHD diagnosis, in American children, over the the last 8 years.

7 years old

is the average age that children are diagnosed (Grade 2).

1 - 3 per class

1 – 3 children, out of a classroom of 30 students is diagnosed.

Medication

The most common medications are Ritalin, Adderral, Concerta and Focalin. Prolonged use of these medications has a number of consequences of varying severity which include, weight loss, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, tolerance building, long term addiction & dependency issues, slowed growth, and, increases anxiety and paranoia 1.

One of the challenges of medicating, is that there is a slowly growing trend to diagnose children earlier and earlier. That means kids are taking stimulant medication on a daily basis as early as 4 or 5 years old 1. Their performance and behaviour becomes completely dependent on a drug like Adderall, whose closest cousin, at the molecular level, is methamphetamine! Of course medication is a last resort in the minds of most parents, but unfortunately, one of the only options which has been providing children with some level of success.

If there were other ways of managing this, perhaps we could reduce our dependency on medicating so many young children.

A few more statistics.

6.7% under 17

Over Six percent of the American population under 17 are taking ADD/ADHD medication.

3 boys for 1 girl

Boys are 3x more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

Hyperactivity

75% of boys with ADD are hyperactive, whereas 60% of girls are.

The education system

Many believe that archaic education systems are playing a massive role in the diagnosis of children with ADHD. Programs like “No Child Left Behind” have been implemented and have created increased pressure on standardized testing and a narrowing focus on purely academic subjects—areas of study that are dependent on “right and wrong” answers. This trend has a number of downsides.

1
Schools often get funding dependent on test results, and teachers are being evaluated based on the performance of their students. When students fall behind, parents are encouraged to consider ADD evaluations. Upon diagnosis, these students often get reclassified as having a “learning disability” and their scores are not factored in with the rest of the class. This ensures that thet schools don't lose out on funding.
2
Schools are focused on academic subjects, and less on creative and artistic subjects. Encouraging children, especially at young ages, to be creative increases their ability to think divergently: one’s ability to see many different solutions to a problem. These skills are often less tangible and harder to grade on a test, but are some of the most important and sought after skills in the professional world. Some of the top innovations in the world are coming from companies that are lead by talent who can think divergently. Education systems need to embrace the arts early in a child’s career, as studies have shown that this ability fades away when not practiced.
3
Education curriculums and lesson planning should not be a one size fits all approach to a diverse group of students. Tailoring individual learning plans for students doesn’t have to be a burden on the teacher, since many of the exercises and tactics, which can be added to supplement existing cirriculums, work well for all students.
4
It has been demonstrated by many special learning schools and programs that giving students choice in how they want to consume content empowers the students and returns improved results.
5
Students with ADHD tend to do poorly on subjects that are no interest to them, or are not presented in an interesting way. Interstingly enough, these students have the ability to hyper focus, in someone of a flow state, on tasks which they are interested in. Contrary to this, is the education system tends to want to focus efforts on the subjects where students are not strong, rather than build on their strengths.

A school system can never be any better than the teachers teaching in it; if you want to start a revolution in education, make it happen in your own classroom.

—Sir Ken Robinson

Empathy Mapping

Data collection & interviews

To gain greater insights, a total of 8 surveys were completed by parents of children with ADD/ADHD, one in-depth interview with a parent, three user-tests, and lastly an hour long conversation with a specialized learning professional who has extensive experience workig with ADD/ADHD kids, as well as other professionals in the educational sector. Here are a few key excerpts and trends that were uncovered.

Hyperfocus

100% of respondants described their child having the ability to become super concentrated on a specific task for extended periods of time without issue. This also came out in the research. These tasks always involved subjects that the child was interested in or passionate about.

Inadequate training

100% of parents were confident that their child's teachers received little to no training specific to kids with ADD/ADHD and were ill-equipped to properly handle or teach to them. Conversations with the learning professional also uncovered evidence of the same lack of training.

Communication

Over 90% of parents said that communcation with their child's teachers is, at most, monthly. 50% of this group actually only talks to their teachers at parent teacher interviews. Irregular feedback was a huge pain point for parents.

Resources for parents

What parents know about their child's and ADD/ADHD comes from whatever research they do. 100% of parents said the school system did not provide them with any resources.

Kinetic learning

100% of parents would like to see more physical learning and play-based learning excercises built into the class. This highly engaging method of teaching is extremely effective for children with ADHD.

Class size

Class sizes are not small. Teachers are very careful about how they make themselves available so that they are not bombared at all hours answering emails or taking telephone calls. In-person interviews, or phone calls can be difficult to facilitate into the work day.

Sleep issues

Winding down to get to sleep, or difficulty sleeping is a reocourring theme for most parents. There is a chance that a poor nights sleep, combined with the energy from stimulant medication also creates a bit of viscious circle.

Video games

Video games were one of the most popular activities that children with ADD/ADHD could often hyperfocus on. The multi-points of stimulation (visual, auditory, and physical) in addition to the contstant feedback loops in the game were very effective at holding attention.

Divergence

In order to gain a better understanding how we might solve this problem we looked outside the world of ADD/ADHD to discover other areas of influence. Here are a few of the major influences.

Video games
Video games

Video games have the perfect ingredients to capture the attention of a child with ADD/ADHD. We often look at kids and their inability to focus and often think the solution is to remove stimulus, but often its the removal of stimulus that causes children to get restless. Video games have a kinetic component in addition to the auditory and visual experience. Couple of that with the constant feedback loops found in video games, and you have a recipe for holding ones attention.

Video games use point systems, rewards, and positive feedback to keep users playing. Additionally, even during unsuccessful attempts in video games, there are opportunities to try again and be successful without major negative repercussions. Interestingly enough, how many students get to take their test again to achieve a better score in a school setting?

Mindfulness
Mindfulness

Mindful activities like yoga and meditation have been very effective at helping children manage their symptoms. In fact, some students, if requested by the parents, can have their child take brain breaks during the day. Often it is these breaks that give the child a chance to decompress and prevent worse or more disruptive behaviour from taking place in the classroom. Familiarizing teachers and parents with simple activities like this could be a great way to incorporate calmness and self introspection techniques into the classroom and at home.

Finlands Education System
Education in Finland

The education system in Finland is particularly interesting because they are one of the few education systems (especially in contrast to North America) who have made huge changes to reform their curriculums. Students start at an older age, there is a more well rounded focus on subjects that are not purely academic, students engage in play and problem based learning exercises throughout, and there is no standardized testing until the students are over 16 years old.

Finland has achieved one of the highest literacy rates and a perfect score for high-school graduation. But perhaps the most important difference, is how they have elevated the teaching profession in the country by increasing the requirements to become a teacher, and giving them a lot of control over curriculums.

Class dojo
Class Dojo

Class Dojo is an app that gamifies a reward and feedback system for classrooms. It uses fun characters to engage with young students, and each student gets a unique character to represent themselves in the app. The app includes a student, parent and teacher view to ensure that everyone is part of the child's progress and reward issuing.

Class Dojo however does not include any resources for parents and isn't focused on helping particular challenges in the classroom. Another downside to this approach to communication is that it turns the classroom experience into one that is akin to social media. It can be highly engaged by parents and students, but it means it can be a burden/time-suck for teachers.

Convergence

After learning more about ADD/ADHD from a variety of different vantage points, a few things became quite clear about the potential solution.

It starts with teachers

If teachers don't embrace the solution, it will never bring any change into the classroom. Taking a top down approach to reform the education system is to be a path riddled with bureaucracy and roadblocks. Teachers need a solution that they see immediate benefit from and can introduce change from the ground level.

Shifting perspectives

New teaching techniques that are both more individualized and structured for multiple learning styles will have a greater affect on the class as a whole. As part of this, we need to help shift the perspective on ADD/ADHD outside the realm of "learning disability", and recognize it simple as "a difference in cognition".

Advocacy

Teachers need to become advocates for their students with ADD/ADHD, just as students need to become advocates for themselves. Students and teachers working together will result in better outcomes. If we give students some choice in how they learn, they can feel a level of control and ownership over their education.

addvocate logo

Introducing Addvocate.

Addvocate is an always evolving resource for elementary school teachers to help educate and better equip them to more effectively teach students with ADD/ADHD. Accessible from any device, the app also enables more regular communication, between teachers, parents, and students. Through a goal setting and advocacy card builder, students can also participate in the process through a child-friendly companion app called Addventurer.

Addvocate diagram

A child-friendly companion app that allows to students to be a part of the process so they can be involved in building a personal advocacy card that outlines their interests, strengths and weaknesses and earn rewards through a gamified process.

An app for teachers and parents that includes access to resources, daily tips, and activities for working with ADD/ADHD students. It also helps faciliate teacher to parent communication in addition to providing visiblity to progress in the classroom.

Design values

Everyone matters
Design for everyone

Diversity is more than what the eye see, over 90 percent of disabilities (mental and physical) are invisible—consider differences in physical ability, thought, gender, race, culture and other mental challenges.

Happiness
Evoke happiness

Too many solutions try to trap users in endless feedback loops and exploit users emotions. Create solutions that delight the user and enhance their life in the most efficient way possible—give users time back to do the things that are important to them.

Consistency
Consistency

Be consistent, don’t let the ego or personal desire for change cloud judgement when designing. A consistent predictable experience will supercede an inconsistent one.

Details
No detail is too small

The small details are the things that make an experience cohesive and memorable. Visual or otherwise, never forget the even the smallest refinements which can bring clarity and delight to users.

Teachers and parents

1
Weekly tips and resources
Access to weekly tips, resources, and activities. The parent and teacher user profile will curate the resources that are relevant for each audience. All resources will help better equip parents and teachers to interact more effectively with the child/student.
2
Establish office hours
Teachers can establish set office hours in which they are available through the app. This gives parents easier access to regular feedback about their child, but also helps the teacher manage their time.
3
Collaborate with students
Set weekly milestones and reward students with points that they can cash in for extra opportunities in class. Students can communicate with teachers through the app if they are anxious or not feeling confident and parents have visibility.

Students

1
Advocacy card
Students will create advocacy cards overtime by answering periodic questions in the app. The datapoints captured will assemble a profile of the student that outlines their interests and how they like to learn. This card can travel with them from grade to grade to help teachers.
2
Weekly milestones
Students can participate in weekly milestones for points. Each goal will consist of several sub goals to build them up to achieving the main goal by the end of the week. This helps students take small steps, focusing on a new skill per week.

ADD/ADHD is a difference in cognition, not a disorder.
Let's treat it that way.

Citations
“ADHD & Kids: The Truth About Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” Time, Time, time.com/growing-up-with-adhd/.
“ADHD and Sleep.” National Sleep Foundation, sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders-problems/adhd-and-sleep.
Bloom, Deborah. “Instead of Detention, These Students Get Meditation.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Nov. 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/11/04/health/meditation-in-schools-baltimore/index.html.
Chadd. “General Prevalence of ADHD | CHADD.” CHADD – The National Resource on ADHD, www.chadd.org/understanding-adhd/about-adhd/data-and-statistics/general-prevalence.aspx.
Editors, ADDitude. “ADHD, By the Numbers.” ADDitude, ADDitude, 22 Mar. 2018, www.additudemag.com/the-statistics-of-adhd/.
“The ADHD Mindfulness Craze: It All Started with One Little Study.” MindfullyADD, 17 Mar. 2016, mindfullyadd.com/adhd-mindfulness-craze/.
TEDtalksDirector. “Do Schools Kill Creativity? | Sir Ken Robinson.” YouTube, YouTube, 6 Jan. 2007, youtu.be/iG9CE55wbtY.
TEDtalksDirector. “How to Escape Education's Death Valley | Sir Ken Robinson.” YouTube, YouTube, 10 May 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX78iKhInsc.
Welch, Ashley. “More Kids Getting Diagnosed with ADHD at Young Ages.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 3 Sept. 2015, www.cbsnews.com/news/more-kids-getting-diagnosed-with-adhd-at-young-ages.
“Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Sept. 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/.