Coaches help students with attention deficits stay engaged

Apr 11, 2013

As spring fever sets in, teachers are struggling to keep their students focused on the classroom. That can be a challenge even on the best of days for kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Their brains work differently from the students most schools were designed for, and nearly a third end up dropping out or delaying graduation.

But a new program is betting that kids with ADHD can still navigate school – it just takes a little coaching.

Eighth-grader Katie Beckham had never really thrived at school. She’s soft-spoken, has dyslexia … she’s a bunch of grades behind in reading and math. And then on top of all that, she was recently diagnosed with ADHD.

“I felt like, oh great. More stuff to carry on my back,” she said.

Katie is sitting in a conference room at Tacoma’s Giaudrone Middle School, along with Naomi Zemont. Zemont isn’t a teacher, nor is she a counselor or a therapist. She is a coach, and she reminds Katie that kids with ADHD aren’t broken, but they are wired differently.

“If you opened up an individual’s head with ADHD, the room would not look very neat. You wouldn’t have little file cabinets. It would be a room where the papers were just thrown everywhere,” says Zemont.

But just like the owner of a disheveled room or desk might still know where everything is, someone with ADHD can train themselves to get control over their world.

The Seattle-based Edge Foundation pays for Zemont to meet once a week with Katie – and about 15 other students. Another coach here has about 15 more, and they have two counterparts at a Highline School District high school about a half-hour north of here.

Talking strategy

In today’s meeting, they talk over Katie’s anxiety about tests. They discuss helpful tools, like using sticky notes for vocabulary (yellow ones didn’t work well for Katie, but brightly colored ones were eye-catching enough to keep her on task.)

And they always make sure to hit the week’s highlights.

“OK, I want to know: when did you really, really rock this last week?” Zemont asks.  

“I got an ‘exceeding’ on my science quiz,” Katie says.

Zemont asks what it is that made her succeed there.

“I advocated for myself.”

That advocacy– asking questions, retaking tests – is another strategy Katie has picked up in coaching session. At each meeting they review how these techniques have played out, and tweak the plan together.

'Smart friends' make math bearable

Today Katie is anxious about her next class, math.

“Sometimes I see numbers backwards, or to be honest I still don’t know my division. I barely know my multiplication. It’s really hard for me,” she says.

Katie and Zemont talk through a plan: slow it down, take breathers, lean on smart friends to help. With that fresh in mind, Katie heads upstairs and down a hallway of rowdy tweens, into Trent Taylor’s math class.

Within a few minutes the class is referencing material on both a dry-erase whiteboard and an electronic “smartboard,” along with a piece of poster paper, their own notes and their graphing calculators. For Katie, each one of those things tugs at her attention. She’s buffeted by them, unable to keep them all in perspective, and she begins falling behind.

But that’s where the “smart friends” thing comes in. She leans in to her tablemate for help, and she starts to regain her footing.

Students get to 'drive the bus'

This is a technique right out of her coaching sessions, which Naomi Zemont says actually came from another student. In fact, she says most of the ideas come from kids.

“Students come in with the full expectation [that], OK, my hands are going to be neatly folded and I’m expected to ‘learn something.’ They don’t realize this is their chance to drive the bus themselves,” Zemont says.

The Edge Foundation says that approach has had some early success. The program has been used at the college level, where peer-reviewed research showed improvements in academic outcomes. 

This pilot program for middle school and high school is just in its second year, and the data is very preliminary. But Edge Foundation Project Coordinator Tim Knifflin says after year one, students improved their GPAs by more than half a point. Disciplinary incidents went down as well.

“We saw very, very good results. Now our goal is to try and take what we have and expand it, so we can demonstrate it works across a wide spectrum,” Knifflin says.

The Foundation is looking, for example, at young people exposed to trauma or chronic stress. Those kids can show the same problems managing attention and priorities – what’s known as the brain’s “executive function” – as people with ADHD.

'Bring it on'

Maybe someday, they could see results like Katie Beckham is getting.

“I passed all my classes last year with As and Bs,” she says. “Since I’ve been in school I’ve never had As. Ever.”

Once she started to care, and to see that success was possible, she became downright dogged. It didn’t matter if it took her twice as long, or if she had to work harder than her friends, or if she gave up her lunch hours to get extra help.  

“I for once know that I’m not dumb, I know what I’m doing,” she says. “I know I can do this. Bring it on.”