“Sam doesn’t have ADD. He can pay attention just fine. I have seen him play video games for hours without any problem.”
“It’s not really about attention. People with ADD can focus attention in specific areas. It is more of a problem with the executive functions, like being able to plan ahead, organize, and control impulses.”
“Oh, he definitely has it then.”
So often, people are confused by the terms ADD because they see their children focus attention in some areas and not others. They do just fine when their attention is drawn in by a video game, but have great difficulty screening out distractions in a classroom when they are expected to perform academic tasks. And to adults, this can seem like an excuse to get out of the things that they don’t want to do. This often give ADD a bad rap.
The truth is, ADD is a medical issue that involves brain development and neurochemistry (see https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/add-adhd/at-a-glance-adhd-and-the-brain). People who have ADD benefit greatly from medication that allows them to regulate brain chemistry, enabling them to develop and use the executive functions appropriately.
But the question is, are we seeing something else in some kids who are being raised in this over-stimulated, over-protected world? Are we seeing a kind-of “Acquired ADD,” with many of the same symptoms, but completely different implications? Many teachers that I have talked to are beginning to think that maybe we are.
When babies are born, their brains are kind of like jungles. Each experience that they have begins to form (neuro)pathways in that jungle. The more they have those experiences, the stronger the pathways become. It might be easiest to think about some of the pathways for muscle memory. When kids practice piano over and over again, it clears those pathways and they get faster and faster at playing.
Once kids hit adolescence, the brain begins a process to make the brain more efficient: it prunes the neurons that have never been used and it paves the pathways that have been cleared. The last area of the brain to be pruned and paved is the prefrontal cortex, which houses the highest level thinking in the brain, the executive functions.
Julia Lythcott-Haimes, author of How to Raise an Adult, has a wonderful analogy for the students that she had as a Dean at Stamford University. She says that in their drive to produce super-children who will get into the best Universities, parents have raised “Bonsai children.” They have been pruned to look perfect, engaged in every activity that might impress college admissions officers. However, she said, Bonsai trees cannot survive in the wild, so these students struggle when they get to college and do not have their parents there to guide them.
Let’s go back to the brain. When kids are growing up, we only have so many pathways that we can forge. We can choose to put our children into sports, and music and drama and any number of structured activities that will serve to build their resume. However, at what expense?
The executive functions involve the highest level thinking: planning, communicating, controlling impulses, strategizing, cooperating, persisting, creativity. How are these pathways developed? By engaging in those activities. And that is best done through unstructured play time. Without opportunities to develop these pathways, kids do not have them. If parents are always serving as their child’s prefrontal cortex, that child will not develop their own neural pathways to be able to engage in these higher level thinking skills. This will present in much the same way as ADD, but has much different implications.
Neuroscientists have demonstrated that we are able to develop new neuropathways throughout our lives. The brain can always change. However, it is most malleable before the age of 25. We need to be mindful of the pathways that our kids are developing and ensure that we are not depriving them of the opportunities to practice executive functioning skills early and often.