The 3 Legged Stool of Success for Kids with ADHD Part 1: Self-Awareness

Self-Advocacy

Sometimes our incredible Guest Experts have SO much to say that we need to change things a bit so that you can take full advantage of their expertise. This is one of those times. We are honored and privileged to have Dr. Jerome Schultz as a Guest Expert, and are thrilled to provide his wisdom in a three part series: The 3 Legged Stool of Success for Kids with ADHD: Helping Kids Develop Self-Awareness, Self-Advocacy, and Self-Improvement. Part 1 appears today, with future installments in subsequent weeks.  

I have a really hard time with the epidemic numbers of kids (and adults) taking indelible images of themselves doing silly or nearly illegal acts, in every state of mood from exuberant elation to deep depression. Lots of people (mostly younger) tell me to “get with it” and get out my Selfie-Stick. Sorry, I’m not there yet.  

Three Legged Stool of Success 

But the rise of the term “Selfie” has inspired me to write about what I consider to be the 3-legged stool of success for kids and adolescents with ADHD: Self-Awareness, Self-Advocacy, and Self-Improvement.Three new kinds of Selfies. When kids learn to do each of these well, they can actually make them look (and feel) very good – at least on the inside, which is what we adults are most concerned about! 

Over the next three articles, I’ll address each leg of the Stool of Success for kids with ADHD. We’ll start at the beginning: Self Awareness. 

Self Awareness, or self-perception, is the ability to see and interpret what we look like to the outside world. It’s much like holding a figurative mirror up to yourself, seeing your reflection, and being able to explain it. Everyone has some idea about what they “look like,” but we aren’t born with this skill; it develops over time.  

To survive, newborns and infants need to focus on others, in particular their mother, because she provides sustenance and safety. Until a baby is about 15 months old, if you sneakily put a post-it on her head and hold up a mirror for her to see herself, she won’t reach up and pull the sticky thing off, because she doesn’t think, “Hey, that’s ME!” 

As children grow and develop, their ability to be introspective improves. Over time, they can look inward and come up with some judgment about what they can do well and what they, well…stink at.  

Feedback from Others 

Our ability to know ourselves is shaped by our interactions with others and the feedback we get from them. External evaluations by others (“That’s good!” or “That’s not nice”) help us develop our own impressions of ourself (like “I am good,” “I am smart,” “I’m the best soccer player,” or “I always do dumb things.”)  

Research has shown that children with ADHD (as compared to kids without this condition) tend to inflate their self-perceptions the most in the areas in which they have the greatest difficulty. In other words, their self-perception is least accurate on tasks with which they tend to struggle the most. 

This plays out in a curious way. When they are first confronted with a challenging task, kids with ADHD tend to say things like “I’m a great reader” even if they struggle with the act of decoding or comprehension. After getting a lot of feedback over time about just how poorly they read, they tend to change their self-statement to something like “I stink at reading,” or they say, “I hate reading” (code for “I’m not good at it”). 

Kids who can’t do something well often shut down when expected to do something that other kids do easily. Why do they do this? Saying “I’m the best” or “I stink at that” are both ways to avoid or protect oneself from the negative judgment of others.  

Parents Can Help Turn This Around 

You can help your kids improve their ability to appraise themselves accurately. Learning this skill will help them lead to success: 

  1. Celebrate Legitimate Success. Have kids pick out samples of their schoolwork that both you and they agree are done well. If you are from New England, put these in a file labeled “Wicked Good.” If you’re not from Boston, you can call it “Pretty Awesome.” If you use a number rating scale, agree with the kid that these are a “1” or a “2.” Have the kid sign the work next to the mutually agreed upon rating.  
  2. Compare and Contrast. Next time there is an assignment in question, don’t’ tell your child how you think she did. Instead, ask “how do you think you did on this?” Kids often respond to this question in one of two ways: she’ll say that’s great! If she’s right, compare it to the sample in the “awesome” file and you can both smile.  

If she’s wrong, ask her: “is this as good as this item in your “awesome” file? If she says yes, but you think no, then give the kid the courtesy of saying: “This time I don’t agree; compared to these 1 or 2 level items, this seems more like a 3 or 4.” This realistic, honest external appraisal helps a student understand what’s really good and what’s really bad. This is a skill that successful people have. Kids with ADHD deserve the chance to develop this ability. 

Of course, you can encourage your child to improve Self-Awareness in all aspects of life, not just schoolwork. Take pictures of a kitchen or bedroom particularly well cleaned up, or of your child arm-in-arm with a friend during a successful playdate. Gosh, you can even have them take—am I really saying this–“selfies!”   

Here’s the bottom line: Find things your child does well; tasks he or she completes with mastery. Then you’ve got something about which both you and your son or daughter can honestly say: “That was pretty darned good.” Your kids need to experience the joy of success. It’s like money in their self-assessment bank account.

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