Guest Post: Living and Teaching With ADHD

12 Jul

In response to yesterday’s post about ADHD medication I was contacted by Ryan Barrett. Ryan is an elementary Core French teacher with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board and has been since September 2008. Ryan shared his extraordinary and inspiring story of growing up, living and teaching with ADHD. I asked if I could share that story on this blog and he agreed. The following are his words, unedited by me.

I am 32 years old and teach grades 3/4/5 and have been undergoing medical treatment for combined type ADHD (both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive types) for just over a year now. The ‘just’ is the important modifier here as I have spent my years from pre-school to university, and every year thereafter in classrooms, trying to find my footing in the simplest of routines we teach our students Day One.  I kept re-living that first day of school, struggling with unmanaged ADHD for 28 years, until last winter when I just couldn’t make it out of the house anymore.

My personal struggle in the classroom was never of the sort that distracted others or demanded additional support from the teacher. I was identified gifted, and at IPRC meetings (this was pre-IEP, but post-Bill 82) they said I was bored and that I needed to challenge myself. Eventually, they thought, I would learn to meet deadlines. I would learn that ‘practice makes perfect’, and the restlessness and indecision would eventually fade and I would find my one true calling. I would learn to use a binder, a highlighter, and keep a calendar — and follow it! I would be satisfied and confident enough to complete a piece of work without starting over, and over, and over…

While my proficiencies were lauded, supported medically, and formalized, my weaknesses were dismissed as the tiniest of challenges that maturity would overcome.

Today I still find it difficult to go seek help when I can’t concentrate, when I can’t focus, or can’t stay organized. I don’t tell enough people when I am frustrated, overwhelmed, or worried about deadlines looming or missed. I certainly don’t seek medical attention often enough, and especially not when I am unable — when my brain, and body are unable – to accomplish a task that is, at this stage in my life, vital to my survival. I can’t stress that enough. I can’t live like this without treating the root of the problem and not just the symptoms.  Last winter I didn’t think there was any hope at all.

Without the right medication, the dosage of which is still being adjusted since I am just at the start of this journey, I just haven’t enough strategies to do all of the  things most other grown-ups do in a day. Time and time again, I wake up in the morning and wonder what to do next.

Do I shower first? Where is my towel? I always end up leaving wet footprints on the carpet in the hallway. Keys: I need those to drive. I lost the checklist I made last night. It is probably with the one I made the night before last. If anything goes wrong, I’ll be late. I have just enough time to reinvent the wheel before the bell goes.

Still, I remain bound to the classroom, where I practice what I never learned. But this September, I’ll be a step closer, and all because I know now that my body lacks what it needs to propel me through the next day, and the next. And because it’s not a secret anymore…

24 Responses to “Guest Post: Living and Teaching With ADHD”

  1. Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca) July 12, 2013 at 6:56 am #

    Wow Ryan! I think that your story is one that all educators need to read. In fact, I’m going to share it with the teachers at my school. I applaud you for making the decision to seek medical attention when you knew that the other strategies weren’t working. As you know, a group of teachers had quite a discussion yesterday on Twitter inspired by Andrew’s last post. Your story puts everything into perspective.

    As a teacher then that lives with ADHD, what strategies do you use with students that have ADHD as well? What ones do you find most effective? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


    • rmbarrett July 19, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

      Sorry to take so long to reply, Aviva. Thank you for the praise and kind words. I also appreciate that you will share this with our colleagues. I didn’t take this decision to share my ADHD lightly as we teachers are supposed to stand a head and more than a few centimetres of shoulders and torso above our students, so I have faced much embarrassment trying to blend in over the years. That said, we embrace our students for all of their differences, whether or not those differences include difficulties, disabilities, personality traits, or just about anything else that makes for a diverse and equitable school culture. I always hope my own students will have the courage to share their obstacles and challenges so that I may guide them over safely.

      In my classrooms, I do try to reflect on my own experiences when working with students who display characteristics of ADHD and other behaviours that suggest something is in the way of their learning. Remembering back to one of our Fall 2012 Compliance staff-meeting pieces, there was an emphasis on building awareness of mental health issues in children. As an educator, and not a physician, I always remember not to diagnose and look instead to strategies that work for symptoms of these mental health problems. In fact, my counsellor (whom I only got to see a few times due to our somewhat limited Employee Assistance Program) suggested that I build awareness of my own anxious/depressive/hyperactive behaviours in passing on my strategies in the classroom. Likewise, my own personal struggle is an important blueprint for building an environment with empathy as its foundation.

    • rmbarrett July 19, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

      I’ve been a bit vague, so I’ll get to the point:
      I am acutely aware of behaviours that suggest a student I am acutely aware of behaviours that suggest a student is having trouble focusing because I show the same behaviours when I am distracted. It doesn’t matter to me if there is a diagnosis somewhere, or what the root cause is — the strategies can work for anyone who exhibits a certain behaviour (cross reference this with my recent grad work in Communications Management, which is all cognitive behavioural therapy at its root to persuade individuals to change their actions by understanding what their behaviours represent). I spend a lot of time getting to know my students — just chatting and trying to understand what their life looks like. Based on these interactions, I often suggest taking breaks to work on another assignment, listening to music, combining skills and aptitudes (eg. student likes drawing, so they may storyboard their idea before writing). Many of these strategies are right out of our literacy handbooks. We create lessons that address multiple intelligences, and show those as evidence of our differentiated instruction. We use templates and organizers and little cut-and-paste tools to make the learning more tactile, more structured, and more fun. These might be things that you do at home in your daily chores, as well, without realizing it. So I don’t have just one. None of us do. The key is to look to the adult world, and a diverse set of examples at that, and to emulate the grown-up activity in the classroom. I won’t say that I’m a master of this because I am still learning these strategies myself. What makes these strategies different from ones you would use for the other 75+ % of the class? Nothing at all. Except that most of our students who are not struggling with ADHD don’t need reminders for which strategy to use, and they don’t need as much ongoing support because they excelled in the organizational skills and maintained the concentration required to use the given tool to complete the task. Plus, they don’t get as frustrated with the entire process. Another reason to fine-tune the support we give our students based on more than our own observations. Try to relate to them, through their eyes, and draw from your years of experience, and bit by bit, with your support and some bargaining, your students can find a way that works.

  2. VBennett July 12, 2013 at 7:37 am #

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience, Ryan. As educators, we know and observe many children with ADD or ADHD, but rarely get the opportunity to speak to adults who are living and coping with it. It sounds like it has been a long journey – one that has had false starts and restarts. I am so glad to hear that the diagnosis has led to your decision to try medication to cope. I would think that it was a tough decision, but given the alternatives that you describe – it was the right decision for you. I’m hoping that we get an update from you when you feel that the dosage is right and you have some strategies in place that work for you.

    Thanks again for sharing – personal experiences are so difficult to share but so appreciated – who knows how many readers might identify with your story and seek help?

    • rmbarrett July 21, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

      Hi Valerie,
      thanks for helping me build my courage to keep striving. I’m in a confusing place right now as I open my eyes to the backlog in my life — one of the problems with living with tunnel vision during the school year – but I think it is a good place, nevertheless. Anxiety is very common amongst those with ADHD, and avoidance is not only a pleasant but easy temporary solution. At this time, I am learning to face the unpleasant feelings that I associate with seeing all that I have been avoiding. Medication for ADHD isn’t always to flip a switch, but can work to delay the impulsive actions that prevent learning coping strategies. Like breathing room, or a pause, in my experience.

  3. Carol July 12, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    Thank you for sharing your story! It gives us great insight to what our students are thinking and feeling when they are struggling with this illness and how we can help them. I’m glad you wrote that just because kids are not a behavior problem doesn’t mean that they are not struggling to focus in school. I hope you are doing well.

    • rmbarrett July 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

      You’re very welcome. It can be hard to identify the students who are struggling but not manifesting this by acting out. Hopefully my story gives us all (including me) a reminder to look for the signs that are not as obvious.

  4. Better is Possible July 12, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    Powerful! Thank you so much for sharing. In the words of Brene Brown – you are ‘Daring Greatly!’

    • rmbarrett July 21, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

      Thank you for your support!

  5. Sebastien July 12, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Survival is the key word here. Don’t lose hope Ryan. I’m in almost the exact same situation. Teaching French in Ontario, with inattentive ADHD, gifted. Paperwork is kryptonite. Contact me:

    • rmbarrett July 21, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

      Hi Sebastien,
      I am comforted to hear that I am not the only one. Certainly, I will contact you. And yes, paperwork is Kryptonite to me as well. How much time I have spent trying to find alternatives to paper — there is no coincidence that the majority of my work experience outside of teaching has been in developing digital workflows for documents. Still, I haven’t found the perfect method for myself just yet.
      All the best.

  6. Sebastien July 12, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    “Unions and employee associations have a critical role to play in the accommodation process.”

    Policy and guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate

    • rmbarrett July 21, 2013 at 5:34 pm #

      Absolutely they do, Sebastien, and I appreciate you posting this. As I hinted in my comment to @PrincipalDunlop, our unions want us to be cautious and follow their established policies in order to be accommodated. I have been down that road, and the process doesn’t necessarily lead to acceptance and understanding as it should, in my opinion.

  7. Pauline Thomson July 12, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences living with ADHD. My son was diagnosed a few months ago and medication was recommended. As I’m sure you can understand its a difficult decision for a parent to make. However, I want my son to meet his full potential and so I’m trying to keep an open mind to medication. Your words have reassured me that we’re on the right path 🙂

    • rmbarrett July 21, 2013 at 5:17 pm #

      You’re very welcome, Pauline. Hang in there and see how it goes. Medication is not always the solution for everyone, nor is one particular kind suited to every individual. Learning to talk about the ups and downs with your son is the essential part of providing him with the support he needs, be it strategies or drugs or a combination. As an adult who didn’t learn to talk about the feelings behind some of the behaviours, I’ve had to work extra hard with friends, family, and now colleagues and students to make up for not learning how to express my frustrations as a child. All the best, Pauline. Stay strong and confident that time and practice are the answer.

  8. Sue Dunlop (@PrincipalDunlop) July 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

    Andrew – thank you for posting this on Ryan’s behalf. Ryan’s honesty and courage are very powerful. This is an essential story for all parents and educators and those who deal with ADHD or ADD every day.

    • ballacheybears July 15, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

      I agree Sue. We need voices like Ryan’s in our discussion about teaching and education.

    • rmbarrett July 21, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

      Thank you for the positive response, Sue. It took some courage to come forward, especially to a floor shared by teachers and administrators. We teachers are so often cautioned to keep ourselves guarded in the workplace, lest our weaknesses be exploited, but at the cost of support and understanding. I’m happy to share freely and without fear now that I know there is a community who won’t judge me. We can hope that our model serves as an example for our schools.

  9. rmbarrett July 19, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Reblogged this on Ryan Matthew Barrett and commented:
    Below is a Guest Post I made to Andrew Campbell’s blog.

    • rmbarrett July 19, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

      Hi Andrew,
      I reblogged this, but the url is incorrect. I can’t delete the reblog link…

      • ballacheybears July 20, 2013 at 8:41 am #

        What do you need me to do Ryan??

      • rmbarrett July 21, 2013 at 5:28 pm #

        No problem here Andrew. The reblog link doesn’t work, but I’ll make sure to get it working soon. I don’t think WordPress allows you to change any of this.

  10. Leenie October 1, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

    Hi Ryan I need your help on how to survive my first year teaching with ADHD. I too struggled all my life from K-College taking 5 times longer and working 5 times harder than everyone else just to get average results and to keep up. I was always told i was lazy or procrastinated when really i went my whole life suffering with ADHD/ anxiety. I was an athlete for 18 years so that helped with my hyper activity but now that those years are over with and It just work, I am in my classroom from 7am-11:30pm and i am wearing my self to the ground. I am reaching out to you for any tips or ways to stay organized! I teach first grade and have so much to prepare all the time all day long. I just recently was placed on medicine after 5 years of doctors visits and ruling out other disorders. Teaching is what I love to do but I keep questioning my self if I was born with a mind to actually be a teacher. I am wearing myself to the ground with how long it takes me to prepare and lay out and come up with lesson plans and grade and copy and find things and keep my classroom organized with 23 students who are a handful. SOS!

  11. Melissa January 29, 2014 at 12:12 am #

    I am a 45-year-old science and math teacher and have recently diagnosed myself with ADHD. I figured it out as a result of my son’s much more obvious symptoms. My symptoms fit the “inattentive type” almost perfectly, whereas my son has all but one of the combined type. Where we now live there is no access to any kind of professional help. I am both happy to finally understand why I have had the problems I have had all my life and appalled that it took me so long to figure it out. I have worked with many students with diagnoses such as bi-polar disorder, reactive-attachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Asperger’s, etc. – all of which I spent loads of time studying and reading about – but I never bothered to read about ADHD. Like Leenie, above, I work extremely hard trying to keep my head above water, but I’m failing. And, like you, I was deemed gifted in grammar school, but I now can’t reliably take attendance, keep my grade-book up to date, or complete most of the other paperwork-type tasks my job involves. I am an imaginative teacher, creative with my lessons, perceptive of the needs of my students, exceedingly precise with the work that I do, and I care. My son and I will be leaving the country we are living in soon (visa issues) and returning to the United States. Although I realize that drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin are not going to solve all of our problems, I am so looking forward to getting those prescriptions so that I can get a handle on at least some of the problems my son and I face. It was really great finding this site . . . even though I never would have thought I was the only one, it’s good to read about others. Thanks for your stories.

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