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Q: My son is an 11-year-old with ADD. I just bought the book Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World. It says that children with ADD are right-sided children who are more visual learners then left-sided children. They will picture a math problem in their head and figure it out that way. They have a very hard time with paper and pencil. My son is very good at art, jigsaw puzzles, etc. The book says if you can get teachers to understand this, they can be more help with children. It also says that most of us are left-brained. Is there any truth to this?
A: You're probably talking about Jeffrey Freed's book, which has the subtitle Unlocking the Potential of your ADD Child. In general, the left side of the brain is the major control center for language functioning, while the right side of the brain controls visual-spatial functioning, but the human brain is much too complex to simplify thinking in that way. However, it is true that for most people, the left hemisphere (or side) of the brain is the dominant side, and it's also true that most activities that go on in classrooms involve the processing language. So that means that kids and adult learners who have stronger right hemispheres can't do as well as most of their classmates in these types of environments.
I would agree that many children with ADHD (or ADD) prefer to learn by watching or doing, and that many of these kids prefer activity-based, hands-on activities to those that involve lectures or listening and talking. However, we also know that 30-50 percent of students with ADHD also have learning disabilities. Since a majority of learning disabilities are language-based, it's easy to understand why children with ADHD, who also have difficulty using language, prefer visual or manipulative activities.
What's very important here is that teachers understand the learning style and preference of all the children in the classroom. Some kids with ADHD have great language skills. Others have difficulty organizing their ideas and expressing them so that others can understand what they mean. Some kids with ADHD are fantastic cartoonists, but may write so poorly that even they can't read their own writing. Some students with LD can create a story and tell it with a dramatic flourish, but can't write it down in a flowing, coordinated fashion. Some students do well when they are reading scripts from a play, or poems that have a pattern, or songs that have a beat, but they can't use their own words to tell a tale.
All students who have been diagnosed with LD or ADHD have had evaluations that are supposed to determine their best learning styles. This information should be readily available to teachers. There are also many tools that teachers can use to find out how all children, not just those with identified special needs, learn best. If teachers don't use this information in planning lessons or units of instruction, they are not taking advantage of the learning strengths that each child can bring to an activity. A good teacher also knows his or her strengths and preferred style of teaching. Making a good match between the way kids learn and the way a teacher teaches is the hallmark of a skillful teacher. It's fairly easy to find ways that allow children to fail; it's an art to find ways to use their gifts to help them find success.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.