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Retention for a Child Who Is Gifted and ADHD?

LD and ADD/ADHD Expert Advice from Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D.

Q: Is retention beneficial for a gifted (recent WISC III full scale IQ = 130, verbal IQ = 125, Performance IQ = 131) seven-year-old boy with a November birthday in the second grade (young second-grader), who has recently been diagnosed as ADHD? He has intense interest in science and math is good, but reading chapter books and writing paragraphs, spelling, and focusing are not good. His ADHD presents problems in a class of 26 (Catholic school).

A: Retention is almost never the answer for most children, and it's less often the answer for kids who are gifted. Here's the reason: What's going to be different next time around? Will the instruction be different? Will the teacher use another approach to teach him more self-control? Won't this happen in third grade? Shouldn't it?

However, if your son's reading and writing problems are due to immaturity, then giving him another year to grow up may help. How do you know if this is the case? Do you, his teachers, and his pediatrician feel that he's immature socially or physically? If so, then having another year to let his body and his brain catch up developmentally may be of some value. There are two risks in doing this: One is that he may feel so embarrassed or ashamed about being held back that his self-concept will suffer. Another risk is that he will be incredibly bored and he may act worse just to make things more interesting. In fact, that may be happening right now! A lot of bored gifted and talented kids are misdiagnosed with ADHD for that reason. Also, has anyone considered the possibility that your son has a learning disability that's affecting his reading and writing? Remember that ADHD and LD often go hand in hand. Or he may have a learning disability, and act up to get out of doing work that he can't do well. This behavior can also be misread as ADHD, especially in an intellectually advanced child, who desperately wants to avoid looking and feeling stupid.

If it's clear that your son has ADHD, then it's likely that the problems are due to the hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention that are part of this condition. You haven't said whether your son is being treated for the ADHD. Is he involved in a behavior management program (incentives for increased attentiveness or greater self-control)? Has medication been considered? If the ADHD is not being treated, then your son may not be able to attend well enough to take in information in an efficient way. His "cognitive switches" are going on and off randomly, and as result he's getting an education that's full of holes. How well can your son focus when instruction is given? Is this teacher doing all he or she can do to help him focus when he needs to? Is the classroom chaotic or too "laid back," or is it too rigid with no tolerance for the behaviors your son exhibits? Is your boy being taught how to focus better without adult prompts (a longer-term goal)? Can any teacher do what's necessary in a class of 26? (I will assume that she's alone in there with them and that your son is not the only child with such difficulties). If the teacher needs to and wants to spend more time with your son, but can't because of the teacher: pupil ratio, then I think the answer is not retention, but more help in the classroom, now and in the fall. A full-time aide or qualified volunteers may give the teacher the help she needs to devote more time and attention to your son.

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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.

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