To Empower! Not Control! A Holistic Approach to ADHD - Ecological

Author // Thomas Armstrong, PhD

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To Empower! Not Control! A Holistic Approach to ADHD
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Use music to calm or focus. Sometimes rock or rap music may paradoxically calm some kids down just as Ritalin, a stimulant, does.

Limit television and video games to one hour per day and eliminate all violent programming; research is clear that this provokes aggressive behavior in kids.

Find the time when the child is most alert. Mornings are usually best for focused work (e.g., seat-work, lectures, etc.); afternoons are best for open-ended activities (e.g., projects, arts, cooperative groups, etc.)

Provide a balanced breakfast. Research suggests that balancing protein with carbohydrates (e.g., eggs and toast) is better for helping foster focused activity than simply a carbohydrate breakfast (e.g., pastries and orange juice).


Provide positive role models. Study the lives of great people who had difficulty with behavior in school, including Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, and Louis Armstrong.

Identify talents, strengths, and abilities. Find out which combination of Howard Gardner’s eight intelligences (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, naturalist, interpersonal, or intrapersonal) each student has most highly developed and use that information to provide appropriate instruction.

Envision positive futures. Help students see roles and careers for themselves in the world that make use of their special talents and abilities.


Use behavior contracting. Let the student have an important say in writing up a contract that includes the problem behavior(s), and what will happen (rewards, etc.) if the difficulties are removed.

Provide immediate feedback. Videotape a child acting out and show it to him or her right away. Give answers on tests right away. Count the number of times a problem behavior occurs and give the child the figure in a nonjudgmental way each day.

Help them self-monitor to keep track of their own behaviors. Have consistent routines in the classroom and involve the student in them (e.g., select the student to collect papers, signal others to get ready for lunch, etc.)


Hold class meetings. Use these meetings as opportunities to air grievances, work out interpersonal problems between class members, plan for parties, and share other feelings and thoughts about how the class is going.

Use effective communication strategies. For example, practice using “I” language (“I am disturbed by your language”) rather than “you” communication (“You have a filthy mouth”), and help the student practice them as well.

Have the student be a “buddy” to a younger student, so that he needs to become the responsible member of the duo. Ask him to teach another student something he knows how to do; this helps teach organizational skills.


Create a highly stimulating educational environment. Research suggests that kids labeled ADHD do better under high-stimulation than low-stimulation conditions (e.g., use role playing, field trips, project building, music, humor, expressive arts, etc.).

Use attention-grabbing strategies, such as a hand signal or musical cue to alert students to the need to begin cleaning up for lunch.

Employ computer software that is interactive, colorful, provides immediate feedback, and is instructionally sound.

This list provides a far richer storehouse of interventions than the instructional strategies given in the mainstream ADHD literature—for example, seating the child next to the teacher, posting assignments on a child’s desk, maintaining eye contact, and breaking up assignments into small chunks. A deficit-oriented perspective gives differential treatment to the “ADHD child.” Most of the above strategies, in contrast, are good for all children. Thus, in an inclusive classroom, the child labeled ADHD can thrive with the same kinds of nourishing and stimulating activities as everyone else and be viewed in the same way as everyone else: as a unique human being.

The Creative Roots of ADHD

Research has long suggested that many children labeled ADHD are actually under-aroused (Zentall, 1975.) Ritalin provides enough medical stimulation to bring their nervous systems to an optimal level of arousal, but a strength-based approach makes more sense than a deficit-based one. By providing these students with high-stimulation learning environments grounded in what they enjoy and can succeed in, we are essentially providing them with a kind of educational psychostimulant that can work as well as Ritalin but is internally empowering rather than externally controlling.

Remember that a hyperactive child is an active child. These young people often possess great vitality—a valuable resource that society needs for its own renewal. Look at the great figures who transformed society, and you will find that many of them had behavior problems or were hyperactive as children: Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Friedrich Nietzsche (see Goertzel and Goertzel, 1962). As educators, we can make a big difference in the lives of these students, if we stop getting bogged down in their deficits and start highlighting their strengths.

Pathways Issue 19 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #19.

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