The power of boundless energy and creative thinking
Victoria Williamson, a teacher and author from Kirkintilloch, reveals how a pupil with ADHD inspired her new book, which aims to change how the condition is viewed
One of the first lessons I learned as a primary school teacher, is that labels matter a great deal to children. From the famous brands they like to wear and consume – Nike, Mcdonald’s, Coca-cola and Disney – to the words they use to describe each other – ‘clever’, ‘sporty’, ‘artistic’ – children learn from a young age which brands and labels carry prestige, and which ones they want to identify with.
But what happens when the labels we use to categorise children come with negative connotations attached? When I first started teaching, most of the words I heard used to describe ADHD were negative. But after some years of working with children who had ADHD, I began to recognise that contained within the restless, messy, impulsive energy of those children lay hidden strengths that just needed the right environment to bloom.
One child in particular proved an inspiration for the character of 11-year-old Jamie in my novel, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind. My first impression of Michael was that he was ‘challenging’ and ‘difficult’ – often shouting out in class, talking over other children, and getting into arguments during games when he found it hard to wait his turn. The reader gets the same impression of mess, disorganisation and disruption when they’re first introduced to Jamie, who’s struggling to concentrate on his spelling test at the start of the book:
‘“ACCOMMODATE,” Mr Patel says again. “Ac-commo-date. Jamie, are you writing this down?”
I snatch up my pen from the floor where it’s rolled and try to find a free space on my test sheet to write the word. My handwriting’s a bit of a mess, and it’s not easy trying to squeeze the big words onto such a little line. Maybe that’s part of the test too. Maybe that’s why I always fail.
Ak, I write, then I cross it out and try A-c-k-o… No, that’s not right either. I scribble over it too hard and accidentally knock over the stack of books and pen holders I’ve built into a mini castle all round my desk. They go cascading onto the floor like a waterfall, and I leap after them like one of those Olympic divers jumping off the high board. I’m so busy gathering books and pens up I barely hear the laughter of the other kids. I’m used to it. It washes over me now in waves and I just drift along with it.
“Jamie, will you PLEASE sit down!” Mr Patel sounds like he’s running out of patience. It’s the second year in a row that I’m in his class, and I don’t think he can take another three terms of me and my craziness.’
Just like Jamie’s teachers, it took me some time to realise that there were small changes that I could make to Michael’s classroom environment to help him focus more, such as letting him squeeze a stress ball to help him sit still and concentrate on writing tasks, and making sure he was seated as far away from distractions as possible. And just like Jamie, Michael’s self esteem was low, as he had internalised all of the negative labels he’d heard associated with ADHD over the years, including ‘inattentive’, ‘impatient’ and ‘disorganised’. This is mirrored by Jamie in the story, who says of his own ADHD:
‘It’s funny how just four letters can mean the difference between being normal, and being the kind of monster whose own mother moves to a different country to get away from him.’
But the labels of ‘difficult’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘monster’ didn’t come close to describing the real Michael, or the real Jamie, and the positive brand that could be identified with their ADHD. Just like Jamie in the story, it turned out Michael had a real talent for science, and when it came to practical investigations, he had all the patience in the world. He could sit for hours watching the colour changes in a chromatography experiment, or waiting for crystals to form from a cooling liquid. Through his science presentations to the class and his eager participation in project work and quizzes, Michael came to be seen by the other children in the class as ‘clever’, and ‘good at science’ – positive labels that became his own personal ‘ADHD’ brand. His journey towards a positive self-image sowed the seeds of what would become my second published novel.
The Boy with the Butterfly Mind tells the story of Jamie Lee’s struggle to fit in to his new step family after his parents’ divorce and when his stepsister Elin’s fight to get rid of him and reunite her ‘perfect’ original family descends into all-out war. Elin’s prejudiced first impression of Jamie and his ADHD label influence every interaction with him, and stop her seeing the kind, clever and loyal boy underneath until it’s almost too late to save their blended family. It’s only when Elin changes the labels she gives to Jamie, that she starts to see him for who he really is. After a lot of resistance she even agrees to taste his ‘Mad Jamie Specials’ – the sandwiches he loves to make with jam, peanut butter and whipped cream – and helps him come up with a more positive label for them:
‘“You shouldn’t call them that,” Elin says.
“What?” I’m not a mind reader, so I’ve got no idea what she’s talking about.
“Mad Jamie Specials. It’s not a nice name. You’re not mad, you’re just… different.”
“Yeah,” I sigh, “I’m a total fruit loop.” I tap my finger on the side of my head and cross my eyes. My funny face doesn’t make her smile though, she just frowns harder.
“But you’re not, Jamie, I know that now! It’s OK to be different, and not do things the same way as everyone else.”
“So what do you think my sandwiches should be called then?” I ask.
“What about Sandwich Man Specials? That’s what your dad calls them.”
“Sandwich Man Specials…” I think for a bit. “Yeah, I like that!”
Elin finally smiles back at me and pops the last of her sandwich in her mouth.’
As Michael, Jamie, and Elin all discovered, an ADHD label doesn’t have to be a negative one. If parents and teachers play their part in helping these children find their passions and focus on their strengths, such as the potential for boundless energy and creative thinking that ADHD can bring, then children with ADHD will be able to see themselves in a positive light. Labels matter – let’s help children lose the ones that describe behaviours they’re often unable to control, and to find the ones that describe who they really are inside.
Michael came to be seen by the other children in the class as ‘clever’, and ‘good at science’ – positive labels that became his own personal ‘ADHD’ brand
Victoria Williamson, main: the primary school teacher’s new book, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, inset below, is published in ADHD Awareness Month