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

The Scotsman - - FEATURES -

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

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