When I heard about “Project June Bug,” the award-winning novel about a teacher who dares to dig deeper to truly understand a “troubled kid” with ADHD, I just had to interview the author…
Before writing “Project June Bug,” Jackie Minniti spent twenty-five years as a classroom teacher and was an education writer for the Courier Post. She incorporated her decades of classroom experiences into her book which combines the readability of a novel with the elements of a self-help book and gives readers an intimate peek behind the faculty room door. “Project June Bug” shares wisdom, insight, and validation for parents and teachers who have kids with ADHD– All things that families and our schools across America need more-of.
Far too often, I have a child in therapy whose parents and teachers have relegated the child to the label of “problematic troublemaker,” when in fact the child was dealing with a neurological or mental health condition under the surface of his/her difficult behaviors. And who can blame the parents and teachers for their frustration when it comes to a kid who is indeed failing school, disobeying rules, and making poor choices?
The truth is, we don’t talk enough about how disorders such as ADHD really work and how they really affect a child’s behavior. And we don’t talk enough about how to intervene when we come across such children. I am excited to present the author of “Project June Bug,” Jackie Minniti, to discuss some of these issues.
Q. Jackie, there is so much I want to ask you. First of all, you mention that you were a teacher, not a “special education teacher.” Did you encounter a lot of ADHD in your classroom? Were these kids already diagnosed, and if-not, what were some of the indications that you had as a teacher that would suggest that an evaluation might be warranted?
A. I began my career teaching kindergarten when ADHD was just coming on the scene (it was called ADD then), and every year, I’d have two or three kids in class (usually boys) who seemed bright but were so distractible they had trouble functioning. These little “June Bugs” all had certain behaviors in common.They were easily distracted, even during high-interest activities. They tended to act on impulse, like pushing to the front of the line or calling out during class. It was impossible for them to sit still, even for short periods. They often had difficulty following even simple, one-step oral directions. They tended to have trouble making friends. Granted, most 5-year-olds might exhibit some of these behaviors some of the time, but for these little guys the problem behaviors were the rule rather than the exception.I soon realized that a “deficit of attention” was exactly what I was seeing, so I started researching the condition. I came up with some techniques that seemed to help these kids. Later, when I transferred to middle school, I had some of my former kindergarten students in class again. This gave me the unique opportunity to see how they’d progressed. And I found that the kids whose parents and teachers were working together were the ones that had the best outcomes. This is what gave me the idea to write “Project June Bug.”
When I taught kindergarten, I was usually dealing with children who hadn’t yet been officially diagnosed, so it was important for me to have a working knowledge of ADHD so I could effectively communicate my observations to the parents. Years ago, parents tended to be resistant to having their child evaluated because of the fear of “labeling,” but that has changed as ADHD has become more widely recognized. Also, with so many kids going to preschool now, it’s more likely that some behavioral issues have already been addressed by the time the child enters kindergarten. During my middle school years, I was dealing mostly with diagnosed students, many of whom had IEPs and 504s. There was one 8th grade boy, though, who had not been diagnosed, and was having major problems, not only academically but socially. His dad was in denial, which made it difficult to get the boy the help he needed. He was the inspiration for the Michael character in my book.
Q. Do you have any advice for teachers about how to approach this subject with parents, when you believe that the child may need a diagnosis (or rather, the specialized help that comes with it.)? Did you also approach the subject with the child, or did you leave that to the parents?
A. First of all, teachers have to be VERY careful to avoid even the appearance of diagnosing a child. That must be left strictly to medical professionals. The teacher should limit the discussion to observable behaviors and their impact on the child’s education. But before assuming that a child might have ADHD, the teacher should rule out things like vision or hearing difficulties or language processing delays. Once a child has been screened for those, the teacher can bring up ADHD. I always tried to do this delicately, by describing the problematic behaviors without appearing to criticize the child. I’d also give the parents an article with information about ADHD and suggest they discuss ADHD with their pediatrician. The teacher should never discuss this directly with the student unless the parent requests it.
Q. Do you have any advice for parents who get feedback from a teacher that their child is having noticeable difficulty paying attention, staying focused, etc?
A. I’d tell parents that most teachers genuinely want what’s best for their students, so don’t take the teacher’s comments as criticism of your child or of your parenting. It’s been my experience that a parent-teacher partnership is the single most important factor in an ADHD student’s success, so approach the teacher with that in mind. Also, it’s important that parents give the teacher honest information about their child. Tell the teacher how your child behaves at home, what works with your child and what doesn’t, and what school-related issues are causing problems at home.
Q. There has been a lot of talk lately about how horrible it is that our schools make our kids sit for so long, or that children are punished by removing their recess. What do you think of all of this, and do you have any suggestions for teachers when it comes to this topic?
A. This is a real hot-button issue for me! As a firm believer in developmentally appropriate curriculum, I’ve found that trying to force young children to do things before they’re developmentally ready is an exercise in futility. All children have gifts, but they open them at different times. It appears that today’s elementary curriculum has been pushed down a full year, and many K-3 kids just aren’t ready to do what’s now being required. This causes frustration for both children and teachers. With the new Core Curriculum standards, the teacher’s focus has been forced to shift from encouraging curiosity and instilling love of learning to training children to pass standardized tests. This requires lots of worksheets and long periods of sitting, something that’s not good for any student but particularly for a student with ADHD. So the LAST thing any teacher should do is take recess away as a punishment. If anything, ADHD kids need more recess to defuse their excess energy. I was interviewed by ADDitude Magazine for an article about the importance of recess. You can read it here.And parents, if your child has an IEP or 504 plan, insist on including a stipulation that your child should never be denied recess. I did a series of videos for Attention Talk on things parents and teachers can do to help ADHD kids. All these strategies have been classroom-tested and can be easily worked into an IEP or 504. One is called “In-Class Field Trips,” a strategy I used when ADHD kids got too wiggly. You can check the videos out here.
Q. As a therapist, my heart breaks when, almost inevitably, kids with ADHD end up with extremely poor self-esteem due to lack of awareness that they possess a real neurological difference coupled with a sense of inadequacy. To me, my number one treatment goal is to preserve the child’s self esteem, because along with that goal comes the preservation of motivation. I’d imagine that was a goal for you as a teacher also. What would you suggest that teachers do to stave off feelings of inadequacy in their students that struggle?
A. Self-esteem is a huge issue for students with ADHD, and the longer it takes to identify the condition, the more damaging it can be. In fact, I explore this dynamic with the one of the main characters in “Project June Bug – a high school student with undiagnosed ADHD. When his ADHD is finally identified, he says, “I understand now that these things are part of my condition, not flaws in my character.” If we can get this message out to kids with ADHD, it can be very empowering.
Personally,I loved working with these students.Yes, they were a challenge, but they kept me on my toes. The most important thing you can do as a teacher is convince them that you’re personally invested in their success. I’d tell my students that when they did well, it made me proud of them AND of myself because it meant that I was doing a good job. It’s also important that teachers understand the challenges ADHD students face and use that information to devise ways to help them. For example, teachers should never single them out for criticism because when ADHD students are stressed, their behavior gets worse. I suggest that the teacher use a predetermined discreet signal (I called it “our secret sign”) like a pat on the back or a tap on the desk to let the child know his attention is wandering. I also used a behavior modification system to give the parents daily feedback. I’d include one target behavior that was easy for the child to achieve so that there was always something positive to report. One of the reasons I wrote “Project June Bug” was to show teachers simple, common-sense methods like these, and let them see the huge difference a concerned teacher can make in the lives of these students and their parents.
Q. Being a parent/teacher to a child with ADHD can admittedly be very frustrating. Do you hae any specific advice on maintaining perspective/calm during the times when the child’s behavior tries your patience?
A. With ADHD kids, it’s especially important to separate the child from the behavior. I know that’s easier said than done, but if you can understand that these kids aren’t always in control of the way they react, you can learn not to take their behavior personally.When your child is acting up, take a deep breath and try to determine what triggered the behavior. For example, was your child experiencing sensory overload before he went off the rails? If so, address that first. After all,if your child was diabetic, you wouldn’t blame him if he got hyper when his blood sugar was out of balance. You’d try to normalize the sugar levels. ADHD should be viewed in the same way. And keep in mind that the school years are always the hardest. Believe it or not, things WILL get better!
Q. Sometimes it is very difficult to parse out the “behavioral defiance” from the “neurological disorder.” I talk a lot about this challenge to parents in therapy, and even as a trained clinician, it is still a very difficult task. My advice is always to meet the child where they’re at and try to incorporate
modifications/accommodations if necessary to set the child up for success. I think children want to please their authority figures, but often act-out when they feel as if they can’t win anyway. What do you think about this? Do you have any advice on understanding and approaching “behavioral defiance” vs. “developmental/neurological limitation”?
A. I completely agree with everything you’ve said. Children, even middle-school kids, really do want to please, even though they sometimes seem to act just the opposite. When they are being oppositional, it’s often due to frustration because they can’t meet the demands being made on them. Parents and teachers need to do their homework and learn all they can about ADHD so they understand the underlying causes of difficult behaviors and have realistic behavioral expectations. For parents, this will help you “pick your battles.” For teachers, it will help you structure the learning process and classroom environment to minimize behavioral problems. Avoid looking at ADHD as a “learning disability” and think of it as a “learning difference” instead. Many of these kids are exceptionally bright and creative and can multitask and think outside the box. These attributes may cause problems in a traditional classroom, but once these students are free to pursue their own interests and talents, these same qualities can help them excel.
Q. How do you feel about IEP’s that include behavioral interventions and 504 plans? Is there anything that you want schools or parents to know about the process or pitfalls of obtaining an IEP or 504 plan?
A. I believe that the more we individualize education, the more effective it becomes. This is true for all students but particularly for students with learning differences and behavioral issues.”One size fits all” doesn’t apply to educating children. Teachers should look at IEPs and 504 plans as opportunities to customize the educational process and make it more efficient. Each student comes to us with a unique personality, temperament, and set of life experiences. The more closely we sync the learning process with those factors, the more likely it is that the child will succeed. In an ideal world, classes would be small enough for every student to have an Individual Education Plan.
To parents -Become informed about the process so you can be part of the team. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or offer suggestions. You can offer valuable input because no one knows your child better than you do. Parents should also closely monitor how well the school is following the plan. If you feel that part of the plan is being ignored, contact the teacher ASAP. If you don’t get a satisfactory response, keep going up the chain of command until you do. There are strict guidelines in place that give parents ways to address disputes. The process is there to help your child, so don’t be intimidated by it. Remember – you are your child’s best advocate!
Q. What is the most important piece of wisdom that you would want to relate to all the parents out there that have children with ADHD? What about for the teachers? For the kids themselves?
A. For parents – Your child is a unique and amazing creation. The school years are the hardest, so focus on small victories, don’t become discouraged, and always keep in mind that your child is worth the effort!
For teachers – Try to remember that the students who are the most challenging are also the ones who offer you the greatest opportunity to change their lives – in a positive or negative way, depending on the choices you make. It’s an awesome responsibility and the thing that makes teaching worthwhile.
For ADHD students – You are like a kaleidoscope – beautiful, colorful, and always changing. Make the most of your gifts, face your challenges fearlessly, and someday, you will make your dreams will come true!
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