“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
I’ve never understood this sentence, yet I’ve heard it directed at many children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), myself included. Nonverbal communication can communicate mood and feelings, but not the words of the conversation (unless you are capable of lip reading).
Most people-especially teachers-do not understand what listening truly is. They think they can recognize it, but they are wrong. For most people, listening is defined as having the person look at you without doing anything else. For people without ADHD, this is generally true. For people with ADHD, this is not true. Allow me to give you some insight into the ADHD brain, from someone who has dealt with the issue first hand-as a student and a teacher with ADHD.
I’ll never forget the time I had my class interrupted by another teacher. She had dragged a student on my caseload because he had been drawing in her class. In her opinion, he obviously wasn’t listening because he was drawing during class. The teacher was too upset for me to reason with her, so I asked her to leave the student with me and I would talk to him. As soon as she left, I asked him why he couldn’t have hid his drawing from her. He explained that usually he did, but this time she had caught him.
I wanted to ask that teacher if she ever doodled while on the phone with a friend or if she had a grandmother or mother who knit while talking to her. Those are two situations where listening is accepted although it might appear that the person was not.
I was diagnosed with ADHD in college to become a teacher, and this prompted me to learn as much as I could about ADHD, especially ADHD in the classroom. Understanding ADHD helped me improve my grades and taught me what I needed to do to stay focused in the classroom.
One of the things that I learned helped me focus was word puzzles. It’s hard for me to explain, but it gave me a controlled distraction. Without them, I found that my brain would wonder and I would become lost in thought-ignoring the professor’s lecture. Whenever I started a new class, I would always introduce myself and explain to the professor why I did what I did. I would also tell them that I was definitely listening to what they had to say and challenged them to call on me at any time, and I would prove that I was listening to them.
All of them were very understanding and accepted my methods of listening. My grades are evidence that I was indeed right. Still, other students would often accuse me of being disrespectful and rude in class for my behavior. I would politely explain that it was what I needed to do to stay focused and explain that I had received permission from the instructor to do so.
They assumed I wasn’t listening because I didn’t look like I was listening. Yet, appearances can be deceiving. How many times has someone been looking right at you when you were speaking, then asked you to repeat what you were saying because they really weren’t?
Listening is a verbal activity and we should look for verbal cues that someone has heard us, not visual ones. Eye contact means that the person is aware of where the sound is coming from, not that they are listening to what is being said. People are very distracting when they talk. People with ADHD have minds that start to wonder where the person got those earrings or staring at a blemish. To prevent this, our eyes start to wander away from the person. The ceiling or floor is much less distracting and enables us to listen better.
As a person with ADHD, I have had to train myself to “appear to listen” and “actually listen” at the same time. It’s not easy and takes a lot of practice. When I work with parents and teachers of children with ADHD, I teach them how to look for nonverbal clues that the child has heard what they said. “The assignment is due on Thursday. Tommy, when is the assignment due?” If he can answer “Thursday,” he was obviously listening. It doesn’t matter what it looked like he was doing.
Teaching them the art of conversation etiquette-which includes making eye contact-will come naturally as the child matures. Simply making the child aware that not looking at some when they are talking is considered rude is usually enough. Sometimes, a child might need gentle reminders to make them aware of what they are doing. However, pick your times and your battles. Decide when it is more important that they are listening to what is said and when it is more important that they appear to be listening-these occasions are rarely the same.
The art of listening while appearing to listen is a skill that does not come naturally to people with ADHD. It takes practice, but the work is worth it.