Tuesday, March 31, 2020

ADHD and Procrastination in Middle School — Broken Promises to Self and Others

So, there's this rut we ADHD kids get into, that parents and teachers often don't seem to be able to understand. Term after term: assignments get missed; work quality decreases or stays the same while peers' work keeps improving; "attitude" devolves toward defiance or indifference or both. The level of executive functioning required for success keeps increasing, but not being taught, or not being taught at the micro-chunked level that we would need in order to embrace, retain, and employ it. As it stands, the increasing cognitive load and workload force us to ignore "extra" assignments—like using a planner well, or keeping a binder organized with labelled dividers—in order to feel like we have a chance in hell of successfully completing actual coursework. Organizational requirements in middle school feel like the coast guard yelling down at you as you bob in the bay to comb your hair so you look nice while you drown.

Thus, around the middle of the term, and toward the end, alarms are raised. Emails and calls go home about missing assignments and poor work quality. At best, there's a wack-a-mole quality to mid-term grades, with, say, a D in science last term raised to a B this term, but now math is a D, and English is a C-. Any statistician would see that pattern and assert that there is a shortage of resources in this system: one area cannot improve without a descent in another area. Yet, we often blame the student... for trying to do what we said!—we freaked out about science last semester, and science improved! It's pretty reasonable for the student to ask "What do you want from me?!" at that point...

But I still haven't gotten to the rut I mentioned.

The tragic disconnect between such students and the adults around them seems to be this: by the middle of 7th grade, every term has had this freak out in the middle, when everyone starts pointing fingers at the student and bemoaning the ascendant calamity. The student generally does the best they can, scrambles and lunges, under intense pressure, and (between that and the grade inflation of most independent schools or the low-low-bar in most public schools—the former to support statistics that prove the school is giving families the success they are paying for, and the latter to support statistics that prove the school is successfully educating a vast diversity of learners) emerges with a report card that no one loves, but that doesn't feel tragic to the student. So why all this brouhaha every term? It always comes out OK; I dip, then I rise. Why you yellin'?

Parents and teachers are at wits end, because their entreaties seem to have no effect. Students say, and genuinely mean, "I will do better!" and they usually do! But nowhere near better enough. 

Neither party seems to realize the facts of the situation. 

The student does not understand that the mid-term slump is a hole out of which they will soon not be able to dig—somewhere between 8th and 12th grades, that last-minute burst of energy will not pull them back into the passing zone. They also do not understand that the actual learning they are doing, especially in math, is increasingly foundational to future work, so passing without learning is another set-up for a future crash-and-burn. 

Thus, it is important for parents to understand that it is a developmentally inappropriate expectation for almost ANY teenager to be motivated to change a behavior based upon a future possible negative outcome. They are wired for immediate positive reinforcement, and future positive reinforcement only when it is very compelling. Dire warnings based upon the experience of others do not feel salient, and this is quadruply so in teens with ADHD.
Our teens are hard-wired for a severe case of something akin to what psychologists call "optimism bias."  Simply put, positive reinforcement is MUCH more effective than negative reinforcement. An expected reward seems to remain present in the mind much more effectively during the day, when choices count, than a dreaded punishment, which may only actually come to mind when they are actually suffering it, and, worse, the thoughts may be more resentment than reflection... and this resentment often inspires more rebellious instincts than any desire to do what one is told! In fact, the desire to change behavior might actually be inhibited, because that means admitting defeat and giving the oppressor what they want.

Most parents do not understand that the myriad iterations of "I meant to do that" and "I don't care about this" and "that teacher is a jerk" do not represent students willfully avoiding work they do not want to do, but choosing an ego-saving assertion of choice in a matter where they probably have little to no actual choice at all. What appears to be a poor choice or defiance is actually more usefully perceived as a symptom of ADHD. What's more, developmentally, any middle schooler is desperate to put aside childish things. The honest answer as to why a student with ADHD didn't do the work is probably deeply humiliating, and therefore may not even be consciously accessible: either "I don't know" or "I can't, even when I try." Students mean it when they promise; it feels do-able; people around them are doing it; they will just work harder! And it doesn't happen. Of course, they then say they didn't want to do it in the first place.

If students can only pull themselves together at the end of the semester when the terrible outcome finally feels immediate enough, it is not just because they finally "get it" but may be because their brain is literally not stimulated enough to muster the actual focus needed to produce the work until they are at risk of immediate dire consequences. Abstract notions of future suffering don't fire up the neurons in the necessary way to keep the student on task... so they put off the impossible until it is possible. 

Intrinsic motivation is great—best kind, first choice! But, so far, there are only two solutions I know of when ADHD is the primary barrier to school achievement for a bright student: sitting with the student to redirect them, repeatedly, for the entire, or almost entire, course of a carefully laid out work plan, or providing profoundly compelling positive extrinsic motivation. Either one of these can provide an experience of success that can build momentum for future positive change.

Otherwise, we are left hoping that the student will somehow come to understand themself, and adapt, naturally. The best hope for this probably comes from, at least, describing this whole dynamic to them, to see if it resonates.

The following is an admittedly somewhat-frantic email I recently sent to a former student, who has already heard all of the above, who is still firmly entrenched in the cycle above, and who had just sent me a "good intentions" email after their parent insisted they contact me. Any tutor will tell you, this email is too long for a student with ADHD, and many others... unless that person is at a tipping point, genuinely hoping for change, and maybe kind of feeling like the jig is up:

Hey ____!
Good to hear. The key question is: how? How will you do those things? 

A lot of students decide to change a behavior (or to start a new behavior), and making the decision is all they do, and nothing changes.
"I'm just gonna do better"
"I won't turn anything in late"...
these good intentions rarely add up to change unless actual actions are taken AT THE TIME THE DECISION IS MADE to support those changes. 

The Friday check-ups with teachers are the best part of this plan. Nice! :)
  • Are they actually scheduled? 
  • Have you set up any kind of reminder (phone alarm? calendar notification?) to make sure you get to them? 
Please do these things right away, if not! 

Teachers have very limited resources (time being the most important resource), so please please make sure you show up (even online), and I'm telling you right now, if you don't give yourself reminderS (plural), you probably won't.

The problem for most of us is, the behavior change idea is a big decision: I WILL DO THIS instead of THAT. 

Yet the actual actions involved in that decision are tiny, and there are hundreds of them each week, even each day: Every hour, you will be at a crossroads, and each little decision will not feel important, but it IS: 
  • Play the video game now and get work done later? No big deal. 
  • Meet with the teacher today or tomorrow? Tomorrow is fine. 
  • Do my work completely and well, now, or fix it up later? I'll fix it up later...actually, who cares, maybe I'll do the next one better....teachers like to see improvement, anyway...

I apologize for yelling; it's because I am talking to you and also myself. I have suffered so much humiliation in my life because I could not understand this thing I'm trying to describe to you. I want better for you!

So, please, take action now to remind yourself throughout your day that you need to turn toward getting work done, and done well, first, and away from all other things except family responsibilities and genuine self-care. BTW if you use family responsibilities and genuine self-care disingenuously, as an excuse, I fear I'm useless to you.

Do these things:
  • Put on a bracelet, a watch, a rubber band or something else you will see over and over during the day, to remind you to think "Am I doing the most important thing right now?" and, if the answer is no, do the right thing, right away.
  • When you learn to ignore the bracelet, or rubber band or whatever, get a new one that looks different, put it on the other wrist, or something else to refresh the reminder.
  • Put a post-it or a note on the TV, on the game controller, on the computer--lots of people make a reminder their desktop background--and anywhere else that you tend to go to relax or avoid schoolwork. It can be blank or it can say "FIRST THINGS FIRST" or whatever you need to hear.
  • If you look at that post-it or note, and say to yourself, "I have been working; I need a break!" take a DIFFERENT kind of break that doesn't seduce you like those things do. Take a walk; play with a pet; make something; get a snack... AND whatever you do, consider setting a timer and putting it somewhere you will have to walk to to turn it off. A phone in the pocket is too easy to quiet quickly. 
  • If you look at that post-it or note and say to yourself, "I hardly have any work; I can do it in like ten minutes!" then prove that to yourself by doing it right away. 
  • If you look at that post-it or note and say to yourself, "Who cares. Stupid notes. I'm throwing that away..." just don't do that today. Throw it away next time. This time, double check if you have work to do, and do it right away. Right now, you only have to worry about this one time. Next time, you can get fed up and do whatever. This moment is just about doing the right thing one more time, even if it feels pointless or unimportant, or like someone else's stupid idea of what you should do.
  • REAL TALK: Procrastination is not a time-management problem; it is about dealing with feelings! You can google it. If we are honest with ourselves, when we avoid important work moment by moment, it is always because the work causes emotional pain: "I don't actually know how to do this." "I can't do this well even if I want to." "I don't even know what I'm supposed to do and that is embarrassing because I'm supposed to know" ... or WHATEVER. We who procrastinate have to learn to face the truth about these feelings, and ask for help from people who will not judge us, and who know what we need to know. We have to find those people and make the most of those relationships. YOU are in charge of deciding who those people are. I am volunteering to be such a person, reachable by email or text, but it is up to you to decide if you want me in that role, sometimes, always, once-in-a-great-while, or never.....
Wishing you the very best of success, and hoping to hear from you again, ____!


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