About ADHD: Thinking Fast and Slow


I’ve had a theory brewing for a few decades.

It’s about ADHD.

My theory is that some people have been gifted with the adroit ability to think and move quickly; they ride life like a stallion, seeing, hearing and experiencing everything in magnified ways.  It is a gift.  In the right hands, these people emerge out of childhood as curious, lifelong learners who understand deeply and creatively.  They are bright.  Intuitive.  Daring. Perceptive.  Sensitive.  Interesting.   They learn how to manage their strengths well; how to avoid the deleterious consequences of being who they are.  

ADHD is listed in the Center For Disease Control and Prevention;  it is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, all revisions.  Disease and disorders have negative connotations.  Science says it is a “thing”; I won’t argue that.  Instead, I wonder if there isn’t another lens to look at the cluster of symptoms for some kids with the traits.  Here are a few traits associated with ADHD:

  1. Often does not give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities.
  2. Often has trouble keeping attention on tasks or play activities.
  3. Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
  4. Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions).
  5. Often has trouble organizing activities.
  6. Often avoids, dislikes, or doesn’t want to do things that take a lot of mental effort for a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
  7. Often loses things needed for tasks and activities (e.g. toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools).
  8. Is often easily distracted.
  9. Is often forgetful in daily activities.

Thinking about a book:    Thinking, Fast and Slow, by  Daniel Kahneman.  He makes a distinction between two systems:

“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.  System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.  The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.”

Examples of System 1:

  • detect that one object is more distant than another
  • orient to the source of a sudden sound
  • complete the phrase “bread and…”
  • drive a car on an empty road
  • recognize that a “meek and tidy soul with a passion for detail” resembles an occupational stereotype
  • jazz improvisation
  • skillful soccer moves in an indoor arena
  • understanding complex scientific phenomenon

Examples of System 2:

  • focus attention on clowns in the circus
  • look for a woman with white hair
  • tell someone your phone number
  • focus on a particular voice in a noisy room
  • monitor the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation
  • chess
  • math problem error analysis
  • memorizing dates in history

Most people are balanced and learn over time to integrate both.  They offer free checks and balances to keep you on the straight and narrow.  I’ve not yet read but a few pages of this book, but I am hopeful that Kahneman will move me closer to understanding.

 If you are incredibly skilled at one or the other, does that impact this integration?  What does that look like at 2? 6? 14? 22?  How many with strengths in System 1 thinking are diagnosed with ADHD early in their lives? Can System 2 traits be taught so that automatic thinking is harnessed in goal-directed ways?

Thinking about global learners

I read an article written about engineering students regarding sequential and global learners.  Essentially, global learners tend toward System 1 thinking; sequential learners, System 2.

  • Sequential learners focus on details and sometimes need time (and support) to see the bigger picture; details inform them about the big ideas; they learn in part-to-whole ways
  • Global learners focus on the bigger picture and sometimes need time (and support) to see the details; big ideas inform them about the details; they learn about the parts after seeing the whole

If you are thinking globally, how many details do you appear to “miss”  on the road to defining them?   How many with strengths in global thinking are diagnosed with ADHD early in their lives? How many wouldn’t if the environment understood them better?

Thinking, also, about processing speed

Processing Speed is one of the measures of cognitive efficiency or cognitive proficiency.  It involves the ability to automatically and fluently perform relatively easy or over-learned cognitive tasks, especially when high mental efficiency is required.  That is, for simple tasks requiring attention and focused concentration.  It relates to the ability to process information automatically and therefore speedily, without intentional thinking through

Fluent thinkers think fast.  There are pros and cons to this, of course.  These kids may take less time to

  • recognize simple visual patterns and in visual scanning tasks
  • take tests that require simple decision-making
  • perform basic arithmetic calculations and in manipulating numbers, since these operations are not automatic for them
  • perform reasoning tasks under time pressure
  • make decisions that require understanding of the material presented
  • read silently for comprehension
  • copy words or sentences correctly or to formulate and write passages

Kids with advanced processing speed may be at risk for appearing impulsive and  impatient (especially while young).  Are they prone to more simple errors?  Do they appear “hyper”?  “Inattentive”?  Under what circumstances do they thrive?  Whither?

Bringing it together:

I believe, in some cases, ADHD diagnoses are inaccurate; that global thinkers and those with strengths in System 1 thinking and fluent processing speed are identified at higher rates.  

Possible supports :

  • Teach, teach, teach.  Punishment erodes traits that keep them hopeful and productive
  • Be loving, patient and tolerant while the system matures and skills are acquired
  • Teach them to be more mindful and ‘ in the present’;
  • Create routines for checking details and accuracy;
  • Emphasize the draft process; learning from failure; practice to perfection
  • Support reflection in lesson design
  • Provide plenty of time for movement
  • Most importantly:  finding and actively support the student’s interests and strengths.  These aren’t going away.  They will carry the child for life. 


Essentially, they need help nurturing and taming the stallion within.  Done well, they make for particularly interesting and innovative adults  who like themselves.  



Wabi-sabi in Knitting, Learning and Life


I officially see myself as “someone who knits”.  I am a knitter.   A close-up of the hideous Chartreuse sweater I knitted for my cat a decade ago would reveal serious flaws.  My rectangles became heptagons and I never took the time to figure out “why”.  Thirty dollars in precious yarn wasted and I never finished the project.

Fast forward to this winter.  I’m back on.  I figured out my problem with consistency and dropped stitches.  I knitted my first muffler for walking the dogs.  It is pumpkin, the color of my car.   It has flaws-  little holes I pretend to have placed on purpose for oxygen access, in the event that is needed.   The important part?  I finished the project! 

My second muffler is lapis.  There are fewer breathing holes.  It fits more snuggly.  I altered the pattern to meet my needs.  Since I am on a roll (and the cats and my humans like it when I just sit with them), I bought incredible yarn to make an infinity scarf for my beloved kid.  She will wear it once she leaves the social straight jacket called high school.  I just know it.

I proudly wore my flawed muffler to work.  I showed it to several people, including a special someone who told me about wabi-sabi.


Wabi-sabi (?) represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.  Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object.

Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

There is beauty in the quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction.

It is messy; full of lessons for those brave and persistent enough to learn.



People talk about failure as a guide.  If you think of learning from the constructivist viewpoint, as I do, failure isn’t the right word.  Learning is a process.  Mistakes (or glitches) are just temporary roadblocks designed to help you think and learn.  With learning, there are some “musts”:

  • you have to dive in and get your hands dirty
  •  take risks
  • monitor and problem solve around glitches
  • go at it again

Embracing Wabi-sabi:

Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.  .  

Learning happens if you dive in, take risks and go at it again.  

There is beauty in the quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction

Glitches add uniqueness and elegance


In Knitting.  In Learning.  In Life.  

What Gap?


I had a conversation about gaps today.    I wasn’t sure which gap was referred to because this phrase has many meanings.  Letterman is fine with his gap; educators are not fine with achievement gaps.  Politicians make policies that ignore crucial gaps, the ones that go to the root of the problem.  Everyone seems confused.  Gaps remain.

Gaps exist in classrooms, buildings, districts, counties, states and patterns form across countries.

The truth is, achievement gaps in the United States are pretty predictable.  Most  can tell you about their district  before any test scores come out.  The issue, time and time again has to do with opportunity and wealth or IEP status.  The patterns are clear in every district; every state.

Come down from the helicopter view and into a building:  there is MUCH a teacher can do to design the learning so that all kids in front of them have a chance.  Relationships are the cornerstone for all learning.  Enthusiasm is contagious.  Deep thinking and learning can occur.  We engineer the context.  Hope is restored with a great teacher.

Still, over time and across the district and the state:  poverty, limited experience and racism are problems.   Gaps exist between boys and girls; people of color and those milky white; kids with IEPs and those whithout.   Until we address that with our education, assessment and even housing policies, the gaps will persist.   Teachers will continue to be blamed for walls they cannot permeate.  Kids in poverty will stay in poverty.  Boys and students of color will be suspended at higher rates.  Initiatives will aim at the wrong target .  I’m thinking of my dog, chasing his tail.


This conundrum, however,   isn’t quite so clever or  funny.

We need to go to the core to solve the real problems WHILE engineering relationships and environments that support; design learning that engages.    If we look at gender, IEP status and socio-economic factors, we still  have to keep teaching well.  To teach well, we do have to look at socio-economic factors, gender and IEP status.  To deny the culture of poverty  is to lie to ourselves and our students. To deny the hurdles faced by students with IEPs and those of color is unfair.   And yes, we need to figure out how to create environments where boys can thrive.  Many great teachers do that, but not all boys have that experience.

It isn’t all or nothing; either /or .  It rarely is.  There are no excuses.  We must teach well.  If that could happen within  the context of policies reflecting  the real problems, teachers might have a chance to support all of their students.

We need to mind the gap.  The big gaps.   And stop chasing our tails.

What Is Your Special Purpose


Like Navin R. Johnson, in The Jerk:   everyone has a special purpose.  Knowing and monitoring the “why” of your work will increase the chances that you hit your target.  If you stand for something, you are less likely to “fall for anything”.  How you spend your time matters (as Navin will attest).

I had the pleasure of reading Annie Murphy Paul’s blog last week.  This particular entry was essentially about knowing your purpose.  AMP  uses the concept of “templates” to harness this:   there are  commonly occurring patterns in your work.  You need to find them; use them to  define your purpose.

‘Think for a moment about what “pattern recognition” means in your own job. For me, it means being able to recognize an interesting insight hidden within often-dense academic papers, and being able to fit that insight into the structure of things I know about learning, as well as into the structure of a blog post or a magazine article.

When I worked at Psychology Today magazine many years ago, and had to churn out dozens of news items for every issue, I actually made a list of common story-telling structures: “So you thought X was the case? Well, new research shows that actually Y is true.” “New research shows that that old bit of wisdom, X, is more true than we realized.” “Here’s something you’ve never considered: X.”

This long digression brings me back to the question I posed above: What are some “templates” or commonly occurring patterns in your own work, and how can you more precisely define and refine them? I’

And so, during knitting and morning walks with my Pug, I tried to articulate this:   What ARE my templates ?

Recurring themes in my work:

  1. Become a better coach:  Teachers and principals are overtaxed , undervalued and treading water.  How can I  be more effective in helping them deal with their most pressing issues around student engagement/school culture?  
  2. Become a better teacher:  Old school professional learning no longer works.  How can I meet the needs of the learners who count on me to support their unique needs around  thinking and learning ?  All professional learning must embrace  adult learning in the age of technology; it must meet them where they are and help them to the next place.
  3. Become a better peer:  Working collaboratively means we need to understand one another; support strengths and weaknesses; celebrate the diversity therein.
  4. Focus on what matters: I must go back to the goals of my work; identify what matters and  let the rest fade into the abyss. Less is more.


  • Kids want to be engaged; teachers want to engage.  Coaching and teaching must be innovative and reflective of the unique needs of the learners.
  • The world needs all kinds of people to “tick”.  Take time to understand people who speak a different ” language” .
  • Locate what is “core” work.  Be sure THAT never takes a back seat to other things.

My purpose:  Coaching, teaching, collaborating around student engagement and school culture/climate.  I will explore my  templates around each of these areas.  Next up:  Articulating my templates around coaching.  

Thinking Through the Roadblocks: PBIS

Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) is a school-wide  framework that offers buildings the opportunity for culture change.  Implemented well, within a response to intervention (RTI) system that offers a wide array of creative, comprehensive options for academic and behavioral challenges, research on PBIS is promising.  It reduces the need for special education referrals.  It reduces the number of suspensions.

Most common misperceptions?  

  •  PBIS is all about extrinsic rewards.
  • All kids don’t “need” it, so why should we do it?

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

PBIS is a comprehensive framework that is most effective when embedded in the school’s improvement plan/goals AND in collaboration with an RTI model around academics.  The beauty of PBIS, really?

  • develops predictable routines in common areas
  • creates common language for staff and students
  • focuses on teaching routines/expectations instead of punishing
  • helps staff think through expectations for activities and procedures
  • helps administrators think through expectations of staff and students
  • keeps staff and administration communicating about their school culture
  • helps school teams develop alternatives to suspension

Reward systems are part of PBIS and research across many buildings indicate it works.  However, reward systems are only a small part of the bigger picture.  During our professional learning and implementation support, we encourage buildings to determine if this part is necessary for them.  If they are not comfortable with it, we help them implement without.  After all, if the data indicates the climate is fine, why tamper with what works for them?

PBIS is not needed for you?  This may be true for teachers who  are incredibly effective at building relationships.  Maybe you are consistent, positive and  able to manage all difficulties within your classroom.  But look around.  Is this true for every classroom in your building?  District?   Is it possible that your building or district needs it, despite your success?   The consistency, predictability  and routines that PBIS supports offer are vital for children who come from chaotic, unpredictable communities/homes.  Your demographics may not include these students.  They may, but you might be effective regardless.   Still, the benefits of PBIS done well are clear.  They work for everyone, everywhere.  This is about the building, not the individual teacher alone.

So, what does it take to become a high implementor of PBIS?

(1) Teacher commitment to the initiative needs to be developed and reinforced. Communication of guidelines and the rationale for practices could facilitate teacher buy-in. Systematic use of data to demonstrate the effectiveness of PBS practices was also linked to teacher buy-in.
(2) Clear implementation guidelines should be provided to all school staff through a structured system of professional development and information dissemination. The guidelines need to help teachers respond positively to an often diverse population of students. They also need to encourage consistent and appropriate implementation of the rewards system based on a shared understanding of PBS in the school.
(3) Systematic data collection and use allows teachers and administrators to monitor the nature, location, and frequency of smaller disciplinary infractions before they become larger issues.
(4) Including student input in data-based decision-making can be useful in addressing barriers associated with the rewards system, including selecting appropriate rewards and monitoring the consistency with which rewards are offered.
(5) PBS orientation/training for new and substitute teachers could increase the consistency of application within the school. Similarly, refresher training may be needed for more experienced teachers. However, given the limited resources for professional development and the experience of some teachers with PBS, creativity in how to provide the training – to whom, when, and in what format – will be needed.


Positive Behavior Support in Delaware Schools

Identifying Implementation Barriers and Facilitators in PBIS


Poverty and Education: Solutions?

Poverty affects education.  It affects test scores.  It affects teacher and student motivation.  It is related to just about every possible negative life outcome you could imagine.  In the US, about one-quarter of our children are raised in poverty,  the same percentage of students drop out of school without diplomas.

These figures are an outrage.  Still, much of the school reform efforts actively ignore the research on poverty in education.  They focus instead on test scores and gaps between high scores and low scores within a building. Teachers are being held accountable for these gaps.  Some are losing their jobs.  Having tried to fight  the effects of poverty in highly segregated areas, others are exhausted, dispirited and have quit.  Politicians cannot even say the “P” word, let alone address the effects systemically.  And so the fingers point to the people on the front-line.  Everyone wants an answer but they are looking in the wrong places.

Educators around the globe engaged in a Twitter chat with the hashtag:  educhat.  This is a once weekly event.  Yesterday’s topic was:  If it is the poverty gap that is the major force stalling improvement in the American education system, how do we address that issue?

The majority belief emerged:

  1. Poverty is not an excuse:
  2. Teachers must pull up bootstraps and teach well

This belief set is certainly vital and adaptive.  I think it is a given that good teaching is a must.  But there is more.

Frequency, Intensity, Place

It would seem that your beliefs would vary, depending on your experience.  If you are from an economically and racially diverse community you may not feel the same way a teacher in the inner city does.  Having a few kids in your class with high needs is different than having the majority of your kids with high needs.  Your typical classroom in a racially and economically segregated area that has a high % of families living in poverty will include large class sizes and children with immense needs.

This we know:

Children from poor families do worse than kids from middle-class and wealthy families; children do better if their mother has a college degree, and overall, children of all ethnicities and races do better in schools with less than 25 percent of the student population from low-income families.

There is plenty of research suggesting that students of color are disciplined more harshly than their white peers.  

A cultural shift from zero-tolerance policies is needed in our schools. One research-based alternative, known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), is gaining momentum among educators as a way to improve overall school climates, as well as academic performance, while keeping children in the classroom. PBIS has been successfully used in both urban and rural school districts and in districts with high and low concentrations of poverty.

Implementation of PBIS is a key provision in several class action settlements reached between the SPLC and school districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. The results have been promising. For example, two years after PBIS was implemented throughout the Jefferson Parish, La., school district, the out-of-school suspension rate for special education students was cut in half. Out-of-school suspensions for general education students dropped 24 percent after the first year.

PBIS implementation is just one of the ways we’re working to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. We’ve also launched campaigns to address the use of alternative schools to warehouse students and deny them the educational services to which they are entitled. In addition, we work to ensure that youths most likely to be pushed out of school receive individualized support to increase their chances of graduating, to address racial disparities in school discipline practices and to increase parental engagement in the formation of school discipline policies and practices.

Current attempts at reform, focusing on test scores and charter schools, are short-sighted.  More importantly, they miss the core issues and leave many kids behind.  Additionally, housing policy in most communities encourages the economic segregation that causes pockets of unmanageable distress.  Solving small problems is different than solving huge, pervasive problems.

My belief is that the answer is “both/and”, not “either/or”.  With the economic re-segregation and enormous gaps between the haves and have-nots, the job of “overcoming the debilitating effects of poverty” is going to take more than just good teaching.  Note:  I did not say that good teaching wasn’t needed.  In fact, I suspect NOBODY has ever said that in education.  That is always expected.  Instead, we need to look past that  and out into the school community as there is much evidence that good teaching is not enough for the long haul.

Until we pair good teaching in economically diverse neighborhoods with the kind of comprehensive support that Nelson and Canada are providing in Chicago and Harlem, we will be placing band-aids on deep wounds.  And anyone who has skinned their knee knows:

band-aids don’t last after the first bath.