Follow-up to a 3-Part series
My last several posts have been a series on the topic of “The ADD-Friendly Classroom,” developed as a result of several conversations with my daughter, Signy Gephardt. She was diagnosed with ADHD in the first grade (and successfully completed her BS degree in Biological Science last May). I quizzed her about “best practices” from a student’s point of view, and she shared some ideas that all teachers may want to consider, to help the easily-distracted students in their classes.

The power of mutual support

If students know each other, they can help each other succeed.

One subset of suggestions, however, deserves a post of its own. These suggestions revolve around the idea that building a sense of collaboration and mutual support in the classroom helps distractible students succeed much more readily than dividing the classroom through competition.

Signy told me, “Students in class need to know each other, because there WILL be moments when kids ‘drift.'” If the classroom culture supports collaboration, students can help each other fill in the gaps, so more of them are better able to succeed.

There are many laypersons and not a few educators who consider competition to be very important–some would even say that competition is an “American” value. It is quite true that fostering competition can motivate some students to excel beyond what they would otherwise accomplish. Demonstrably, competition has its place in education.

But one size does not fit all–and that goes double in education.

ALL students’ needs are important, not just those of “stars”

All students, and especially distractible ones, do better with a supportive circle.

Students who excel with ease in school often love competition, because it makes them feel like “winners,” but a system that identifies winners also by necessity singles out losers, as well.

Historically in schools, distractible students nearly always come out as “losers.”

An essay about the plain fact that a normal bell curve demonstrates the traditional age-group-based system of classes as “production lots” makes it inevitable that some students’ needs will not be served is not in the scope of this post (anyway, I’ve covered it already). My premise today is that competition may be one tool in the educator’s toolkit, but that collaboration and teamwork are even more powerful tools for many students–especially for those who are easily distracted.

Students need to learn how to work together in teams.

Teamwork is becoming an ever-greater force for business success in industries that rely on a strong and capable workforce, for precisely the same reasons it needs to be an ever-greater presence in our classrooms: everyone is different, and therefore everyone brings different strengths and weaknesses to projects. Students need to learn how to work together to support each others’ efforts so that all may become stronger.

Yeah, but what does that look like in real life?

If you’ve been steeped in the tradition of competition, winners, and losers in school, you may fear that “teamwork” is a euphemism for “stronger” students carrying “weaker” students along with them, or else maybe some kind of meaningless “self-esteem” exercise. I won’t lie: in today’s classrooms, those things unquestionably do happen.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. Those are examples of what happens when it’s not done right.

Mutual support reduces weakness, builds strength
Some time strategically spent at the start of the semester on “classbuilding” exercises can pay huge dividends in overall student success. Dr. Spencer Kagan’s Cooperative Learning structures include a helpful variety of classbuilding exercies; a similar approach is offered through the Tribes Learning Community, to name two.

When students work together and help each other, all do better.

“Classbuilding” is the process of helping students who may or may not know (or like) each other when they first enter a class, and turning them into an effective, dynamic team–a team in which all members function at a higher level than they might, if left to flounder along on their own.

Humans are evolutionarily predisposed to function as “tribes,” or small cooperative groups. As with wolf packs and prides of lions, humans developed a predisposition for social interdependence because it made all group members’ survival much more likely.

Academic survival (indeed, thriving success) is also well-served when everyone in the group feels they are “on the same team,” and can bring value to the work being done. Teachers—especially when they have distractible students—need to explicitly guide their students to the idea that “you should help each other get complete notes,” for example.

The effective use of small groups

Groups of four students can work together and stay engaged.

Signy specifically recommended small groups as being extremely helpful for ADD students–providing the group work is structured effectively.  

“Small-group discussions and working together to answer questions [really help],” she told me. “Up to four people per group is best.”  Pull chairs around to create an opportunity for students to talk face-to-face. Switch habitual groups periodically—but only after a few days or weeks of working together. “It’s pretty chaotic to mix up groups more often.”

She also recommended “group-style” tactics for class discussions. “When going through assigned questions in class, make the session as interactive as possible, by having a semi-presentation style,” she suggested, and described a process by which a chosen student stands up, says his/her name, identifies which of the assigned questions s/he will answer, then answers each. Follow with a recap of “this is what I said,” and take other students’ questions as needed.

A Kagan-style variation on this would be to have small groups of students discuss questions among themselves, then have each group’s chosen spokesperson present its answers to the larger class.

I hope you’ll give some of these ideas a try, or at least do further research on the positive effects for all students of helping your most distractible ones.

PHOTO CREDITS (and a few interesting references, as well): The photo of the group of three students is from “Five Principles of Effective Guided Practice,” by Richard Stowell. The photo of children and adults around a round table is from an article titled “Those with special needs seek accommodating churches,” by Irie Price from the Lubbock (TX) Avalanche-Journal. The photo of the circular group of students is from a post titled “How to Maximize Cooperative Learning by Tapping into Personality Strengths,” from Insights, “The official blog for the Insight Learning Foundation.” The photo of two grade-school girls at a computer is from the article “Students show off latest tech,” by Chris Torres from the Daily Journal of Vineland, Millville, and Greater Cumberland County, NJ. The group of students with their desks pushed together to work on a project is from Laura Candler’s “Cooperative Learning Resources” page.