If you have a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you’re well aware of the struggles they face. Sitting still, self-regulation, inattentiveness — these are a few of the behaviors that characterize this medical disorder.
What makes ADHD difficult to diagnose is assessing the types of behaviors that extend beyond the normal impulsivity and distraction that occur with most children. The majority of children with ADHD are provided a combination of medication, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and an amalgamation of support both in school and at home.
Additionally, some parents are starting to notice how STEM can have a positive impact on their child’s development. The basic principles that inform STEM programs – design thinking, creative problem-solving, project managing – are more conducive to successfully working with children who have ADHD than we think.
Aimee Savard, Owner of MakerKids in central Toronto, Ontario, agrees. “At MakerKids, we’ve seen many kids succeed at our STEM programs with various special needs or abilities,” she says. “Because our programs are project-based and self-directed, students are deeply engaged in their work, while … learning and creating. The result is the organic learning of STEM principles in a non-traditional, fun, learning environment.”
Rated #1 in STEM programs for kids, MakerKids specializes in coding, robotics and Minecraft for kids aged seven to 12. But it’s not so much about what they learn (while that certainly matters) as how they learn it. Added to the mix are soft skills they develop: resilience, confidence, communication skills and creativity, to name a few.
“Some parents of children with ADHD have told us their child thrives in this environment because of the way the child learns,” Savard emphasizes. “Technology is very hands-on and there’s lots of trial and error. Once they have confidence, their creativity and productivity flourish. There’s a deep satisfaction in problem-solving and seeing the direct results of their work.”
In a traditional classroom, students with ADHD may struggle more than their peers, where instruction is direct and one-way. They fidget in their seats, are easily distracted, and find it challenging to listen to and follow directions.
In a STEM class, that same child will blossom. Students with ADHD can sustain their energy throughout the long, laborious tasks STEM demands of its pupils and possess an energy that would otherwise wear out a typical student. “Students with ADHD tend to be creative and inventive, particularly when their learning environment is stimulating and positive,” Savard says.
She points to a Grade 1 student in her program who had ADHD and was struggling in his daytime curriculum. Then he enrolled at MakerKids after school. “He really excelled at critical thinking and troubleshooting, using a program called CodeSpark that gamifies coding. He would give the computer directions on what he wanted his character to do, then help fix code when it wasn’t working to make it accomplish those tasks.”
Conversely, some children with ADHD have what is sometimes labeled “two-minute attention span,” and require frequent breaks to mitigate compulsive behavior or outbursts. STEM can engage students who struggle to self-regulate. The trial-and-error nature of robotics, for example, lends itself well to “incidental learning” (through testing); a perfect methodology for non-linear thinkers.
“STEM isn’t about single-task learning,” Savard says. “When students engage in STEM, they’re involved in a fast-paced world of shifting images and sounds. Someone with ADHD will jump from point-to-point, then amalgamate that input into their learning process.”
One of STEM’s greatest success is its interactive aspect. Children who may feel marginalized in their day-to-day lives come together to work on STEM projects based on similar interests, goals and purpose. Savard mentions a child in Grade 3 who enrolled in the Minecraft program and developed social skills along the way.
“This student was able to connect with kids their age who had similar interests in a way that was very engaging,” she says. “Ultimately, this led to that child building friendships.”
The end game of any STEM program aligns with the single most important approach to working with children who have ADHD: empower, not control.
“Every child is unique,” Savard says. “It’s amazing to see what they’ll create when given the right tools and an outlet to use them.”