The Fine Line Between ADHD and Kinesthetic Learners

Many CHILDREN SEEN at the National Reading Diagnostics Institute in Naperville, Illinois have received a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Yet in-depth reading evaluations of these youngsters often reveal that rather than having an attention disorder, they are simply kinesthetic learners: they need to engage in gross motor (large-muscle) activity to learn best. Once they are given the opportunity to learn through the proper methods, their ADHD-like behavior often disappears.

It is interesting how many students are now being labeled "attention disordered." Years ago, only medical practitioners determined whether a child had an attention disorder, and the numbers were small. Now, teachers, relatives, and next-door neighbors are quick to point out the characteristics of ADD. Increasing numbers of youngsters are routinely placed on "trials" of Ritalin, without first ruling out other factors that could be causing apparent ADHD symptoms. A kinesthetic learner may not need medication so much as innovative teaching methods.

THERE ARE FOUR BASIC TYPES of learners: visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic. While types may overlap, visual learners tend to work best with visual stimuli, while auditory learners relate best to lecture -techniques and verbal material. Tactile-oriented students absorb new information most readily through their sense of touch, such as when tracing letters made from sandpaper. Kinesthetic learners require body movement and action for optimal results: they need to move around, use their muscles, explore. Flashlight writing is an example of a kinesthetic technique. Writing letters in sand or shaving cream is both a tactile and kinesthetic method.

Kinesthetically oriented children find it stressful to be asked to "look and listen" for long periods of time. Imagine the frustration of having your hands tied, your mouth covered, and your eyes blindfolded, so that you could neither gesture, speak, or see. Kinesthetic students face similar frustration when they are not allowed to move in a classroom. To relieve stress, they seek to break out of these constraints. When faced with several hours of desk work, for which they are required to "sit still," they tend to get up to sharpen their pencil several times, they ask to go to the rest room, or they drop things, so they can get up to retrieve them. They may seek to be class monitors, to run errands. If they can't engage in these activities, they will at least begin to move while in their seats: wiggling their legs, leaning back in their chairs, rocking, or tapping their pencils. When these actions are also not acceptable, they may resort to misbehavior as part of a psychological need to move. Teachers consider many of these behaviors as red flags for an attention (or behavioral) disorder.

ANOTHER FRUSTRATION kinesthetic learners face is poor achievement. Any type of learner can be successful. But of all the learning styles, kinesthetics are least likely to receive appropriate teaching. When reading is taught in the primary grades, most of the instruction involves the teacher talking (auditory) and using displays, either on the chalkboard or in books or handouts (visual). The teacher introduces new letters, words, or word families verbally and has the class repeat them (auditory), then write them (tactile). In kindergarten students generally take part in group activities involving songs with various actions and routines (kinesthetic). Projects requiring large-muscle movement are also common at that level. However, from first grade on, seat work predominates, and creative, kindergarten-type activities rapidly diminish. Not coincidentally, it is at this point that teachers often start complaining about "ADD behaviors" in some of their students.

Unfortunately, remedial reading instruction, tutoring, or even a specific learning disabilities program may not be successful if a student's learning type has not been properly identified. Frequently the approach is just "more of the same," using the same types of techniques as in the classroom. A thorough reading evaluation and customized approach, however, often results in rapid progress.

At the National Reading Diagnostics Institute, we recommend kinesthetic techniques before prematurely applying a label of attention disorder. An ounce of prevention, in the form of instruction matched to learning style, is worth years of remediation or special programs using inappropriate techniques.


By Ricki Linksman

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