Supporting Learners With ADHD An Interview With Soli Lazarus

 Supporting Learners With ADHD An Interview With Soli Lazarus

Episode 9 of The Teaching Space podcast is an interview with ADHD expert Soli Lazarus. 

Episode 9 Podcast Transcript

Martine: Hello, it's Martine here. Welcome to the Teaching Space Podcast. Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Soli Lazarus. Now, rather than tell you all about Soli, I'm going to ask her to introduce herself. Soli, welcome to the show.

Soli: Hello, Martine. Thank you so much for inviting me. It's lovely to be here today.

Martine: It's great to have you here. Why don't you tell us a bit about yourself? Who are you and what do you do?

Soli: Right. Yes, my name is Soli. I'm, at the moment, an assistant SENCO in a large primary school in London. I do that part-time. The rest of my time, I run my own consultancy, Yellow Sun. I support families with children with autism and ADHD. I support them on a one-to-one basis within a support group. We have a great Facebook group. I have an online training course and I've got so many other things in the pipeline. My head's buzzing with ideas. But I'm super, super passionate about particularly ADHD.

Soli: My son has ADHD. He's nearly 30. As a parent, I really struggled to get support and help and it's very, very isolating as a parent with a child with any kind of difficulties. It's not the life you signed up for. It's sad. It can be lonely. You feel really isolated and don't know where to turn. This was my main aim of Yellow Sun, is just really to empower parents and give support to parents and just give simple tweaks that can really change how a child feels about themselves. One of my plans, also, is to go into schools.

Soli: We just need to get the word out there that if we change a little bit of a child with ADHD, change a bit of their environment and our reaction to a child, it can just make all the difference. I'm super passionate, super fired up. Yeah, that's me.

Martine: That's fantastic. Actually, I think one of the best ways to make a difference in these types of areas is through education, isn't it? Ultimately, by educating people about what ADHD actually is and those small changes that you mentioned, then you can really make a difference. In the simplest of terms, what exactly is ADHD? Can you tell me?

Soli: Yep. First of all, what it's not is bad parenting. It's a real condition. It's a biologically proven condition that is a chemical imbalance in the brain. It's real. That's not to say good parenting can make a difference. Similarly, bad parenting can make the situation worse. But it certainly does not cause ADHD. In a nutshell, we all know these children in our class because they're the one who is constantly fidgeting and on the move. Or they might be incredibly impulsive. They just do not have those brakes for them to stop before they think. They can be very inattentive unless it's something highly, highly motivating. The three aspects are inattention, impulsive, and hyperactive.

Martine: Excellent. That really explains it well. Like you say, so many of us can relate to having these kids in our class or these kids in our lives generally. Personally, I teach adults. I can connect with that slightly less. Nevertheless, I do understand that ADHD is a very real thing in adults, as well. We'll touch on that in a minute. But even with children, I come into contact with through my family and things like that, it's quite easy to spot. Is it that a child will usually get a diagnosis of ADHD? What happens when a parent or a teacher suspects that a child might have ADHD? What, generally, is the process there?

Soli: Well, that's a good question because it's quite a sticky point. There's no blood test. There are no scans, at the moment, to show this discrepancy in brain function. It's really just by observation and reports, reports from parents. Yes, it's all these behaviours that I've spoken about. Generally, I would say to parents, "If your child is behaving in that same way in whatever environment they're at, if when they're at Granny or if they're in an afterschool club or if you're shopping or at the cinema or a birthday party and at school and at home, if in all those different environments they're still more or less showing that same kind of behavior, then it's almost certainly something like ADHD."

Soli: There are lots of other conditions that go alongside ADHD, such as dyslexia, sensory processing disorders. Sometimes there are other things going alongside. I'm of the mindset, though, I'm not really that bothered about a diagnosis. I'm more bothered about how we react to a behaviour. However, we label that behaviour, we have to do something about it. We have to change something up or react differently. Although I'm not saying don't get a diagnosis because that does help. It helps frame how we react. That child might even need medication. Some children really react very well being on a medication.

Soli: My son was diagnosed by a great consultant. I think the way forward, if you really suspect or school really suspect that it could be ADHD, you do need to get some consultant to actually do the diagnosis. You need to go down the route of going to the GP and get referred to a consultant. Some children, yes, as I said, do react very well to being on medication. My son was diagnosed when he was eight and he was put on Ritalin. It was amazing. Ritalin is a very short-acting medication. It stays in the system for about three hours. He would take it and he would go from almost climbing the walls to then being very, I would say, subdued.

Soli: But he actually said to me, and I will never, ever forget, he said, "My eyes are keeping still and I can now see the words." It meant that, at eight years old, he couldn't read. He started to read. He was able to focus on his work. But he hated the feeling. When he was 16, and it was actually the day before his first GCSE, he said, "I'm not taking it anymore."

Soli: Obviously, there was nothing I could do about it 'cause he really hated it. But for some children and adults, I know medication really, really works. Actually, my son is 30 now and I do keep saying to him, "Please pop back to the doctor and just see if there's anything else. There might be other things now that all those years ago were not available." But it's not his thing. But I'm not saying it's not for everybody because there are some people, adults and children, who work really well with medication. But it goes alongside. Medication is not the answer. The most important thing is for us to change our reaction to a child and an adult and help them and support them so that their lives can be much calmer and happier.

Martine: That's so interesting. What you're saying, from a teacher perspective, is that regardless of whether there is a diagnosis or not, if you spot these behaviors in your learners, regardless of the label that that child has been given, you can implement changes to make things better for them and generally make things better for the whole class.

Soli: 100%. We'll probably talk about it a little later, the actual specifics of things that a teacher can do, but I can guarantee you do some of these strategies and it will help this child with ADHD, but it will also those other children who've got undiagnosed things or other learning difficulties or English is an additional language or a child who's had just a really bad, chaotic home life and can't focus. We've got all sorts of learners from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of things going on at home, that at any one time some children just need that extra little bit of something different just to help them.

Martine: Brilliant. We hear a lot about ADHD in kids and, obviously, that's when if there is a diagnosis, that's when it will tend to happen. But what does ADHD look like in adults? You said your son is 30. If you want to use him as an example, you can. Personally, I teach mainly adults. Very rare I teach children. Selfishly, I'm quite interested in it from my own perspective. But hopefully, listeners will be interested in it, too.

Soli: ADHD doesn't go away. Let me say, as well, it's not a life sentence. It's just a different type of behaviour. There are all sorts of very famous, successful people with ADHD. Rory Bremner is one who goes very popular with his condition.

Martine: I did not know that. That's really interesting.

Soli: Oh, yeah. There's a really incredible documentary. I think you can get it on Catch Up on BBC. You can hear how his brain is working. It's firing from all different angles. Oh, I think will.i.am, as well.

Soli: Adults and children are amazingly creative. They've got a zillion thoughts wandering around their head, which it shows up more in our school system because our school system is so rubbish that we expect children just to sit quietly, line up, sit on the carpet, be passive. Whereas, our people with ADHD, that's the complete opposite of what they need to be.

Soli: Going again back to your question, an adult with ADHD will put themselves into a situation where their natural abilities and their natural skills and their natural way of behaving won't be a conflict. You're not gonna get somebody going working in a very quiet atmosphere of an office. They will do something a little bit louder and zanier. My son is a hairdresser.

Soli: It's because he is creative. He can wander around. He can chat when he wants. He can more or less go and eat when he wants. There's loud music, which helps him concentrate. As an adult, you'll put yourself into the environment that suits you. The other thing is they're very disorganized. Again, as an adult, you can find those ways. You'll write yourself lists, have Post-It notes, do things on your phone to remind you, have alarms. You'll create a world around the things that you find difficult. It does affect adults, too, and adults do need help and support with organisation with going for lots of movement breaks and doing things in very short, sharp chunks and changing things up so they don't get bored very easily. Yes, we do have to still be considerate of adults with ADHD because it still exists.

Martine: That's super interesting. I think a lot of teachers could really up their teaching game just generally by ensuring that they chunk things up into really small, attention-grabbing sections and supporting learners of all ages with their organization skills. There's a lesson in that, regardless of whether any of your learners have ADHD or not. We could learn a lot from just implementing those strategies as standard.

Soli: Yes, yes. Some people just need help. "There's too much content here. I can't read it all." It needs to be in chunks. We need to realize what people's learning styles are. I'm an incredible visual learner and I need things being very, very clear with pictures and underline and bold. Those strategies really help our children with concentration difficulties. They can't just have a whole great, big chunk of writing or seven instructions or a page of 20 sums. It's too much. We have to chunk it up. Cut up a piece of paper so they only see one little part of an instruction or just give five sums.

Soli: We use something called "red cup, green cup" in primary school. It's literally having two cups on your table, stacked, and if the green cup is showing, "I'm okay, that's fine, I don't need any help." If the red cup is showing, you stack it the other way, it just signals to an adult. It saves somebody having to put their hand up for 20 minutes. It's great. Something we haven't spoken about, which is the number one thing and, really, I should have said it right at the top, is our children with ADHD, their self-esteem is on the floor. Unless you get an amazing teacher who understands them, their life at school, they'll be labelled as naughty. They'll be the ones in the staffroom that everybody says, "Oh, watch out for this one. He'll cause trouble."

Soli: Already, teachers have very negative expectations. The other children will see them as the one who is always being told off. Classically, they're the ones who do something just for that extra little bit of time. They'll get noticed. But the smart, clever ones will stop before the adult comes in. The child with ADHD will be the one always in trouble. Social relationships are nonexistent, really. My son has very, very limited friendships even now. New Year's Eve, he had to go out with his little sister because he didn't have friends. Birthdays, he never got invited to birthday parties. Never invited to play dates. The self-esteem of our children with ADHD is horrendous. We need to do everything we can just to build them up.

Soli: Just going back to that red cup, green cup, that is such a subtle way of saying, "I need help." Nobody even needs to notice. The teacher then just goes over quietly and then just supports and helps the child.

Martine: In terms of supporting learners with ADHD, clearly working with them on their self-esteem is really important. Through the discussions that we've had, I suspect that teachers getting to know their learners really well and anticipating issues is important, too. I would expect that.

Soli: Yes. Yes. It's vital, really, because a lot of our children with ADHD want to learn. They're very creative. They've got great ideas. But they just probably need to learn in a different way. As we've said before, they really need help with organization. Visuals are great to use. Visual timetables, visual schedules, so they know the order of a day or an order of a session and they don't get overwhelmed. They might have real difficulty keeping still. There are some great resources that you can use. There are some wobble cushions, which sounds bizarre, but they're inflatable cushions that sit on the chair and it keeps children still. I don't know what the magic is behind it, but it's to do with their sensory equilibrium being balanced.

Soli: You know the yoga bands, the stretchy yoga bands? You put those on the chair legs and the bottom and then a child can just keep kicking them and pressing their feet against them. All these things are aiding concentration because instead of them fiddling and squirming and disrupting and disturbing other people, these other little strategies can actually help them focus and concentrate. But saying that, if a child works better by kicking off their shoes and laying on the floor on a cushion to do their writing, I would say, "Why not?" If it suits your classroom, if it suits the environment, and he or she is going to be focused, not disturbing everybody else, might not be able to sit on a chair for 20 minutes. Might be able to do it for 10 and then as long as he's asking permission and just, "Would you mind if I just go and finish the rest on the floor?" Fine, if he gets the work done.

Soli: Also, fiddle toys. A lot of our children do need to fiddle. I know we had the fidget spinners, which were banned. I think it was such a shame 'cause they're so great for our ADHD children. But I do understand why they were banned, 'cause they were a little bit dangerous. But it was great for our self-esteem of our children because, all of a sudden, they had a gadget that everybody else wanted and it made them feel really special. That was, for me, a win-win. But there are some great fiddle toys. There's one that's lots of little colored blocks on an elastic string. They're £1.50 and children can fiddle with those and they're silent. They don't disrupt or disturb anybody else.

Soli: I say to my children, "If it disturbs you and makes you lose focus, you're not having it. If it disrupts anybody else around you, you're not having it." If they can quietly fiddle, or Blu Tack is also very good if it makes them concentrate then fine. Let them have it. It's really not a problem. The other thing, our children are very impulsive. Quite often, it's very hard for them if the teacher is saying something and they just are desperate to call it out, they'll call it out because they don't have the brakes to, "Do you know what? I'll just wait my turn." If you give a child a whiteboard or pen and paper so that they can write their answer and then almost show it up to the teacher so that she can see and just do a silent thumbs up and a smile, quite often that's enough.

Soli: I keep saying "he" because a lot of our children with ADHD are boys, or more boys are diagnosed. Girls tend to not have the hyperactive element, so are quiet. They're ADD without the hyperactive. But most of them are boys. All they want to do is know that they've been seen and they've been heard. If you do this whiteboard thing and hold up their answer and smile and thumbs up, quite often that sort of thing is enough. You could try recording in different ways. If they find writing difficult, then maybe a laptop or speech to text software or using a little sound button. Sound buttons are great, actually. I don't know if you've come across them, Martine.

Soli: They come in all different guises, but basically it's little recording device. It could either be something that looks like a giant Smartie and then you press it and you can record a message for, say, 30 seconds. What an assistant could do, what the teacher could do, could record the instructions. "Do five sums and then come and see me," or "Do five sums and show me your red cup." The child then just keeps listening to the instruction or they could use it for if a child forgets what their sentences they need to write, or forgets a plan that they need to do, or needs to use it to remind themselves of a job that they need to do. They're also really great. If you Google "sound buttons," they're really good. They're in the SEN bit of catalogues. They're really, really good. I recommend them, as well.

Soli: Yeah, there's just so many. Visuals, visuals are always great just to remind our children what to do and to keep on track. As I said before with a lot of these things, so many of the other children in the class can also benefit. Who wouldn't want to kick off their shoes if it makes them feel comfortable or sit on a wobble cushion if it helps them or have their work chunked up or use visuals? Also, who wouldn't want to be made to feel special? These techniques really work for our children with ADHD, but other children, as well. I think the underlying things is that as adults, we must just look and understand the behaviour and change our reaction to a behaviour and don't always be so quick to tell off or to say, "Why did you do that? Weren't you thinking?"

Soli: Quite often, our children are not thinking. That's part of the difficulty. Try to really understand the behaviour and react to it differently and just make our little children just feel special and valued and listen to their opinions.

Martine: There are some great strategies there, Soli. As an adult learner, who doesn't want to feel valued? You're absolutely right. I think, ultimately, as teachers, it's our jobs to facilitate an environment where everybody has an equal opportunity to learn. By employing these strategies, we are really going to create a fantastic environment for our children, for our adults, for our learners, whoever it is you have responsibility for. Thank you for sharing those strategies. I think they've been really helpful. I hope that everyone listening has taken away all sorts from your wise words.

Soli: Yeah, well, thank you. I'm so super passionate about changing things up. It's so simple. As teachers, we've got these little people's worlds in our hands, their futures, without being too dramatic. We can change the way these children feel about themselves. It's so easy to do. We can make them feel successful and valued. No child gets up in the morning and just thinks, "I really hope I'm shouted at today. I really hope I'm kept in at playtime. I really hope nobody plays with me." Everybody gets up in the morning and wants to have a good day. I think it's up to us educators to make all our little people have a good day.

Martine: Definitely. I quite agree with that. Well, thank you, Soli. I have one final question for you and it's an important one. Where can people find you online?

Soli: Well, go to my website, which is Soli-Lazarus.com. That is a lovely hub for all my other bits and bobs that I do. As I say, I've got some training online videos that are free to watch. One is how to stop the rudeness. One is how to build up self-esteem. One is blowing wide open the myths surrounding ADHD. Those are free to watch. Also, there are links to my mentoring program and my blog. I write a regular blog and I've got a fabulous Facebook group, which is just full of lovely, lovely parents who are just trying to get some answers to some questions and we give each other support. I offer some great free resources. Pop along to that website and you'll find my links there.

Martine: That's brilliant. Thanks, Soli, and thank you so much for your time. It's been a pleasure speaking with you.

 Supporting Learners With ADHD An Interview With Soli Lazarus