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The Tender Hearts That Come With ADHD

two young ballet students

Full disclosure: I do not have ADHD so I am writing this from the outside looking in. There are some lived experiences that come with ADHD that I do not, and probably cannot, understand. But some of my very favorite people have ADHD so I try to understand and when I just can't, I trust them and believe what they are telling me.

Did you know that people with ADHD are often hyper-sensitive to criticism? Reading the research about this didn't exactly surprise me; group learning situations like school and ballet class require a level of sustained attention that people with ADHD can't always achieve. It can't be easy to feel good about yourself or like you are successful when you're often "the problem kid."

But, according to research, it's more than just a criticism-to-praise ratio that's off. We all have "threat level" evaluation systems in our brains but, because of their atypical structures, many ADHD brains have trouble distinguishing between a catastrophe and a glitch. It's all threat level BIG, it all feels dangerous, and their brains are thrown into panic mode. Now that I understand the physiology a little better, this profound sensitivity to criticism makes more sense. No matter how kindly I deliver a correction, it can feel dangerous and painful. Not just "ooh, ouch" painful---people with ADHD have described it as "awful," "terrible," and "devastating."

Add to that the fact that people with ADHD are smart and often perfectly aware that no one else is hurting the way they are and it adds another element of loneliness and shame. They can see that others perceive their reaction as an "over-reaction" and can feel embarrassed by their feelings or even beat themselves up about how they can't seem to be like everyone else.

So what can we do? Criticism is a part of ballet class. We need to correct people in order to help them improve. And we need to redirect or help people modify behavior as part of classroom management. But none of us want our students to feel awful in response to something we said or did.

  • Normalize a range of emotional responses. We all have different levels of reactivity and it's okay for a range of responses to exist in our classes. Sure there are limits, I can't have you smashing mirrors in frustration, but we can admit to having feelings in class. Traditional ballet teaching often just expects us all to be robots and pretend we don't have feelings but we aren't and we do.

  • When someone seems to be feeling something very strongly, validate that feelings can be strong and that sometimes we can keep dancing while they run their course. If a feeling seems unusually strong for that particular kid, maybe a break to splash some water on their face is a good idea. But for kids who feel strong emotions a lot of the time, having chances to continue their chosen activity while processing their enormous feelings can be a good thing. This too shall pass. How do we want to spend that time?

  • Take advantage one of ADHD's positive aspects: hyper-focus. Try to redirect the attention of your class to a part of ballet that you know your hurting sweetie will dive into. Maybe it's partner feedback work, maybe you add some small jumps into every combination for the rest of the day, maybe you play with tempo challenges . . . . It's a balancing act because sometimes the key points of your lesson plan don't really adapt that way, plus you have other students who are emotionally self-regulating in that moment and they need a great class, too. There are days when you're going to be able to use hyper-focus to benefit everyone and days when this just isn't the tool for the task.

  • Give positive feedback. This seems like such a "duh" statement but it never hurts to do a self-audit. Are you giving every student a compliment out loud, being sure to say their name while you do, and doing this in every class? This isn't just for the ADHD kids; everyone benefits from this practice. If you're worried that this will "take away" from instructional time, it won't. You probably are already thinking nice things about your students, you just might not be saying them out loud. Say them out loud. It makes a difference.

By the way, this hyper-sensitivity isn't just for criticism. Sometimes it's felt in response to perceived criticism (which is why relying on "a look" to get a message across is dodgy, at best), teasing, or other social rejections. These things happen every day, so my heart goes out to these tender people. I'm sensitive, but not to the same degree.

I don't have a magic wand that I can wave to make my students no longer hyper-sensitive to criticism. If I did, I'd wave it on myself first. (I told you that I'm sensitive. I definitely take things harder than they are sometimes intended. But even then, I'm not feeling the same kind of pain that some people with ADHD feel.) I can't really change this situation. But I can be empathetic and supportive. I can recognize the experience that some of my students are having as real even though it isn't one we're sharing.

The research into this is ongoing, and I'm sure we'll learn more as time goes on. If you're interested in doing your own research deep-dive, start with the term "Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria."


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