By Cristina Evans, M.Ed. and David Murphy, M.Ed., Ed.D.

When a problem occurs, most of us are able to quickly figure out the size of the problem and then regulate our emotional reaction to stay calm and deal with it.  But that’s not always the case, especially in those with ADHD or other executive functioning disorders.

People diagnosed with executive functioning disorders often struggle managing their emotions.  They can also struggle with reflection and problem solving. These deficits can manifest into meaningful life challenges as students struggle to appropriately manage their emotions.  This can appear in a multitude of ways.  Some might be unable to put the brakes on their feelings when stressed or angry. Natural consequences may be temper tantrums, outbursts, or incidents of anxiety.  Others might struggle to get motivated, or emotionally ready, to initiate boring tasks like studying or writing a paper.  Often times children with ADHD struggle to effectively evaluate the significance of a problem and self-regulate their emotional reaction to an undesirable situation. They can over-react to a minor problem or under-react to a major problem. They can see a project as too overwhelming to begin or as having all the time in the world to do the impossible.  Because of this, it is often necessary to teach children with ADHD how to manage their emotions when evaluating problems and to develop an understanding of what effect our emotional reactions have on those around us.

One helpful method to teach the correlation between problems and reactions was created by the Creative Counselor from Richmond, VA.  Through game play, students are taught to discuss a variety of problems and gauge their level of severity against each other.  A therapist/teacher can write a number of problems on index cards and play the game of “War” with the cards.  Whomever has the bigger problem, wins each round and all cards in it.  Discussion amongst students must occur to defend why the winner feels his problem is the ‘biggest’.  The player with the most cards at the end of the game, wins.

To reinforce these concepts after the War game, it is helpful to gauge problems versus reactions using a grid similar to the one below:

A problem intensity gauge for individuals with ADHD.
A problem intensity gauge for individuals with ADHD.

The teacher presents a problem to students and asks them to place a marker on the grid ranking the severity of the issue.  The teacher then creates a possible reaction to the problem from a hypothetical student…usually a drastic over or under reaction.  The student then puts a marker on the reaction and a discussion ensues about how the problem and reaction do not line up.  A few scenarios are practiced before students can then create their own more appropriate reactions to problems and issues.

Matching the size of reactions to the size of problems takes time, practice and repetition to master.  But with clear instruction we can help our students better understand the importance of doing it and help them to feel calmer and happier.

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