Just an Arm Around Their Shoulder

This morning as I was watching a lovely video by Irina Gorin, I was reminded of the words of Attention Deficit Disorder expert Edward Hallowell, the author of Driven to Distraction. (And eighteen other books including one on Worry that I am going to read next.)

I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Hallowell speak to a small group of teachers a few weeks ago here in San Francisco. I've been reading his books and following his writings for many years, but this was the first time I'd seen and heard him in person.

Ferrari and Bike.jpg

He described a person with ADD as having a Ferrari brain with bicycle brakes. Haven't we all taught a student like that?

Or a student with these symptoms?

  • Distractibility
  • Impulsiveness
  • Restlessness
  • Unexplained underachievement

He talked about how people with ADD only have two concepts of time: Now, and NOT now. As NOT now approaches, they self-medicate with adrenalin to get the job done. They live by chronic procrastination. 

Too often teachers don't stop to remind these students of what they're good at. Instead, they diagnose them as stupid and their treatment plan is to "try harder." Often these spunky kids have nowhere to shine. They get the good stuff beat out of them with the bad stuff.

Hallowell, who has ADD himself, told us a sweet story about his first grade teacher, Mrs. Tabor. As he sat in his first grade reading group, struggling to focus on the task at hand, Mrs. Tabor kept her arm around him. Her arm just stayed there letting him know that he was needed and loved. That powerful connection was all he needed.

He challenged us to mentor someone. To put our arm around them, figuratively AND literally, and THEN challenge them to demonstrate long-term achievement. With the support of a warm, personal connection, anything is possible. 

Irina Gorin is one of the warmest, loveliest teachers I've ever seen. In the video I linked to above, you can see her smiling as her student exuberantly plays straight to the top of the scale. (He should have turned around and gone back.) She smiles and gently shows him what he missed.

Irina has more than 600 videos on Youtube. Pick any one. In it, you will find that teacher Hallowell described. My favorite moments are when she almost imperceptibly redirects a student with a tiny touch on a shoulder or the lift of a hand. She's both subtle and brilliant. 

I hope we can all aspire to that. To mentoring someone. To being that kind person with our arm around a student's shoulder to help refocus and reassure them.

I know that I'm going to try. 

Which brings me to Irina Gorin.

All Behavior is Communication: ABC + Detective

There is no such thing as a typical piano student. No perfect piano students. There isn’t even a “right kind” of piano student.

There are only students.

Each one different, special, just the right kind.

Each and every student will behave in inconsistent ways.

On some days, your student Sasha will be delightful. Some days she will be a challenge. Sometimes she will amuse you with her humor. Others days she may not smile.

ABC: All Behavior is Communication.

One way to ignore the communication is to focus on yourself and your feelings about Sasha’s behavior. For instance, “I think the fact that Sasha is facing away from me and playing with the pencil while I’m trying to talk to her is SO annoying.” 

While it may be true that Sasha's behavior annoys you, as a teacher the only useful question to ask yourself is,  “Why is Sasha facing away from me and playing with the pencil?”

There is no judgment in this question. It’s simple and clear. Sasha is doing something that makes sense to her body at this place and time. Why?


This is when it gets interesting. The ABC’s of All Behavior is Communication also have a D.

It stands for Detective. This is the role you have the privilege of playing.

You must be the Detective who solves the mystery of why Sasha is facing away from you and playing with the pencil. 

Yes, you can cop out and tell yourself a lie like “Sasha is doing this because she’s just one of those kids. She’s a poorly behaved, coddled child. Kids these days.”

You can call your friends and commiserate about the lousy children of today. 

This will guarantee you a life of misery as you find more and more of these poorly behaved, rotten children filling up your afternoons.

Or, you can do the far more interesting detective work of finding out what her behavior means. 

Is she frustrated? Confused? Anxious? Overwhelmed? Hungry? Does she even understand the question you just asked her? Is she trying to distract you so that you won’t notice she doesn’t understand something?

Is she having trouble understanding the words you’re using? Does she do better when you do physical learning using things like magnets, white boards and puzzle erasers?


The possibilities are many and your job isn’t easy. If you aren’t interested in being this Detective, you might want to explore a career in lawn mower repair. (You'll still have to figure out what the lawn mower is trying to tell you when it won't start, but the lawn mower won't need therapy if you don't get it right.)

Me? I love being the Detective. I savor the thrill of unlocking a series of behaviors that don’t make sense to me. There’s a reason Sasha is doing what she’s doing. It's like she's speaking in code and I need to find the key. 

It would be an amazing world if a child could say, "I am feeling somewhat anxious when I hear you ask me a question too quickly using an overabundance of jargon. Because of this, I find it difficult to concentrate on your actual question and also, I don't like your perfume." 

Unfortunately, kids don't come into the world with those skills. We, as the responsible adults, have to help them unlock their own personal code so they can become the best learners they can be.

The next time your student Tom climbs off the bench and hides under it what will your response be? Will you dismiss him as a badly behaved child? Or will you become a Detective?

If you'd like to find out more about learning differences, I highly recommend the book The Mislabeled Child. It's a brilliant guide to the basics of learning differences and would be helpful to any parent or teacher.