ADHD SuperTraits


Linda Theron

This article is from the ADHASA Resource book, Teaching and ADHD in the Southern African School. (Macmillan)

Life is tough for many children and adolescents. They may have difficulty because they:

  • live in fragmented families
  • live in poverty
  • suffer abuse
  • struggle at school
  • feel excluded from their peer group
  • have parents who are HIV positive, or are HIV positive themselves and therefore must deal with ongoing illness and even death.
  • are orphaned and live in child-headed households

Schools and the community have an important role to play in helping learners to manage these difficulties. 

Each child has unique challenges.  These depend on their home and community.  Even children who appear to have the ideal life face challenges that seem enormous to them. Many don’t cope, and react in ways which create further difficulties: such as substance abuse problems, depression and avoiding responsibility. Some, however, do cope and avoid developing difficulties, despite negative circumstances. Those who cope are thought to be resilient.

For resilience to be identified two criteria are required:

  • Risk: this could be a developmental threat, exposure to harsh conditions, or trauma. The more challenges faced by the individual at one time, the greater the risk.
  • Triumph over the risk: that is good adjustment or coping.

In other words, for someone to be described as resilient, they need to have faced significant difficulty and have coped and to be able to continue doing so in the future.

AD/HD poses a threat to smooth development, effective learning and positive social experiences. The risk faced by children or adolescents with AD/HD is heightened when they experience additional challenges such as a specific learning difficulty, poverty, unsupportive parents or educators.  When they cope, despite all their challenges, they are identified as resilient.

What characteristics are typical of the resilient learner?
Resilient learners, including those with AD/HD, tend to have the following qualities. 

  • Moderately positive self-concept.  This includes an affirming attitude towards themselves, and positive self-talk.
  • Positive attitude.  The ability to remain cheerful and optimistic.
  • Positive future orientation.  Tenacity, orientation to achievement, and optimism about the future.
  • Assertiveness.  Autonomous functioning, independent-minded, and the ability to stand up for personal rights in a socially appropriate manner.
  • Enthusiasm and spontaneity.
  • Drive.  A curiosity about life, as well as tenacity and creative problem-solving ability.  Drive is also associated with a healthy tension to achieve goals.
  • Good interpersonal relationships.  Sociable and able to derive optimal benefit from social interaction. Empathetic and open to loving relationships.
  • Internal locus of control.  Asense of authorship or choice over one’s destiny, even if this control is only in their own attitude.
  • Moderate anxiety.  Sensitivity and a sense of obligation, which translates into increased drive and a sense of responsibility.

What are the typical characteristics when resilience is lacking?
Learners who are not resilient are vulnerable to what life throws at them. They struggle to cope and typically show the following:

  • Little or no self-pride. Few accomplishments, skills and little expertise of which they are proud; or lack of pride in achievements.
  • Little or no indication of belonging or attachment to individuals, groups and institutions;
  • A sense of powerlessness and a pervasively negative attitude;
  • Passivity, dependence, or both.
  • An external locus of control: ‘This world is against me and there’s nothing I can do to change that!’
  • A negative view of the future, or an inability to imagine it.

What leads to resilience?
It used to be thought that resilience was due to individual characteristics such as those above. More recent research suggests that resilience is more complicated.  It comes about in the interaction between the individual and their world including family, school, culture.

We can help to lesson risk in the school with:

  • a safe learning environment
  • accessible, interested educators
  • realistic academic expectations
  • low educator-learner ratios
  • a curriculum relevant to life
  • teaching of relevant life skills
  • empathy and understanding for learners
  • accommodation of special needs, including AD/HD
  • consistent leadership
  • consistent, transparent disciplinary procedures
  • acceptance of individual differences

These protective factors empower children and adolescents to:

  • behave proactively
  • make active decisions rather than passively accept whatever comes
  • accept responsibility for their own decisions
  • be assertive
  • request appropriate help
  • appreciate personal ability and tolerate inability
  • be realistically self-motivated
  • know when to persevere and when not
  • have a generally upbeat attitude to life
  • develop effective stress management strategies
  • enjoy caring relationships
  • have realistically positive expectations
  • enjoy a meaningful life

How can educators make a difference?
Resilient individuals have usually had at least one interested, motivating person in their lives. Often this is an educator. Educators can make a difference by caring and being interested, and conveying their compassionate interest.

  • Strive for a positive relationship with our learners.  A good relationship will allows us to encourage learners to do their best. It also provides opportunity for discussion about the risks learners’ experience, and alternatives they can use to overcome them.
  • Care!
  • Demonstrate acceptance of your learners. Acceptance hinges on empathy and understanding. To truly understand our learners we need knowledge. Joining support groups, accessing reputable internet sites and reading relevant journals help provide the resources we need. The knowledge we gain helps us to provide information and support to learners.
  • Care some more!
  • Love the job! Enthusiastic educators motivate and set realistic goals for learners. Realistic goals keep learners with AD/HD oriented towards the future.
  • Care even when it feels pointless!
  • Maintain a positive learning environment which allows for democracy, respect, caring and acceptance. This will encourage our learners to have a positive attitude; and we create the opportunity for good relationships. Thorough preparation and clear class rules create an environment that fosters a positive self-concept and group-concept.
  • Care actively!
  • Include real-life scenarios and current issues in lessons where possible. Doing so will enrich your learners and teach them relevant information empowering them to cope with real life. Use interactive methods which encourage learner participation – this keeps learners involved and allows them to learn from one another. Learners gain skills in working together and listening to other opinions.
  • Care (even on Mondays)!
  • Give learners the chance to feel good, and to experience success. Learners with AD/HD frequently experience failure.  Chances to be successful will build a more positive self-concept, increase drive and gradually build an internal locus of control.
  • Care unconditionally!
  • Be a trusted source of support.  Learners who feel supported have the courage to cope with obstacles and the resolve to persevere.
  • And, keep caring!

Resilience provides hope.  It comes about in the interaction between learners and their world.  When we change our schools to be learner-centred, we inspire resilient functioning in learners. Resilience is a process and we, as educators, have the power to shape the process for the better.
 “Our lives are a continuing journey - and we must learn and grow at every bend as we make our way, sometimes stumbling, but always moving toward the finest within us.” McGinnis’ (1990: 93)

  • Books for schools:

Resiliency: What We Have Learned (Paperback)
by Bonnie Benard
Resiliency in Schools: Making It Happen for Students and Educators, Updated Edition (1-Off) (Paperback)
by Nan Henderson, Mike M. Milstein
Resiliency : Expecting All Students to Use Their Minds and Hearts Well (Paperback)
by Martin L. Krovetz
Building Resilient Students : Integrating Resiliency Into What You Already Know and Do (Paperback)
by Kate Thomsen


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