March 2013

Post image for Book Review: Square Peg by L. Todd Rose and Katherine Ellison

Book Review I recently finished reading Square Peg by L. Todd Rose, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a man with a first-hand account of what it can be like to grow up with ADHD. Working with Rose is Katherine Ellison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author with her own experience of having ADHD. While the book is partly Rose’s memoir, it’s also a well thought-out argument for change in the American education system. In my own opinion, Rose’s story is reason for parents of kids with ADHD to have hope.

Throughout his narrative, Rose makes a compelling case for the need to change America’s classrooms from the traditional “one type of learning fits all” approach, which clearly doesn’t work, into a more fluid environment that can adapt to individual learners, bringing out their full potential in an environment that works with them, not against them. While reading this book, three main ideas resonated with me.

Context Square Peg Book Review ADHD

Rose maintains that with regard to learning disabilities in general, and ADHD in particular, context is everything. Yes, ADHD can be difficult to control and can make learning challenging because focusing is so difficult. However, if you give kids with ADHD a learning environment where:

  • they can ask questions that pop in their heads without fear of being shot down or told to be quiet;
  • they don’t have to be so concerned with not being a distraction for someone else that they can’t concentrate on what they’re supposed to be learning; and
  • information is available in several different formats so that each child can learn in the “language” he or she understands,

then the learning “disability” truly becomes just a difference. Often, learning differences are only disabilities or disorders within the context of the traditional, rigid classroom system.

Emotion

Rose believes that emotions play a bigger part in education than previously imagined. When a child is continually worried about acting out in class and getting punished, being bullied by peers, and how their parents will respond to their behavior in school and at home, there is an actual physical response that inhibits learning. This response — the releasing of cortisol, a stress hormone — into the brain, can ultimately damage parts of the brain responsible for memory and attention, causing a devastating cycle of failure for a child with ADHD. Minimizing this threat response should be a main priority when educating kids with learning disabilities–indeed, when educating all children.

Adult Support and Encouragement

Parents are the most important adults in any child’s life, but children with ADHD or other learning disabilities are often at odds with their parents because of their differences. Rose credits his mom with always supporting him, even when he caused lots (and I mean lots) of trouble. She believed he needed to always have somebody in his corner, and that since his behavior usually pushed everyone else away, it was going to be her. This determination brought his mom lots of heartache, and even a loss of friends, but she never backed down, and she always let him know he was loved. This helped form a foundation for Rose that, once he was grown, gave him the belief that he could succeed and the will to try.

Rose also suggests that kids should have at least one adult outside their family who can be a mentor and give validation to a child’s efforts.

My Thoughts

I really enjoyed reading this book. It is well written, and I particularly enjoyed the “Big Ideas” and “Action Item” lists at the end of each chaper. I was alternately shocked and mortified at both Rose’s behavior and the responses of the adults around him. I was struck by how his life was shaped not so much by the things he did, but by how people responded to what he did. It makes me that much more determined to be a positive example for my own kids, and to respond to them with patience and love.

Although both of my kids have ADHD, they don’t have the rampant behavior issues that Rose struggled with. Whether that’s primarily because my kids are girls and ADHD manifests itself differently than with boys, or simply because of personality differences, I don’t know. Ultimately, though, I’m reminded that part of my responsibility as their parent is to help guide them through their struggles that make learning, and fitting in, so difficult.

As we’ve used a virtual homeschool to educate our girls these last two years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the idea that Rose puts into words: that disability can depend on environment. My kids struggled to learn in a traditional classroom. While it was easy to see that M-bug was very behind in school, Bubbles hid it very well behind her happy, friendly, bubbly and hyperactive personality. It wasn’t until we brought our girls home for school that it became evident how much she hadn’t learned. Now, however, they are both learning. I think this is partly because they’re in a less distracting environment, but also because they have the time they need to get a concept down before moving on.

I am excited about the digital curriculum that Rose has been working on, and agree, based on our own experiences, that it can be a game changer for kids with learning disabilities. However, like Rose, I believe digital curricula only work when coupled with the direction of good teachers. That’s part of why, once our family moves to Texas in the next few weeks, we’re switching to traditional homeschooling. Virtual homeschool has been good, and our kids have real-life teachers that are available to help when they need it, but it’s not the same as having immediate help and explanation from a real, on-site person.

This book gives parents of kids with ADHD hope, not only because of new research, or training and curriculum available to teachers, but also in the example of Todd Rose himself. Because if he could live through what he lived through and succeed, our kids can, too.

You can buy the book here:  Square Peg @ Amazon.com.

I have one copy of the book to give away! Just leave me a comment by March 24 for a chance to win. Be sure to put your correct email when leaving your comment, because I’ll contact the winner by email. The book can be mailed to US and Canada only, no P.O. Boxes.

UPDATE 4/8:  Random.org picked April as the winner of a copy of Square Peg. Congrats, April!

About the Authors:

L. Todd Rose is a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he teaches a course on educational neuroscience. He is also co-chair of the Connecting the Mind, Brain, and Education institute at Harvard.

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent and author of five books, including Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, a memoir of a year after both she and her son were diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.