Storytelling Helps Children with ADHD

Storytelling is a powerful way to reach, and to teach, people with ADHD. In fact, research suggests that telling stories or reading to children vastly improves comprehension when they read to themselves.

I'm a professional storyteller. I tell stories from classical literature and history on audio-recordings and in live presentations for young listeners. Often I hear from parents of children with ADHD that

"my child sits listening to your recordings for hours at a time, and s/he seems to absorb and understand more than usual. Why?"

While I have no specialized training in ADHD, I have been observing listeners at my live performances for more than 25 years, and I follow the research on the subject of stories and ADHD. I can offer two explanations for why children with ADHD tend to gain so much from storytelling.

  • Research shows that children with ADHD seem to have more problems figuring out causal relationships in stories, and retaining details, than do children in the more general population.[1]  When watching television programs or films, filmmakers don't connect the dots for people who don't do this naturally. In contrast, storytellers make motives and choices explicit.
  • Good storytelling models effective management for many challenges associated with ADHD. Stories are all about structure, recognizing and retaining information and interpersonal signals, and choosing ones actions to achieve certain results, the lack of which are common ADHD symptoms.

Since we know that children with ADHD tend to listen better to a story well told, following are some suggestions for how you can use stories to teach critical life skills to your children with ADHD.

7 Tips for Storytelling for Kids with ADHD

  1. When you tell a story, understand and use the essential structure that most stories follow. Stick to this central structure, minimizing extra details. Remember that you can organize history into stories, too, using this structure. These are the significant elements:
    • Identify a main character with specific traits, such as Hercules's strength.
    • Briefly explain time and place if these are not like your own, as different possibilities or rules may come into play.  You may need to repeat this as it comes into the story.
    • Something pushes the character(s) into the main action: Dorothy runs away from home while saving her dog Toto and they end up in Oz – confirming Dorothy's characteristic of helping friends who are in trouble.
    • There's a series of challenges or choices for our character, giving you the chance to state how one leads to the next.
    • The climax: does the character get a happy ending, an unhappy ending, or an unexpected happy ending?
    • Results for the character (once again, cause-and-effect time).
  2. Explain characters' motives and decisions even if these are not stated in the original story. (Note: when watching television programs or films with your child, don't assume your child can see causal relationships or remember details. You may need to make motives and choices clear.)
  3. Don't worry if your child wants to draw or play with a stuffed animal while listening. Right now you are programming him/her to concentrate on story structure, not the environment.
  4. If your child interrupts a story:
    • acknowledge him/her by saying “That's a great question/interesting idea.”
    • Answer it as briefly and as simply as possible.
    • Or say, “Wait a few minutes and it will be clear.”
    • Then, at the appropriate time, be sure to say, “There's the answer to your comment/question.”
    • If the child's interruption seems unconnected to the story, minimize your response to return the focus to the story.
  5. Try including a repetitive phrase or sound effect in the story and invite your child to say it with you. This keeps her/him attentive, waiting for the chance to chime in.
  6. Make “story time” special by introducing it with a little rhyme or song at start and finish, or a sound effect such as a tambourine or rain stick.
  7. Don't make every story a lesson. Make sure that stories remain pleasurable and don't become associated with “work.” When you do go for the story's lesson, try these two tips:
    • Pause when the character is making a choice and ask, "What do you think s/he could do now?"  Even if the answer is not what you were seeking, you are planting the concept that a reason exists.
    • As your child progresses, you might ask at story's end, "Do you think s/he did the right thing?" or “What else could she have done?" If your child doesn't know, gently and briefly answer it yourself, or ask, “What if s/he had done this instead?”

These seven tips offer a proven way to increase the usefulness of stories and address the challenges of ADHD. And remember, have fun with this. It can be as much fun to tell a good story as it can be to hear it!

[1] University of Kentucky professors Elizabeth Lorch and Richard Milich.

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