Q&A: What are Islands of Competence?

 ADHD Weekly 2016-06-23

Question: I’ve heard the term islands of competence for children with ADHD, but I don’t understand what it means. Is it simply finding what your child is good at and focus just on that?

~ Mom in Virginia

Answer: The idea of islands of competence was originally proposed by Robert B. Brooks, PhD, as a metaphor for parents of children affected by ADHD to help their kids develop resilience, the ability to bounce back or recover quickly from difficulties.

“All children have strengths or islands of competence,” Dr. Brooks writes in Nurturing Islands of Competence: Is There Really Room for a Strength-Based Model in the Treatment of ADHD? “Adults must appreciate the strengths of each child and then spend time and energy to identify and use these strengths so each experiences success. Building strengths has a more potent, longer lasting impact than fixing deficits.”

Building resiliency is the goal of finding and reinforcing a child’s place where he or she succeeds, the island of competence. When a child knows she is successful in other areas of her life―perhaps in art, music, sports, scouting activities or other hobbies―she is better able to take on the challenges ADHD causes her in school or with classmates. Dr. Brooks writes that children who are resilient are hopeful and have learned they can solve problems and make a positive difference in their worlds.

Islands of competence help a child to build healthy self-esteem. Many children affected by ADHD have a low sense of self-worth, feel life is unfair for them, and struggle when there are setbacks. By building on a child’s islands of competence, she develops her self-esteem and knows that even if there is a setback in one area of life, it is not her whole life because she has experienced tangible success due to her particular island of strength.

So what influences a child’s resilience?

  • The child’s own personality and characteristics
  • The child’s family environment and support
  • The child’s community, including extended family, friends, and school

Each of these points help to shape the child by offering opportunities, nurturing relationships, teaching responsibility, and guiding decision making and problem solving.

What can you do help your child develop islands of competency and develop resilience?

  • Encourage your child to contribute at home, at school, and in activities outside of school. Contributing by using and developing her strengths helps a child gain a sense of pride and achievement. These tangible successes help to develop motivation and self-esteem in a child.
  • Teach decision-making and problem-solving skills to your children. Give them the opportunity to practice making simple decisions where they can see the results of their choices, but if they make a mistake, the results are not terrible. These safe decisions can build their confidence and get them in the habit of making thoughtful choices. Getting your kids to decide smaller things such as where the family goes for dinner or what to do next Saturday can build confidence for when they have to decide on bigger things in the future such as what school to go to or what job to take. Be encouraging and give positive feedback. Talking with children in a way that they feel special or important to that adult helps build self-esteem. Giving positive feedback, highlighting a child’s success, or noticing where real effort or improvement was made is important. Be specific and sincere in your praise.
  • Let your child make mistakes and help her learn how to correct them. Many times parents are afraid of their children being hurt by failure. Yet, when a child makes a mistake or fails, there is an opportunity for the child to evaluate what went wrong, look for a solution, and create a new plan. These are actions that build resilience and independence for a child. But if a child is fearful of making a mistake or becomes accustomed to a parent solving the problem for her, the chance to build resiliency and self-esteem is lost. A child who makes a mistake and finds a way to fix it will know that the next time she makes a mistake she has the ability to take corrective steps on her own and becomes more resilient when faced with a challenge.

“When we reflect on guideposts directing our treatment (of ADHD), we will learn that ‘fixing’ deficits plays an important daily role,” Dr. Books concludes, “but that the most impressive, long-lasting chances will result from using each child’s islands of competence to nurture a resilient mind set.”

This article appeared in ADHD Weekly on June 23, 2016.