“The True Value of ADHD Side Quests, Rabbit Holes, and Tangents”

A colleague recently sent me a meme that compared living with ADHD to constantly choosing to play a video game’s side quests – optional missions that are not required to complete the game – over its main quest. I laughed at the meme and reflected on the side quests and non-linear paths I’ve pursued in my own life, in and out of my career as a teacher.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve learned to sew and knit mittens, bake bread, bake sourdough bread (a completely different process), decorate cakes, cook and preserve a variety of foods, make candles, craft homemade lip balm and lotion, and edit with Photoshop. I volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters, ran four half marathons and three full marathons, did a triathlon, and a (maybe ill-advised) mountain race, all as I earned a master’s degree.

I’m on a side quest right now. I am writing a biology unit even though my school doesn’t currently offer a biology class. Should I devote my time to other lessons? Probably. But I tend to plan my lessons as they come to me. I’ve learned that my best work comes when I follow my creative instincts. Even if I forced myself to work linearly, I know it would result in subpar lesson plans.

[Read: Why the ADHD Brain Chooses the Less Important Task]

I don’t list these side quests, many of which I consider accomplishments, to brag, (I am not particularly good at any of the above) but to emphasize that if anyone knows about ADHD side quests – the good and the not-so-good parts of them – it’s me. I can’t tell you how many times I’d set out to do something, like clean my kitchen, only to spend that time doing anything but, like perfecting my baking skills. As frustrating as it is to stray from my intentions (I ended up with yummy bread and a dirtier kitchen), I firmly believe that all the side quests I’ve embarked on have served me in the long run. I also know that this breadth of learning is only possible when I lean into my ADHD.

What’s Life – and Learning – Without Side Quests?

While funny, the ADHD meme suggests that side quests and non-linear paths are ultimately wasteful. It’s a mentality I see in the field of education, which is quick to discourage and even punish side quests and non-linear approaches. Students are largely taught to complete the main quest using only a handful of accepted procedures, without room for detours. It’s a mentality that negatively affects students who learn differently, including students with ADHD, who come to learn to view their condition as an impediment to academic success.

Side quests, I say, are not wasteful. Even within video games, you can earn rewards for playing side quests and gain skills that eventually aid in completing the main quest. If you shut off the game after finishing a handful of side quests, without so much as attempting the main quest, you would still consider it a success, if not a good time.

How can we bring this approach to learning? I have a few ideas.

[Read: Stifled Creativity and Its Damaging Impact on the ADHD Brain]

1. Recognize that success and learning come in many forms. Point A to Point B may work for some students, but some of us need to stop at Points C through F, with a layover at stoichiometry and a quick detour to the American Revolution.

2. Provide opportunities to go down the rabbit hole. We should encourage students to take tangents and scratch those exploratory itches. My students get two days at the end of each term for digging deeper into a topic that was particularly interesting to them and then sharing with the class. It’s an opportunity to hyperfocus that also increases engagement, and it teaches students to view tangents and side quests in a positive light.

3. Reframe mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning. Mistakes and snags are part of learning (we can even consider them as side quests of their own), but it’s not always pleasant to brush up against them, whether they happen on side quests or the main quest. Take a page from video games, where failure doesn’t really exist and mistakes aren’t the end of the world. You may lose the round, but you’re allowed to play and play, using what you’ve learned until you get it right and move on to the next level.

How to Engage Students: Next Steps

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