Interviewer with ADHD

Barbara Allen's picture

Dear all,

When a student with ADHD is learning how to carry out oral history interviews, how might he/she adjust the conditions for the interview in order to focus his/her attention on the interviewee and avoid interrupting?

Regards,
Barbara

Categories: Discussion
Keywords: interviewer

Hi Barbara,

It’s really cool to see someone asking this question. If you could email me at samuel.r.robson@gmail.com, that would be great. I have my own techniques which I can talk about, but one thing I’d definitely tell the student is that if they can develop a way (or ways) to maintain focus in an interview, their ADHD might turn into a tremendous asset for them.

All best,
Sam

Hi Barbara,

I have ADHD and I've done a good number of oral history interviews.

I find the following to be very helpful:

  • making sure the interview space is as quiet as possible (both good for the recording and for your concentration).
  • taking notes as you listen to keep your mind from wandering. (It's also good for jotting down follow-up questions so you're not interrupting.)
  • sitting where there aren't going to be lots of visual distractions, such as people walking by or your phone lighting up. I prefer to sit with my back to the door.

Remember that sitting and listening is difficult for everyone, not just you. Your ADHD can be a gift; you may be more able to follow an interviewee who goes off on a tangent that's valuable and also be more aware how to bring a person back to the topic gracefully. When I find my attention starting to wander, I find taking a sip of very cool water can help my mind feel refreshed. Having a very detailed checklist for setting up at the beginning (adjust lighting, turn off phone, set recorder to record, open extra battery pack, etc.) can be extremely useful. Practicing active listening prior to conducting an interview was also helpful for me.

Best,
Hillary

Hello! I think this is such an important discussion. I reached out to my sister who has years of experience working with students in special ed classrooms, and asked about how she might adjust a lesson on oral history fieldwork for students with ADHD. I've copied her response and suggested resources below.

To comment on one suggestion she makes about changing the interview pacing: I think many oral historians have placed an emphasis on a style of interviewing that requires the interviewer to speak as rarely as possible and listen quietly while the narrator talks. However, this is far from the only way to interview someone well. There are many good ways to get detailed and informative answers with many short questions, active dialogue, and -- yes -- even closed questions. One thing I used to do back when I was doing personal history work was to break down a larger question into a series of very specific questions to help narrators access clear memories and emotional responses. For example, the broader question "Tell me about your father" could be broken down like this:

  • What is something your father taught you that is still important to you today?
  • How was your father different from the fathers of your friends?
  • How do you think your father's friends will remember him?

It helps to write all these questions out in advance, organize them according to a clear structure so you don't lose track, bring them with you, and check them off as you go. If your mind wanders, don't worry. Trust that the recorder (bring a backup recorder) got everything. You can listen to it later, take notes, and schedule a follow-up interview with another list of questions.

And now, my sister's response.

Accommodations: Change the interview format. Have the student meet with the interviewee, explain their interests/goals as an interviewer, and/or give the interviewee pre-written questions (5-7 minutes). Then have the student give the interviewee a camera or a mic. The student should show their interviewee how to work the tech, then the interviewee should leave and let the interviewee interview themselves. The student should let their interviewee know they will return periodically (set a timer) to check in and answer questions. At the end, the student should warmly thank the interviewee and let them know they will follow up if there is a need (e.g. for more information, etc.).

Modifications: Change pacing or materials to make the traditional interview more manageable.

Pacing: The student can let the interviewee know in advance that the pacing will be different than a traditional interview. For example, the student may decide they prefer to ask quick, short questions in a sequence, or they may decide that they prefer to interrupt the interviewee with follow-up questions. Whatever they decide, it helps to let the interviewee know in advance what to expect.

Materials: The student can design questions that control the interview so that it better fits their style and purpose. For example, instead of asking a prompt/question that would solicit a long-winded response (e.g. Describe a time when you first noticed your race), they may design questions that prompt short responses (e.g. About how old where you when you first noticed race? Where were you? Who were you with? How did it happen? Did you talk with someone about it afterwards?).

ADHD is expressed in lots of different ways. Without knowing the student, it's hard to give anything more specific than what I've described above.

Here are some resources:

  • The ADD/ADHD Checklist by Sandra F. Rief. This book is for teachers and assumes the teacher is the "sage on the stage" rather than the "guide on the side." In other words, the checklists don't include a lot of advice for awesome teachers who are trying to help their students be leaders (and interviewers). But the strategies it includes are good and it's good for quick references.
  • The ADD Book, by William Sears and Lynda Thompson. This book is for parents, but it has some great information in Chapter 5, "Strategies for Improving Behavior," that are great. They are personal, they respect the child, and they give the child control over their life by structuring their environment in predictable ways and teaching them strategies for planning ahead (e.g. a play-by-play breakdown of the activity that can't be modified or accommodated).
  • Classroom Success by Suzanne H. Stevens. This book is more dense than the others. It reads like a novel, but that's because it goes into detail -- with scripts and extensive examples -- of what behavior management strategies look like, sound like, etc. It was super useful when I was learning (I'm still learning) to manage student behavior. It gives examples of what to say to the kid, how to structure the environment, and how to use praise and to be firm. It's good stuff, but I'm pretty sure no one (aside from PhDs) reads it.

Thank you, Hillary. My student was encouraged by your response.

Barbara

Because this is a forum on oral history and not interviewing, I want to address one of the recommendations from an otherwise sound post.

"Accommodations: Change the interview format. Have the student meet with the interviewee, explain their interests/goals as an interviewer, and/or give the interviewee pre-written questions (5-7 minimum). Then have the student give the interviewee a camera or a mic. The student should show their interviewee how to work the tech, then the interviewee should leave and let the interviewee interview themselves. The student should let their interviewee know they will return periodically (set a timer) to check in and answer questions. At the end, the student should warmly thank the interviewee and let them know they will follow up if there is a need (e.g. for more information, etc.)."

This would be a reasonable alternative to extract information from the person of interest. It would not, per the OHA definition or any other definition I'm aware of, be an oral history interview. If your student chooses this option, the student should be so informed.

I respectfully disagree with William. Oral history interviews are distinct from other ways of recording history because there is dialogue and exchange between interviewers and narrators. However, I would caution all oral historians not to define "dialogue" so narrowly as to exclude people with disabilities or people with limited agency or access to each other. Dialogue does not have to be spoken (e.g. sign language), and it does not have to be in person (e.g. written correspondence where recording equipment or visitation may be restricted).

The key elements of dialogue are exchange, response, and co-creation. In the example given by my sister, the narrator could record answers to questions provided by the interviewer, but then the interviewer should take time to review the answers, reflect, and develop follow-up questions that could further draw out valuable meaning and memory from the narrator. This can be repeated as many times as needed. In this way the student / interviewer can strive to create a new historical record that could never have existed without their input and guidance. That is oral history in a nutshell.

William Buie,

I agree that this recommendation relayed from a precollegiate teacher does not fit the definition of oral history and does not suit the project requirements in my graduate-level class. I have not shared it with my student, although I appreciate the helpfulness of the person who posted it. Thanks for taking the time to make your important point.

Best,
Barbara

Hi friends,

I am a little flummoxed by these postings. And a little worried about discrimination. Isn't it illegal, since the passage of the ADA, to suggest that differently abled/labeled people be prevented from participating in normal activities: like an oral history, say. In our (Columbia University's Center for Oral History) shop, we undertook a feminist oral history project with Barnard's Center for Research on Women with people (and interviewers) living with disabilities, multiple disabilities. One thing we found is that those interviewers "with" disabilities (whether they matched the disability of the narrator or not) were far better and more effective than temporarily abled people, with either visible or invisible disabilities.

Research shows that, in general, people living with disabilities and their offspring are "more" sensitive, intuitive, empathetic, and truly curious than temporarily abled types. I am quite certain that some of our very best interviewers have that very human range of differences--biological, neurological, and emotional--that make us human beings: capable of understanding, standing with, those we interview.

Liz, I thought your advice was amazing (by the way, Liz Strong is perhaps one of the most talented interviewers I have ever personally experienced, so take her advice). Thank you for that creative and rigorous posting.

They didn't have ADHD testing when I was young, but I was so active physically (mentally) and all over the place that they couldn't have caught me to sit down and take a test. I made straight As but every report card said, "She does things her own way, doesn't follow rules, and needs to jump up and down a lot..." Well, I guess that was kind of a test.

To end on a less polarizing note, I offer up a story that has helped me train all kinds of super active (mentally and physically) interviewers. Note: this may not be up to standard for a graduate curriculum in oral history, but I teach it anyway. "When you want to talk, just do this. Pinch yourself under your knees as hard as you can. Do it over and over until you never want to interrupt!" Bruising, but it works!

Mary Marshall Clark