When entrepreneur and Woodrow Wilson School MPA gradate Neil Peterson *67 learned that his daughter had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), his life trajectory shifted.
“I sort of went on this mad binge to learn everything I could about it,” said Peterson. The symptoms — which include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity — struck him as eerily familiar, and not just because he had observed them in both of his children. He learned that ADHD is highly hereditary, and he traced the disorder back to his own childhood struggles. The self-diagnosis that followed his daughter’s official diagnosis brought guilt, but also clarity about the past. “Knowing you have it doesn’t solve any problems,” he said. “But it explains so much.”
To address the family condition, the Petersons experimented with diets, medications, sleep regimens, specially colored notebooks, verbal dictation software, and specialty watches. They discovered for themselves what worked and what didn’t. Soon after Peterson sold his car-share company — now known as Zipcar — his daughter suggested that he use his newfound time, and the lessons they had learned together, to help other children who struggle with ADHD.
In 2006, Peterson started Edge Foundation, a nonprofit that coaches young people with ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. Thirteen years later, Edge Foundation works in 40 schools nationwide, training educators and working directly with low-performing students.
These students tend to struggle with “executive functions,” a set of skills that include, according to Peterson, “the ability to control your own emotions, the ability to plan and prioritize, the ability to follow through, and the ability to change when things don’t go well.” Peterson believes that these students often hold great potential but struggle to harness it.
To address these issues, Edge Foundation provides, and trains teachers to provide, weekly 20-minute, one-on-one coaching sessions. Edge coaches let students set the agenda for each meeting, and discussions often focus on relationship problems or home life rather than school work. The coaches do not advise, but rather use non-directive techniques to help students think through problems, brainstorm solutions, and hold themselves accountable for making progress.
“At the end of the 20 minutes, the identification of the problem, the identification of the goal, the identification of the strategies, and the system of accountability are all coming out of the young person’s mouth,” said Peterson. He believes that this self-directed process helps students develop a sense of agency and confidence in approaching problems that might otherwise seem overwhelming.
“It’s not just for kids who have ADHD,” said Caprice Young, former superintendent of Magnolia Public Schools, a group of 10 charter schools in Southern California. “It works with all of the students that I’ve had, and especially with the students who have not been raised in a household where they’re taught things like how to make a plan, or how to do backward mapping from goals.”
In 2015, Young told Magnolia principals that she would provide funds for them to try working with Edge for a semester. Two schools accepted the offer and saw instant results. The following year all 10 schools found room in their budgets to partner with Edge.
Young now works as national superintendent at Learn4Life Network, a group of nonprofit learning centers that collectively offer educational opportunities to tens of thousands of students who, for various reasons, left high school before graduating. Learn4Life recently began contracting with Edge. “I think coaching these students in the executive functioning skills is going to be transformative for them in the same way that it was for my Magnolia kids,” Young said.