What Teachers Really Know About Kids with ADHD

Hot topic of the week: “ Why doesn’t my child’s teacher ‘get it?’ ”  “Why doesn’t she understand how ADHD really impacts my child  – that he is not lazy, unmotivated, nor intentionally manipulative?”   I know this opens up a whole set of emotions for many parents out there, so before I go any further, I must clarify two important issues.

First, teachers are individuals, each with their background, knowledge, and experience.  While unfortunately, many parents and children have had negative experiences with some teachers, there are also many teachers who have, through their compassion, knowledge, and methods, opened the door to learning and personal growth in ways that have been life-changing.  Most teachers go into their profession with the intention of enlightening the lives of the children they touch.

Which leads me to the second issue.  Most teachers, especially general education teachers, are not specifically taught how to recognize ADHD, or how to teach and support children with ADHD.  They may receive a general overview of the symptoms, but they are not given extensive education about the many issues involved in supporting a child with ADHD.

It is this second issue that creates the greatest concern and potentially devastating impact on children.  Here are some of the concerns it raises:

ADHD involves a great deal more than impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattentiveness.   It impacts many areas of learning, including their ability to manage their materials, time, emotions, and productivity.  Without a full understanding of how ADHD is impacting the specific child in the classroom, a teacher might, unknowingly or unintentionally, make assumptions that are false about that child.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 9.5% or 5.4 million children, 4-17 years of age, have ADHD.  By and large, these children are in the regular education classes.  That means that each regular education class probably has at least one child with ADHD in the classroom.

Along with ADHD, there are often co-existing conditions which can complicate the learning in ways that a teacher may not realize.  For example, depression and anxiety may be playing a role in the child’s life, and this may not appear evident in the classroom.
Many parents look to their children’s teachers for advice and guidance regarding their children’s development and education.  In fact, a recent survey conducted by Parents Magazine and The Child Mind Institute found that a staggering 83% of parents said that they would want their child’s teacher to tell them if he thought their child should be evaluated for a psychiatric or learning disorder.  (Parents Magazine, May 2012, “Attitudes About Children’s Mental Health”).  While experienced teachers may be in a position to notice atypical behavior or performance in a child, without the proper knowledge or training, they must tread very lightly in what and how they communicate to a parent.  Their observations are helpful, in fact, they are a valuable component to the diagnostic process.  However, they must make it clear to any parent that they are NOT qualified to diagnose, and that their observations are within the limited scope of the classroom.

I propose two specific remedies.  The first involves you, the parents of these magnificent children.  As you approach your teacher to discuss your child, keep in mind the following:  This is the person who is with your child each and every school day.  Empathize with the fact that they are responsible for managing and supporting not just your child, but also a whole classroom of children.  Even if you suspect otherwise, approach them with the attitude that they want to help and that you value their insights.  However, although they may have the best intentions, they may not yet understand how to help your child, and in fact may be unknowingly frustrating, alienating and perhaps even harming your child.   If repeated experience with this teacher leads you to conclude that they are not supportive of your efforts to collaborate, then you may want to involve the guidance counselor or school principal.

The second remedy involves educating the teacher.  For many parents, this is a real awakening – the recognition and acceptance that, for better or worse, your child’s teacher does not really know how to best help your child.  So much of what we know about ADHD and how to treat it effectively, we learned within the last decade.  You, as parent, have had to become an expert in ADHD and your child.  With due respect, and without judgment, request to share with the teacher some of the knowledge, tools, and strategies you have learned.  There are wonderfully written resources available that you can share with your teacher (and I am always happy to accompany you to teacher meetings armed with lots of tools and strategies), but no one besides you can create the shift and reframing necessary for your teacher to see your child through the lens of compassion and insight into the challenges your child faces like you, the parent, can.

Invite them to ask you for insights about behavior that may seem frustrating or illogical.  You must help the teacher understand why certain accommodations and modifications are truly beneficial.  For example, having “note taking” as a goal may be more frustrating than helpful at certain stages of development.   Providing a set of class notes for your child allows him to focus on the teacher since his working memory makes the act of writing while listening too challenging.  If appropriate, you can explain the impact medication has on your child (for example, that perhaps your child isn’t ready to eat during lunch but may really benefit from a power snack around 2 pm as the meds wear off, or the fact that the end of the day might be particularly challenging for your child to learn new material or remember to pack up properly).

For a true, systemic change to take place in the education of children with ADHD, we will need our teaching colleges to mandate a more in-depth training of new general education teachers regarding the latest research on ADHD and the best practices for teaching and supporting these children.  We also need our current teachers to be provided with in-service training regarding the same.  I welcome the opportunity to speak to any group of current or future teachers who will have me

ADHD is a neurobiological disorder.  It is not an excuse for poor behavior, and it is not the result of poor parenting.  Yet, unfortunately, I still hear many stories from children and parents that their teachers do not “believe” or “understand” that the challenges the children face in the classroom and with homework are not fully under the child’s control.  If they could… they would.  Please feel free to share your stories on my Facebook page [www.facebook.com/PTSCoaching].  I ask that you do not include teacher’s names or identifying information.  The purpose of sharing is to shed light on the misconceptions teachers may have and the impact – both positive and negative – that they can have on children.

Keep in mind – kids do well IF THEY CAN.  If not, it’s up to the adults in their world to help them figure out why and to help them succeed – either by helping the children develop the skills, or modifying the expectations or environment until they can.  Teachers are on the frontline of education – we must ensure that they are well equipped with knowledge, skills, and strategies to support all children.

RELATED ARTICLE:  12 Things Kids with ADHD Would like Their Teachers to Know

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