Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) can learn -- often as well as many of their classmates -- but when they struggle to manage their symptoms, they flounder in the classroom. One of my students, Joseph, was an active, creative 10-year-old, but before he received the appropriate ADD/ADHD treatments and ADD/ADHD school and classroom accommodations, he frequently called out in class and changed gears arbitrarily. He would gather his scattered materials and chat with his classmates when he should have been working on an assignment. It was hard for him to settle down and focus on homework or classwork. He lagged behind his peers in everything that required executive function skills.
How can parents and teachers help kids like Joseph? Although medication is widely used as a first-line treatment for ADD/ADHD, a Consumer Reports survey of 934 parents, conducted last year, indicates that the second most effective approach is having a child move to a school better suited to children with ADD/ADHD. Many kids benefited from a fresh start and another chance to succeed academically.
ADD/ADHD Success in the Classroom
Since Joseph was doing grade-level work, I struggled over the decision to recommend transferring him to another school. I didn't want to separate him from his peer group or his neighborhood buddies, but Joseph's parents were adamant about his changing schools. When they found a mainstream private school, with smaller classes and more hands-on learning and active participation, they jumped at the chance to have Joseph start fifth grade with a clean slate.
"We love our neighborhood school, but Joseph is smart, and the school wouldn't consider putting him in the gifted and talented program because he doesn't follow directions, has bad handwriting, and sometimes can't find his stuff," said his parents, debating whether Joseph should remain in his old school. "He's better than he was last year, but the teachers talk to each other, and we think he was targeted as a busybody. They were too frustrated, it seemed, to help him."
The transition made a big difference for Joseph, because his parents, his teachers, and he understood his strengths and weaknesses. Joseph did well at his new school, and he made new friends. He maintained old friendships by staying involved in activities, like a weekly dinner at a local pizza shop and playing baseball in the Saturday league.
Accommodating ADD/ADHD Symptoms in the Classroom
Sometimes changing classrooms or schools is more complicated. Last year, a teacher told Leslie's parents that Leslie was overactive and more disruptive than any of the other third-graders. Leslie's parents told me they were concerned that their daughter was being targeted, because she wasn't compliant and quiet. They asked that Leslie change classes and work with a teacher who might be a better match. The problem was, the teacher they found was at another elementary school, and Leslie balked at leaving her friends at her old school.
When I evaluated Leslie, I found that, even though she was active and restless, she didn't have learning problems. Since she had not been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, it was unclear whether a different teacher would help her.
In an effort to keep Leslie at her current school, I recommended parent training. Leslie's parents learned to give praise and to set limits. After a month, her parents gave us feedback: "We've learned tricks to manage Leslie's behavior," they said. "Now why can't the teacher acquire the same skills?"
After consulting a legal advocate, and talking with teachers and school administrators several times, we were able to initiate ADD/ADHD classroom accommodations, including a 504 Plan, that involved bringing a behavioral psychologist to Leslie's classroom once each week, for six weeks, to train the teacher in behavior management techniques. Leslie's parents, like Joseph's, had a clear picture of their child's needs, and they advocated for appropriate intervention with a teacher who was a willing partner.
Children with behavioral problems are often eligible for small-group instruction. In many cases, parents may also request that a child's teacher or a specialist implement changes in the classroom, such as giving the child one instruction at a time or allowing the child short breaks to recoup her energy and concentration. Leslie benefited from the training her teacher received.
Changing schools can work wonders for struggling students who have ADD/ADHD. But it isn't the solution for all kids. Arming yourself with information about your child's specific symptoms will empower you and your child's team at school to build an education plan that works.