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Dear ADDitude: My Son’s Teacher Wants Him to “Just Focus”

“One-fourth of my child’s grade is based on his ability to ‘focus for the entire period without reminders to stay on task.’ Since cue-to-focus is an accommodation my child needs due to diagnosed ADHD, this feels like disability discrimination. What can I do?”

ADDitude Answers

It sounds like this requirement contradicts what is in your child’s IEP. A good place to start is to talk to your child’s teacher, understanding that this “focus rule” might be a school policy and not the teacher’s policy. If it is school policy, speak with the principal. An accommodation might include receiving a focus grade based on a “sliding scale”: If your child focuses on cue or needs a set number of cues, that is considered “staying on task.” If you don’t feel satisfied with the outcome, request a 504 meeting to discuss this issue. Make your request in writing to your school’s principal, and state the reasons that you want to meet. Keep a copy of your letter.

Posted by Eileen Bailey
Freelance writer, author specializing in ADHD, anxiety, and autism

ADDitude Answers

One of the exciting things we’ve discovered about ADHD is that there’s reduced brain chemistry in the reward center. What that means is that your child can do easy things that don’t require a lot of working memory or academic skills, but when the brain needs to kick into a higher gear to focus on schoolwork, it has trouble. Our children have reduced dopamine that limits the reward center, unless of course they are on medication.

The other thing you need to know is that over two-thirds of our children have a second condition that challenges them. It might be a learning disability. It might be anxiety. It might be a mood disorder.

[Free Handout: Dear Teacher, Get to Know My Child]

But a lot of times we treat the ADHD and we don’t look any further. So if your child is on medication and still struggling, then you need to take a closer look at some of the other related issues and make sure you have the right dosage and frequency of medication.

It sounds like your son may not be on medication or the dose is too low or maybe not the right medicine. Two-thirds of our kids can do well on either Ritalin type, Concerta type or Dexedrine or Adderall type meds, but there’s a select group that does better on one than the other.

If teachers don’t want to give the cue-to-focus reminders themselves, they can use the other students in the classroom to help your son. They could say something like, “Alex, I know you have trouble getting started, so what if either Kathy or John, who sits on either side of you, taps your desk to remind you?”

Or, if becoming distracted is your son’s issue, there are noise-cancelling headphones you could request he be allowed to wear in class.

[How Fidgeting Promotes Focus]

I always say, “Find the voice of reason at school.” If 10 percent or 11 percent of kids have ADHD, there’s someone in administration that has a child with ADHD or understands it.

Maybe it’s the principal, the assistant principal, the guidance counselor, or director of special education. Find that person explain the problem to and see if they will take that on for you.

Posted by Chris Zeigler Dendy, M.S.
Educator, school psychologist, and mental health professional

ADDitude Answers

An IEP or 504 plan is supposed to consider and include positive behavioral interventions to help a student to avoid having difficulty in class.

Many kids with ADHD have difficulty getting to class on time, getting their homework completed and turned in, paying attention in class, and even calling out when they have a question instead of raising their hands. Those characteristics are all symptomatic of the behaviors that are typical of kids with ADHD.

[Quiz: How Well Do You Know Special Ed Law?]

They’re not things that would typically be regarded as conduct code violations, let alone serious types of disciplinary problems, but they can be very, very disruptive to the student’s participation in class, to other students, and can sometimes get them into trouble.

If a kid is having difficulty with behavior at school, especially if they’ve begun to receive detentions, or even worse suspensions or expulsions, it’s very important to use the 504 plan or the IEP to build what I call a “behavioral support umbrella.”

When a child’s behavior is related to their disability, the school is not allowed to penalize or expel them. So if you have a good behavior plan with accommodations, and the school didn’t implement it correctly, then the child can’t be in trouble even though his behavior might otherwise be determined to have been something they should be receive consequences for.

Posted by Matthew D. Cohen, J.D.
Founder of Matt Cohen and Associates and legal commentator for LDOnline

ADDitude Answers

Tell the teacher, “These are awesome expectations for neurotypical students, but my son has a neurological disorder, ADHD, which directly impacts his ability to meet these expectations. Punishing him for behaviors to his disability violates his civil rights.” (assuming you’re in the U.S.).

The school needs to implement accommodations to even the playing field for your son in light of his disability. They also need to move him to a different teacher if this teacher is inflexible on the issue. My son has had 2 teachers like this in the past-both lead to extreme anxiety, worsening of ADHD all around, and even self-harm. It is extremely detrimental.

Here’s where to start: 12 Steps to Smarter School Accommodations

Posted by Penny
community moderator, author on ADHD parenting, mom to teen boy with ADHD, LDs, and autism

A Reader Answers

In my experience when teachers take this judgmental, uninformed position they will not listen, they will simply argue. The teacher does not understand ADHD and also does not understand the purpose of an accommodation. I know teachers often feel that having strict standards is preparing kids for ‘real life’ but all it really does is perpetuate stereotypes and bad behavior.

I would put everything in written email or letter in a somewhat formal fashion and keep a record. This may help the teacher smarten up, but if it doesn’t at least you will have a documented case to present to someone this teacher reports to.

Posted by John Tucker, PhD, ACG. ADHD Coach

A Reader Answers

You have to pick your battles. I’ve been there. When my daughter was in 3rd grade, her teacher also refused to honor the guidelines. I kept on top of her, had meetings with her, argued with her, nothing helped. She didn’t care and she deducted points for uncompleted assignments.

I told my daughter that not everything in life is fair and we just have to do our best in her classroom. That was not a good year grade-wise for my child, but the lesson she learned in the end, was that every teacher is different and she can’t decide what to do and not do. She knew if she did not do the assignment, points would be deducted.

She is now in 5th grade and has never had another problem, but I am sure we will. My advice is to take it up with the teacher and if she still refuses, then just accept it and move on. Or if you have a plan written for your child, go to the principal and let him or her know. Sometimes, I think, we can fight so much for our children that we prevent them from learning some much needed life lessons.

Here is a place that can help you:

Good luck!

Posted by Amom2two

A Reader Answers

I would learn all you can about IEP and 504 law. The school appears to be inhibiting your son’s civil rights, and requesting a legal accommodations plan (or amending an existing one) could help. Unfortunately, that does nothing to help the situation with uncooperative teachers on a day to day basis.

If you have an IEP or 504 plan in place and they still refuse to comply with the accommodations, you have legal recourse.

Posted by JRTMom

A Reader Answers

I just want you to know that because your son is diagnosed with ADHD, he is automatically covered by the 504 disability act, which means that he should qualify for accommodations in the classroom to help him cope with his ADHD symptoms. He can be punished for being fidgety, restless, or having trouble focusing, no more then a child in a wheelchair can punished for not being able to walk.

Posted by deanna42431

A Reader Answers

I hear your story repeated time and time again from other parents. It is heartbreaking and honestly frustrating. Your son is exhibiting behaviors that are basic symptoms of ADHD. He certainly is not alone given that statistically 11% of school age children have ADHD. The number one most important thing a child in school needs is to feel safe and that he can trust the adult in the room. Otherwise no learning can take place and stress and anxiety develop. When I coach teachers I find that when I start from the place of explaining the basic science of ADHD and then create an experience of what it must be like to “be” that child, then they are receptive to the tools and strategies I have to offer. Here are a few concrete suggestions:

> Bring in a few items that your son, and other kids, can fidget with. There is an article on my website ( called “Can you Just Sit Still and Pay Attention” which explains that reason people with ADHD benefit from movement and how to teach a child the important difference between “fidgeting” and “playing”.

See if perhaps the teacher would consider explaining to the class that some kids are better able to sit and listen when they quietly fidget and if that student wants they may have a fidget at their seat. It is important of course that your son, and ALL children, understand the reasoning so that they can transfer this concept when they are in other settings (church, synagogue, movies, etc.).

> See if the teacher would be open to allowing your son to stand at the side or back of the room as long as he is attentive. Again, first he must understand WHY he is given this option and NOT singled out since it should be a classroom norm for any child who benefits from movement.

> Help your child brainstorm with you at home about how he can feel more able to work in school and see if perhaps there are suggestions you and he can talk to the teacher about.

> If you are still not getting anywhere with the teacher, ask to meet with the “team” – the teacher, school psychologist, perhaps principal, and discuss that since the challenges your child is exhibiting are part of the ADHD, what can the school do to help support these challenges and teach the skills he needs. Timeouts and bad grades will not teach skills.

Posted by Coach Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., ACAC,BCC