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Dear ADDitude: The Teacher’s Consequences Are Unfair

“My child’s teacher gave cupcakes to the whole class, but told her she must complete her work to earn one. How can I help the school understand that rewards and consequences must be fair, and specific to my child’s strengths and weaknesses, in order to work?”

ADDitude Answers

Teachers need to learn and accept that traditional discipline (i.e. instilling fear in their students) is not the most effective way to manage behavior for any kid, and especially not for kids with ADHD. Tying your daughter’s cupcake to finishing her work when the teacher knows she has barriers to finishing like her peers, was 100% wrong and heartless, really.

The best approach for this teacher with your daughter is a positive reinforcement strategy. Here are some articles that explain it:

> Rewarding Good Behavior in the Classroom

> The Power of Praise: Positive Reinforcement for ADHD Children

> Behavior Therapy for Children with ADHD: More Carrot Less Stick

Explain to the teacher and school staff that your daughter is very sensitive to perceived inequality and unfairness, and hopefully they will keep that in mind when working with her.

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


ADDitude Answers

That must have been awful for your child. If the cupcake was not attached to completed work for the rest of the class, it should not have been for your child. I do believe, though, that most teachers have good intentions and do try not to be hurtful to any child. It is possible the teacher saw this as a way to motivate your child to complete her work, and saw it as positive reinforcement. It might have been just a lapse in judgment.

Still, send a letter to the teacher — and a copy to your school district’s 504 coordinator — outlining your reasons for objecting to this treatment and offering suggestions for more constructive ways of handling such a situation. Strike a tone of helpfulness; you are trying to educate educators who deal with children with ADHD.

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


A Reader Answers

It is so frustrating to have what is supposed to be a little moment of joy at school be turned into a payment for work, not to mention trigger a feeling of worthlessness & distrust. If the cupcakes were handed out to the whole class, they needed to be handed out to the WHOLE class without qualifications.

It can sometimes help teachers re-frame how they treat a child with ADHD by giving them a different scenario: would you withhold a cupcake from an overweight child and tell them they can have one when they’re thin? How about a child who speaks English as a second/other language? Or a child with a vision problem?

If the cupcake was a treat for the class, it’s for everyone, not just the kids who did well. If it was a treat for kids who completed their work and your daughter was the only one who didn’t finish, the teacher needs to rethink that — she just created a negative reinforcement scenario instead of a positive. For my oldest son, telling him he’d get (insert prize here) after he completed all his work was pointless. He knew he struggled so badly that it felt like a setup: what if he worked really hard finished 3/4 of the work, but not all? No reward. Smaller rewards — or, better yet, positive & real praise — given out frequently were much more effective for him.

You may want to thank the teacher first for going to the trouble to get/make cupcakes for everyone then remind her that, even if it doesn’t seem that way to others, your child is working very hard to stay calm, pay attention, do what she’s asked to, and shut out all distractions — and that is before pencil goes to paper.

She may at this point see how this all unfolded and be kicking herself. She very well may have meant to do something really wonderful for the class, then blew it with your daughter. I think it’s worth talking to the the teacher, and giving her the benefit of the doubt. If she is not receptive, remind her that your daughter has a disability and how it affects her, even if symptoms seem like bad behavior.

If you are feeling like the teacher is not receptive, I’d follow up with an email to the principal, saying something like, “Thank you for your concern for my daughter. As we discussed my daughter was frustrated over not receiving the same treat the other students in class received. While I appreciate the teacher giving a special treat to the students, I have spoken to her about awareness of her disability and how her decision to withhold my daughter’s treat was extremely upsetting. My daughter felt she was being singled out and punished for her ADHD challenges. I support my child’s education and the hard work her teachers put in; she is still a child and should be allowed to enjoy the same joys other children do, regardless of ADHD. Thank you.”

Hope this was helpful.

Posted by beanne


A Reader Answers

The teacher was wrong for not giving your daughter a cupcake when she gave one to the other children. Her treat should not have been tied to doing work unless it was like that for all of the children in the class. I’m sorry that happened. It’s so hard sending our kiddos to school each day and trusting them with teachers who mean well, but just don’t truly understand them.

Posted by Sporty


A Reader Answers

I wish every teacher had to do mandatory training or ongoing education in teaching kids with ADHD and other challenges our children face every day. It would help them work hand-in-hand with special education teachers, and to understand that just because they can’t see the condition physically on a child does not mean she is not going to battle with it everyday.

Posted by SDAJ


A Reader Answers

I would talk to the teacher and tell her that you appreciate her trying to teach your daughter responsibility, but unfortunately, due to her disabilities she is not yet able to work at the same standards as the rest of the class. Tell her you would be happy to send her some articles about ADHD to read.

I would also explain that she needs assistance or extra time to complete assignments sometimes. Speak with authority and do not ask, state. Nobody know what your child needs more than you do. Good luck.

Posted by Peacfldove


A Reader Answers

So sorry about this situation. It’s so hard to know that our children sometimes (or a lot of the times) have issues in class due to something that they cannot control.

I have also struggled with issues like yours. My son goes to a private school, and he is the black sheep of the class! All of the other kids are perfect shining stars. My son is a shooting star. He is bright, wild, and has NO filter. We have been pushed aside because of that. No one wants to do play dates. My son ‘scares’ the other kids because he talks to loudly.

We even got to the point where the teacher was isolating my son and made him sit across the class from the other students that were sitting at their tables (Pre-K). It was tragic!

My point here is when it comes to these kids being the “black sheep,” you are not alone!

Posted by AUtley26


A Reader Answers

It’s always a balance between encouraging responsibility while at the same time acknowledging that ADHD children have limitations in some areas that they cannot help.

A psychologist said that expecting an ADHD child to be able to focus, pay attention to detail, remember papers, times, etc. is akin to taking a blind child in the room and telling her to try harder to see. Another therapist compared it to a broken leg that needs accommodations. So it is extremely important that the ADHD diagnosis is taken into consideration when doling out consequences in class. These kids are not on a level playing field with the rest of their peers and need special assistance that they are entitled to.

I lean much more towards taking positive action to mediate the effects of condition rather than drawing attention to a failing of the child. Our kids get enough negativity from life as it is.

‘Try harder’ means something different to ADHD children. They think and view the world in a dissimilar way. The teacher needs to come up with more effective strategies to help.

We’re working with a therapist and counselor to try to find effective strategies, but they’re hard to come by since so many people have no understanding of ADHD at all. There should be strategies in place to set your daughter up to succeed in life, not ask for more than she can do and accepting failure.

I wish you the best of luck! It is not an easy job.

Posted by Havebeenthere