How to Advocate Forcefully for Your Child with ADHD
Children with ADHD encounter more barriers at school, in the community, and even at home. No one understands these hurdles — and how to best overcome them — better than your family. Here, parent advocate Penny Williams outlines the best ways to share these strategies clearly and effectively.
The actions and reactions of kids with ADHD and/or learning disabilities are misunderstood. Add that to changing hormones, and having to work twice as hard as their neurotypical peers, without the same success, and there’s a great deal of stress on our kids.
As Ross Greene, Ph.D., author of The Explosive Child (#CommissionsEarned), says, “Kids do well if they can.” If they aren’t doing well, it means there’s a barrier between effort and success that must be addressed, and you need to advocate for them.
How to Advocate at School
Parents of kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) spend most of our time trying to improve their experiences at school. Unfortunately, the need for school advocacy increases once our kids enter middle school.
Here’s how to do it:
1. You catch more flies with honey. While it often feels like an “us vs. them thing,” you should approach working with teachers and administrators collaboratively, as though you’re truly a team, for the best outcomes.
2. Keep your emotions out of it. Vent to your family or friends. Write the nasty rebuttal you’d like to offer, but don’t send it. Stick to facts and a neutral tone when interacting with school staff.
3. Submit a Parent Concerns Letter to the IEP or 504 team at least two days before school meetings. Include everything — cite references from evaluations as often as possible. If it’s an IEP meeting, copy and paste the information onto the IEP form the school uses.
4. Draft and submit a Present Levels of Performance Letter, and include it with the Parent Concerns, at least two days before a school meeting. This will include: current grades, current struggles at school (academic, behavior, social, and emotional), how existing goals and accommodations have been implemented up to that point, and which strategies have succeeded and which have failed. Cite incidents, with dates, as much as possible. If it’s an IEP meeting, copy and paste the letter onto the IEP form the school uses, as well.
5. Use email communications to get everything in writing.
6. Don’t expect perfection. Your child has a disability. He will struggle — we can’t erase that. The goal for accommodations at school should be to teach skills and to level the playing field, so your child has the same chance of success as his neurotypical peers.
7. Observe your child’s behaviors closely. The stress of struggling and being misunderstood causes a child’s behavior and emotions to deteriorate. Behavior is communication. If your child is avoiding school, acting out against peers or teachers, fleeing the classroom, refusing to do schoolwork, unmotivated to complete schoolwork or to do well at it, overly emotional, making up stories about things that “happen” at school, he is communicating something to you. Work with him to determine the root of the challenges. It could be that the work is too hard, social problems, lagging skills, or fear and anxiety. You can’t solve the behavior challenges until you know the reason for them.
If you find yourself at an impasse with your child’s school, take your concerns to the next level. If you can, hire an educational advocate to help you.
At the Doctor’s Office
Sometimes doctor and therapy appointments are rushed, and don’t address all the problems you’re experiencing. Become an informed patient (or parent of a patient), and use your advocacy skills in the doctor’s office. If you have struggles you need help with, bring them up at the beginning of the appointment. (“Today I want to be sure we talk about x, y, and z before we leave.”) I keep a list of the things I want to discuss with my son’s therapist or doctor, so I don’t forget anything.
If you feel your child’s doctor or therapist isn’t listening to you, or isn’t valuing your concerns, it’s time to find a new one. Your mission is to build a successful life for your child — don’t let a professional who doesn’t listen keep you from attaining your goals.
Advocate in the Community
I don’t have to tell you that kids with ADHD are misunderstood in our communities. When your child spends time with someone in the community, you should let that person know about the weaknesses she struggles with that will arise during their time together. If your child is taking swimming lessons, the instructor needs to know that he should watch your child to be sure she is hearing and understanding the instructions during class. He needs to know that your child is anxious about the water, or might lose focus after 30 minutes, instead of staying focused the entire 45 minutes.
Some instructors or coaches just aren’t a good fit for kids with ADHD. If you run into that, look for another group or class.
Advocate at Home
You can advocate for your child during family life too, by helping him reduce stress as much as possible.
1. Listen to his concerns and validate his feelings. Let him tell you whatever is on his mind, and don’t judge him for it. Instead, support his feelings and thoughts, whatever they are.
2. Find ways for your child to experience success, and often. Those who grow up with ADHD are bombarded with messages that they are lazy, defiant, or broken. We must show our kids that they are just as deserving and capable of success as anyone else. Every success offers a child a little relief.
3. Make sure she knows you love her, no matter what. It’s hard growing up feeling like you’re always letting people down.
4. Make a plan for any fears or anxieties up front. My son resists going to the fireworks on the 4th of July. He likes fireworks, but the noise and crowds stress him out. We manage those stressors by going to a neighboring small town’s event, because it’s a lot less crowded. And he wears noise-canceling headphones during the show, to reduce the sound. Now he isn’t stressed about doing something he enjoys.
5. An important part of our advocacy is teaching our kids to advocate for themselves. As teens and preteens, they begin to have the awareness necessary to get help and accommodations before life becomes too stressful.
Helping your child live a happy and successful life is advocacy in itself. You are your child’s best and most knowledgeable supporter. Stand behind him to ensure success.
What Is Your Best Tip for Advocating for Your Child in School?
ADDitude readers offer solutions and share their advice on school advocacy.
“A note of thanks to the teacher who gets my grandson and knows what works for him. In addition to letting teachers know that they matter to my grandson, I hope my acknowledgment inspires teachers to help other kids with ADHD.” -Leslie, New Jersey
“Remember that your child doesn’t understand how her brain works As a result, she can’t ask for help or know when she needs it. You are her voice. Stay strong.” -Sanders, Missouri
“Keep in constant contact with the school, and don’t take it for granted that the school is always right when evaluating your child. Your child needs to know that you will always be there for him, no matter what.” -Mary, England
“As a teacher who has been diagnosed with ADD myself, I like parents to meet with me and talk about what has worked for their child, what hasn’t, and our goals for the future. After the talk, I’m better prepared to help their child on the tough days.” -April, Utah
“I ask my daughter to stand up for herself, and, respectfully, remind the teacher of her needs. The same goes for school administration—I have found that respect and reminders go a long way toward success in the classroom.” -Jennifer, Minnesota
“Listen to the teachers and weigh what they have to say, but remember that you are the expert on your child. Advocating doesn’t have to mean arguing or being aggressive. It is quietly standing your ground for your child.” -Bethany, Australia
“Keep pushing, and don’t let anyone tell you they’re doing all they can when you know they aren’t.” -David, Washington
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