Behavior & Discipline

When Discipline Muzzles Learning: Tales of Harsh Punishment at School

Lost recesses, detention, extra work, chastisement — these harsh punishments are common responses to ADHD symptoms beyond a student’s control, and they do no good to anyone. Here, parents tell of harsh discipline, tattered self-esteem, and violated rights at schools that didn’t understand ADHD.

Young student sits on grey and blue tiled floor and leans against a row of lockers with her head down and arms wrapped around her legs.

Students with ADHD become easily distracted, tune out lessons, and daydream. The disorder brings disorganization and forgetfulness — failing to complete and turn in assignments, losing school supplies, and keeping messy backpacks. Kids with ADHD may be restless, fidgeting and struggling to stay seated, and impulsive — talking excessively, interrupting, making careless errors, and disrupting the class.

These ADHD disruptions, daydreams, and delays are largely beyond students’ control, but too often, they incur punishment from weary teachers rather than positive behavioral interventions. ADDitude asked more than 200 caregivers if their children received harsh or over-the-top punishment at school for their behavior, and the answer was overwhelmingly “yes.” Here are some of their stories.

Disciplinary Actions That Muzzle Learning

We had to move our son from the school where we both, as parents, teach! The head teacher used the words ‘liar,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘defiant,’ and ‘sticks out like a sore thumb’ to describe his ADHD behaviors, such as not responding straight away to instructions or continuing to hyperfocus when an activity had ended. We were told that if his focus (cooperation) didn’t improve, he would be suspended, then excluded. He was five at the time and we held senior positions at the school. We were appalled.”

Our son was always bullied, but he was the one who got in trouble and sent to the principal’s office. The school ostracized him. It was horrible.”

I could write a book on this topic. Some of the punishments were so uncalled-for. What training is given to teachers and school administration for working with ADHD and LD students? Do teachers think ADHD is a fake diagnosis, a cop out? How can we change perceptions?”

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“I am a certified special education teacher and the special education coordinator for the district. I see such a difference between the training given to the special education staff versus the general education staff when it comes to discipline.”

My son has been suspended due to his behavior. I have worked extremely hard, with the help of ADDitude resources, to educate the teachers and staff and increase my support for them, rather than be seen as an adversary.”

“When my oldest was in elementary school, he was often punished with lost recesses, detention, and extra work — things that made the problem worse.”

“This happened repeatedly. The worst was in fifth grade when he was 10. His principal told our son that he could not go on the three-day overnight trip with his class because of his problems with ‘staying in place.’ The principal did not know that it was illegal to exclude a child with a disability from a school event. I didn’t either, but I learned from an advocacy group that I should tell the principal to call the Department of Education legal department, which he did. The decision was reversed. My son was told he was allowed to go just a few days before the trip.”

[Resource Center: School Advocacy for Neurodivergent Students]

My child received many harsh punishments, much criticism, removal from the classroom, and seclusion.”

“My son is now nine. In kindergarten and first grade, he was often isolated from the rest of the class and kept inside at recess due to his inability to sit still, keep quiet, and engage in ‘whole body listening.’”

I pulled my son out of school and am homeschooling now because of this issue. His infractions were blurting out in class, not being able to stay in line in the hall and be quiet, saying hi to classes that had their doors open as he walked the halls, and being ‘defiant’ because he was hyperfocused and reading a book instead of doing math. He was called problematic and made to walk laps at recess for hugging his sister when he was told to get in line. His teachers had no training about kids with ADHD.”

We’ve dealt with inappropriate consequences for sure. A teacher working with our son used ‘planned ignoring’ when he tried to tell her something. He became frustrated, so she directed him into the hallway. He thought he was in trouble and couldn’t calm down. When the class left for an afternoon recess, he had to stay inside to work on the assignment he did not complete while he was in the hallway. His teacher didn’t explain the situation to him until I came to pick him up at the end of the day.”

“My daughter had a lot of misunderstanding, frustration, or anger from teachers who didn’t understand ADHD. One teacher has traumatized her so that she has trouble trusting female teachers. It is almost like PTSD.”

“My son was traumatized by the director at an upscale private school. He was made to sit for hours while he was told about every little thing he did wrong. My kid started talking about wanting to die because he felt worthless. Thank you, expensive private school, for ruining my eight-year-old’s sense of self-worth because he didn’t fit your mold. We were grateful to move to a local public school this year with a fantastic staff and administrators who work to make a positive environment for all.”

“My child was suspended, cited by the police, and placed on probation at age 17 due to fighting in class. He should not have fought, no question. But involving the police makes it all seem punitive.”

The worst was when there was a minor infraction that one teacher chose to share with all the teachers and staff. I was horrified. My son is attending a new school now and is happier and getting great grades.”

“My daughter’s current teacher seems irritated and frustrated with her most of the time. It has caused her to have lower self-esteem and not want to go to class with that teacher.”

“My son didn’t fit their mold. Instead of helping, they’d send him away, out of their schools, to alternative schools. How much can a kid take? When he reached his breaking point and quit, I was OK with it. He’s doing great now! Great career, great income.”

ADHD Behavior at School: Next Steps

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