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When Adults Bully Children with ADHD

As schools work to address the bullying epidemic, I’ve found myself wondering how adult treatment of children with ADHD affects kids like my daughter, Natalie. Are the adult role models in her life teaching others to treat her with respect?

A teacher observing students to help with medication monitoring
Teacher looking at unruly classroom of students

I worry all the time about the social interactions my daughter, Natalie, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), experiences at school and their effect on her ability to learn, her anxiety level, and her self-esteem. The stories she tells me about how other kids treat her break my heart. But compared to what I hear from others around the country, Natalie’s school is exceptional. They haven’t eliminated bullying, but they’re taking action to address the problem.

Earlier this year, kicked off their “Disable Bullying” campaign when they released a report titled “Walk a Mile in Their Shoes: Bullying and the Child With Special Needs” (PDF). The report shows that kids with differing abilities, including those with invisible issues like ADHD and learning disabilities, are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers. When I wrote about the report for the ADDitude News blog, I expected parents to tell some troubling stories of bullying in the comments section — tales of too-rough boys and mean-spirited girls. I could tell a few, that’s for certain. What I didn’t expect was for those comments to focus on adults as perpetrators of bullying. Sadly, they did.

“In my experience, the teacher has been the chief bully, and then the kids follow suit,” reader Carl commented.

“The principal treated my son like a ‘behavior-problem kid’ who needed to be corrected… On the other hand, his classmates are more than accepting,” another reader Kara told us.

“A principal bullied my child,” reader Maria added.

Apparently, among professionals who work with individuals with differing abilities, the concept that adults are integral to the problem of the bullying perpetrated on this population is well known. Timothy Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, said this in the February 12 press conference that introduced the report:

“We’re trying to awaken the country to the idea that there is an epidemic and that it has to stop. I think it’s important to point out … that one of the problem groups here is the adults, the adults who are denying the problem, who are not marshaling the resources in schools to respond to the problem, and who themselves are users of degrading language. I think we have to be clear that the toll of that attitude in violence, in chronic disengagement of young people, in lost opportunities to learn, and in chronic underachievement, both for those who bully and those who are victims, is enormous.”

A journalist participating in the press conference illustrated the problem with a personal experience. Maria Lonergan, representing the Las Altos Town Crier, said:

“I was actually in a classroom once helping with my son’s school play, where the teacher verbally attacked a young man with ADHD who wasn’t paying attention in a way that was so intense and so scary that it scared me. And it was a perfect model for the other kids to treat him in such a bad way outside of that atmosphere.”

Fortunately, Natalie’s experiences with adults in academic settings have been very different. The school conducts an annual survey, asking students to rate whether or not they feel safe and supported by teachers and administrators. The kids routinely give their school high marks. And it is clear that the adults’ attitudes are key, and those that I’ve seen are positive. I practically wept with relief when Natalie’s special education teacher articulated, in a recent parent-teacher conference, that Natalie’s social and emotional growth and her self-concept are her primary concerns because Natalie can’t learn until those are addressed. That outlook is as different as night and day from what I hear from other parents around the country. I am very, very thankful.

Who are the adults who surround your child? Do they perpetrate, perpetuate, or disable bullying? And what can you do about it? (You can start by sending them the links from this blog!)

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