Creating the Right Environment at School for Your ADHD Child
When a child passes all the spelling tests but fails language arts, something's wrong – and not with the child. Children with ADHD have a right to a free and appropriate education under federal law, just like any child with or without a disability.
"New education laws require that school boards supply an education designed for each individual child, and ensure that disabled students have a program comparable to other non-disabled students," says psychotherapist Terry Matlen, who counsels children with ADHD in her private practice in Birmingham, Mich. "Parents have a right to advocate for their child to ensure teachers make reasonable accommodations so strengths rather than weaknesses can be demonstrated."
A Different Way of Learning
It's important to discover how ADHD hinders a child's learning. "Parents can and should involve themselves in issues like where a child sits, the supplying of a second set of textbooks for home and providing technological accommodations such as a laptop to reduce the use of loose paper," says Martha Cameron, special education consultant in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
Arranging for support from "learning buddies" or an instructional aide can also help keep a child on track.
To help him stay organized, 8-year-old Eddy Hauser of Seattle, Wash., brings home a "reminder binder" at the beginning of each week, which contains the next five days of homework. His teacher also supports parental involvement and goes out of her way to help him succeed.
"She lets us write answers that he dictates," Hauser's mother says. His teacher also allows him to use a word processor at home for help with spelling, grammar and organizational problems.
"Teachers need to teach in ways that match a child's learning style and test in ways that let him show what he knows, and not how poorly he takes tests," says neuropsychologist Jerome Schultz, clinical director of The Learning Lab at Lesley University, Cambridge, Mass. "If a child can cope in a regular classroom with support, the teacher has a responsibility to provide it."
However, if your child's school responds to your requests in a way that you feel is inappropriate, then you have the right to have the case heard by a mediator, Schultz says.
Contact the special education office at your state's Department of Education. Officials there can guide you through appropriate steps that may prevent the need for your case to go to mediation. "The most important thing is to make sure the child has an appropriate education," Schultz says.
Creating the Right Environment
A teacher wouldn't give a test on a printed piece of paper to a child who couldn't see. A child with hearing disabilities wouldn't be expected to master a new language by listening to a tape recorder. Neither should an ADHD student be expected to succeed without the appropriate tools and environment.
"If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, he deserves modifications in his classroom to ensure success," Schultz says. "If the teachers doubt the diagnosis, or don't understand it, then it's time to take action and advocate for your child."
If a school doesn't consider ADHD the cause of a child's academic problems, then request the school staff test for other possible issues. "Since ADHD often co-exists with a learning disability (LD), a thorough evaluation should be done to determine the presence and the impact of both ADHD and LD," Schultz says.
You should also request an individual education plan, known as an IEP. This is a written, legal document that describes the special education and related services needed by a student with disabilities. It is developed during a meeting in which all members of the IEP team discuss the educational needs of the student and write a program that identifies goals, objectives and needed related services for the year.
"Once an IEP is in place, the school must follow it," Matlen says. "If the plan is met with resistance, then the family can take legal action to make sure there is compliance from the school."
If school officials delay evaluation of your child for more than a couple weeks, ask them if you should have your child tested privately and send them the bill, suggests Schultz. Offering to help in this way shows the school that you are serious about the timelines that must be followed (under special education law) when a request has been made for an evaluation.
Know the Laws
"First, educate yourself, learn the laws and know what your rights are as well as the responsibilities of the school district," says Brandi Valentine, parent of a child with ADHD in Marysville, Calif. She recommends that parents read "Special Education Rights and Responsibilities," a manual that addresses special education rights and services for children.
"Create a paper trail – a history of documents and diary entries showing times and dates when any dealings take place between you and the school or your child and the school," says Steve Metz, father of a child with ADHD in Manalapan, N.J. "It should show who was there, when it happened, who said what and to whom and his or her response."
Document meetings, phone calls, conversations with teachers, principals and school authorities. You may be asked to explain the requests you've made, the interventions you've tried and the instructions you've given to a teacher.
Fight for Your Child's Rights
If issues become muddied and parents feel they have hit a brick wall, it may be time to enlist the help of an advocate. This can be a professional or a lay person who has a solid knowledge and experience with special education and legal issues. You can locate an advocate through the National Information Center on Children and Youths with Disabilities.
"Advocates can be very effective because they understand the legal machinery, and they can remain calm and objective, which can be more effective than parents who are upset and stressed over their child's situation," Matlen says. The cost varies depending on the advocate's experience and professional background.
In a worst case scenario, you can seek legal counsel.
Metz's experience with his son's school quickly developed into a legal issue. "A private psychologist, who we hired ourselves, demanded testing be done without delay," he says. "We had to threaten the school with a lawsuit before they complied."
For students to assume more responsibility for themselves, they need to understand the nature of their condition. This is especially important as a child leaves middle school and enters high school. Help your child to learn about his or her disability and teach your child how to explain his or her required learning style and needs to teachers. Supply your support wherever possible.
"[A child] may need to work with the school guidance counselor to help her get over some of the emotional baggage she's acquired from her failures of the past," Schultz says.
The counselor can help your child understand ADHD and its impact on learning. Support at this time can teach children how to be an advocate for themselves, and empower them for lifelong independence.