- ADHD symptoms contribute to poor academic performance.
- The symptoms of inattentive-type ADHD make it difficult diagnose in school-age children.
- Advocating for your child with educators can improve their academic performance.
- Working with your child’s ADHD is key to their academic success.
A major concern for parents of ADHD children is their performance in school, and parents often worry over criticizing their children for behaviors like difficulty finishing homework. Poor academic performance can result in failing grades, skipping school, dropping out of high school, or not attending college.
Inattentive-type ADHD is difficult to identify
Children with the inattentive subtype of ADHD can fly under the radar at school and at home with symptoms of inattention, forgetfulness, and disorganization. Michael Jellineck, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, has estimated children with ADHD could receive as many as 20,000 corrections for their behavior in school by the time they are 10 years old. The symptom of inattentive-type ADHD, including behaviors like disappearing to the bathroom or nurse’s office during class to avoid a disliked task, are difficult to identify correctly as the inattentive subtype and can often be confused with other behavioral problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control 2017 report, nine out of ten children with ADHD received classroom accommodations in school. However, most children with ADHD are not in special education programs and their teachers may know little about ADHD behaviors. Knowledge of ADHD, including symptoms, behaviors, prognosis, and treatment, varies among teachers (Mohr-Jennsen et al., 2019), and educators are most knowledgeable about the “hallmark” symptoms of ADHD, like students fidgeting or squirming in their seat and being easily distracted by extraneous stimuli (Scuitto et al., 2016).
Advocating for your child
Since my son’s inattentive ADHD is not outwardly apparent (i.e., he isn’t hyperactive or disruptive in the classroom), advocating for him, and teaching him to advocate for himself, is one of my most important jobs as a parent. I was inspired by the story of a father who would send letters to his son’s teachers explaining the boy’s learning disability. Knowing my son’s performance did not always reflect his capabilities, I emailed my son’s middle and high school teachers at the beginning of each semester detailing his ADHD, his weaknesses, and, most importantly, his strengths. I was pleasantly surprised that the reaction from many of my son’s teachers over the years was positive; they were grateful for parental communication and support. Teachers with a greater understanding of ADHD recognize the benefit of behavioral and educational treatments and are more likely to help their students (Ohan et al., 2008). In my son’s case, educators who either had ADHD themselves, or sought to learn about it, had the biggest impact in terms of my son’s academic success.
Practical strategies for common academic struggles
Due to the executive function deficits that accompany ADHD, our kids cannot just “try harder” to get good grades. They are already working harder than their peers to stay afloat in school. According to Mayes and Calhoun (2000) more than half of ADHD children struggle with written expression, my son included. Executive function deficits in ADHD make organizing ideas, planning, and editing difficult. I helped my son by having him talk it out when he had to write an essay for school (this was also an accommodation in his 504 plan to help him answer essay questions on tests and other assignments). I would start by asking him to tell me one fact about his essay’s topic. I found that he knew what he wanted to say, but organizing his thoughts on the page was an overwhelming and difficult task for him. I would furiously type while he talked, then gave him the notes, making it much easier for him to compose his essay. Another strategy was to have him incorporate something about a topic he was interested in, if possible. Anytime my son could write something about outer space or rockets he struggled less, even being selected as a national finalist in a NASA-sponsored essay contest about traveling to Mars.
Approximately 25-40% of patients with ADHD have major reading and writing difficulties, and ADHD frequently co-occurs with other learning disabilities like dyslexia, which makes reading difficult. In addition, the inattention symptoms of ADHD likely interfere with reading ability, resulting in reading the same paragraph over and over without retaining the information. As parents, we have to accept that our ADHD kids learn differently and not be concerned with the traditional, or 'right' way of doing something. My son retained information from required reading in school much better when he listened to an audiobook, rather than trying to painstakingly read the book. What did it matter if my son read the book or listened to it being read? Let’s take a cue from our ADHD kids and think outside the box.
Learning to work with my son’s ADHD gave me a better understanding of his strengths and weaknesses when it came to his academic performance. As a result, I was a better advocate for him and was able to work with his teachers to ensure his academic success.
Albert, M., Rui, P., & Ashman, J.J. (2017). Physician office visits for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents Aged 4–17 Years: United States, 2012–2013. National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/ databriefs/db269.htm.
Mayes, S.D. & Calhoun, S. (2000, April). Prevalence and degree of attention and learning problems in ADHD and LD. ADHD Reports, 8 (2).
Mohr-Jensen, C., Steen-Jensen, T., Bang Schnack, M., &Thingvad, H. (2019). What do primary and secondary school teachers kno about ADHD in children? Findings from a systematic review and a representative, nationwide sample of Danish teachers. Journal of Attention Disorders 23(3): 206-219.
Ohan, J. L., Cormier, N., Hepp, S. L., Visser, T. A. W., & Strain, M. C. (2008). Does knowledge about attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder impact teachers' reported behaviors and perceptions? School Psychology Quarterly, 23(3), 436–449.
Sciutto, M.J., Terjesen, M.D., Kučerová, A., Michalová, Z., Schmiedeler, S., Antonopoulou, K., Shaker, N.Z., Lee, J., Lee, K., Drake, B., & Rossouw, J. (2016). Cross-national comparisons of teachers’ knowledge and misconceptions of ADHD. International Perspectives in Psychology 5(1): 34-50.