ADHD affects about of American children. Often, one of the biggest struggles for ADHD kids and their parents is achieving a successful school experience. Symptoms of ADHD frequently look like a lack of effort, lack of motivation, or simply not caring about doing well in the classroom.
When a student with ADHD is misunderstood, it makes securing the accommodations and services they need to succeed doubly hard.
As a student whose disability affects their learning, a child with ADHD has extra rights under federal law.
“[U.S. public] schools have an obligation to identify, evaluate, and provide disabled students whose disability substantially impacts learning a ‘free appropriate public education,’” Robert Tudisco, an education attorney and advocate, told Healthline. These laws were designed to even the academic playing field for kids with ADHD and other disabilities.
The special education system is complicated, though, and parents often don’t know what their kids are entitled to or how to go about getting it. Even parents who are educated about their child’s ADHD learning needs and rights often struggle to ensure the right school environment for their child.
According to the Institute of Education Sciences and the National Center for Education Statistics, 6.4 million children and youth ages 3 to 21 received special education services in 2011 to 2012. That’s about 13 percent of all public school students.
Many Kids Not Receiving Special Services
Since 11 percent of children have been diagnosed with ADHD but just 13 percent of all kids receive special education services in the United States, we can conclude that many kids with ADHD are not receiving special accommodations at school. Plus, the 13 percent includes only public school students. Many of the 11 percent of kids with ADHD attend charter or private schools, or are home schooled.
Some schools deny accommodations and services to special needs students, especially if they are not well below grade level in academics. Despite educational and disability laws stipulating otherwise, budget and staff constraints often play a role in these decisions.
Traci, a teacher and the parent of an 11-year-old son who has ADHD, told Healthline about her experience trying to secure services for her child. She preferred not to use her last name.
Traci’s son was diagnosed with ADHD at 4 years old, and he had early intervention services when he was young. “That was good,” said Traci, “because not having that would have caused a bigger problem to eventually get services.”
When her son entered kindergarten, the school didn’t want to test him for additional services because his academic achievement wasn’t “that low.” She then had to fight the very school system she teaches in. She did just that, picking up the phone and calling people at the district level.
Thankfully, not everyone struggles to have their child’s needs met at school. Anna Fambrough, the mother of a 10-year-old boy with ADHD, says her biggest hurdle was the time it took to evaluate, make decisions, and finally create the specialized academic plan he needed.
“In the meantime, our psychologist did some of the testing we'd have to wait on the district to perform, such as IQ testing, so we'd be ahead of the game when the school was ready for us,” said Fambrough. “Luckily, my son’s teacher had a son with ADHD and was making accommodations for him before he had an official plan.”
Both of these moms advise that parents seek an independent educational evaluation if possible. Having independent documentation could speed up the process and help validate parents’ concerns.
The ABCs of Getting Help
If you know your child with ADHD has rights at school, and you know they need help in school to achieve academic success, now what?
First, make a request in writing. Submit a letter to the school principal stating your concerns about your child’s education and that you would like your child to be evaluated for special education services. If you don’t get anywhere, keep pushing. “Call the district staff, or even your state department of education, if that’s what it takes,” said Traci.
“It’s hard to push, though,” Fambrough warned. “You have to work with these people for years and need to have a good rapport with them. Push with caution.”
Second, learn all you can about ADHD, your child’s educational rights, and the process to get accommodations and services. “Gather as much data as you can, including information from doctors,” Traci said.
“Make sure you have significant and solid documented support for your child’s disability and its impact on his or her academic and behavioral needs. It is further important to document each and every finding and communication in writing, to support your assertions in the event that you need to seek an independent determination from a state-appointed impartial hearing officer and/or ultimately litigate, if necessary,” said Tudisco. Learn all you can and document everything, creating a paper trail in case it’s needed.
Lastly, the old adage “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” applies here. Take the approach of working with school staff to help a child in need. Don’t start the process with accusations and threats — that will hinder communication.
Follow your gut on what your child needs to succeed in school, and advocate for them consistently. Kids with ADHD deserve success at school just as much as any other child.
A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is an award-winning blogger and author of the Amazon best-seller, "Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD." Her second book, "What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD," is now available.