My delightful, smart, creative, and kind of quirky child will be in your classroom this year. He also has ADHD. I am looking forward to you being his teacher, and I want to work with you to make this a successful school year. I know you have prepared for this year, too, and that you have your students’ success deep in your heart. That’s why I wanted to share a few things with you about ADHD and my child.
The science of ADHD is compelling
Research shows that ADHD is a brain-based disorder, characterized by differences in brain structure and function that affect behavior, thoughts, and emotions. Studies show ADHD has a biological basis, stemming from brain differences as well as genetics. Exposure to toxins, such as lead, can also cause ADHD. Brain imaging studies show that the brains of children with ADHD differ from the brains of children unaffected by the disorder, including differences in the size of certain brain structures and lower than normal blood flow in these same areas of the brain and problems with the neurotransmitters—chemical messengers between nerve cells in the brain. In 1998, the American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs commented, “Overall, ADHD is one of the best-researched disorders in medicine, and the overall data on its validity are far more compelling than for many medical conditions.”
ADHD affects the brain’s executive function
All of the differences in the brains of individuals affected by ADHD are found in the parts of the brain or brain networks related to what researchers call the “executive functions” of the brain. Executive functions control behaviors including, but not limited to, thinking, planning, attention, self-regulation, working memory, and processing information—behaviors directly connected to my child’s academic performance. This affect’s my child’s ability to function successfully in social, home, and work settings. In people affected by ADHD, these executive functions are impaired. As the brain continues to develop through childhood and adolescence, the brains of people with ADHD develop at a delayed pace. Students with ADHD often experience about a 30 percent developmental delay; a 13-year-old eighth grader with ADHD may have the executive function skills similar to that of a 9-year-old without the disorder. This delay causes significant problems with academic performance, social interactions, and self-regulation. I know it can be frustrating for adults and teachers, especially since it requires teachers to provide supervision and support according to the student’s developmental age rather than their chronological age.
Medication allows students with ADHD to work more effectively
After a lot of thought and research, my child’s doctor and I have made the decision to use medication as part of my child’s treatment plan. In contrast, I know some families who have done this research and have decided not to use medication in their child’s treatment plan. What is most important is finding what will work best for each family where medication is concerned. ADHD medications make the chemicals in the brain function more normally and help reduce ADHD symptoms, allowing students to function more effectively. Students taking ADHD medication may have improved attention span, less impulsivity, more compliance, and on-task behavior and be better at tolerating frustration. Medications are monitored by the prescribing doctor for effectiveness. Often, many of these changes are best observed by teachers in the classroom. Your feedback as my child’s teacher is important when evaluating the effectiveness and adjusting medication dosages.
Sometimes it’s not just ADHD
At least two-thirds of people affected by ADHD also have one or more co-occurring conditions. These conditions can include oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, substance abuse disorder, depressive disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder, tics and Tourette syndrome, and learning disabilities. In addition to ADHD, these disorders also affect a student’s learning and behavior. The presence of even one co-occurring disorder in a student diagnosed with ADHD increases the likelihood that that student will have academic and other problems.
Being in a school environment is challenging
The brain differences students with ADHD have translate into specific behaviors in the classroom. In many cases, ADHD can make a student tune out of lessons and daydream. Students with ADHD are often disorganized and forgetful―leaving books at school or home, not turning assignments in, losing homework, and having a perpetually messy desk or backpack (a daily challenge for my child!) Students also show signs of restlessness and impulsivity. They might fidget, have trouble staying in their seat, disrupt the class, blurt out answers, and have trouble following rules.
Please understand that children with ADHD do not experience their symptoms at a constant level across time and settings. Their ability to function appropriately may fluctuate depending on the task, the time of day, whether their medication has worn off, or whether an activity is of high or low interest to them. Inconsistency of performance is due to the ADHD, rather than being evidence that the child is willfully choosing not to perform.
Teaching strategies can help students with ADHD
When you use direct, explicit instructions, it helps a student with ADHD deal with weaknesses in executive functioning. A student with ADHD may need help dividing a project into smaller steps and deciding the order in which to tackle these steps. Students with ADHD often have trouble starting a project or making a transition from one activity to another; they may need your assistance in becoming interested and involved in a new activity and going from one to another. You can help provide accommodations that help with these areas and that build on both the need for instruction based on the interests of the student, as well as those academic areas requiring direct instruction.
Positive behavioral interventions can help students behave in ways that prevent disruption in the classroom and allow for learning. Students with ADHD, in particular, respond better to positive behavioral interventions than to punishments.
Students with ADHD, like my child, often have problems making and keeping friends, recognizing the social consequences of their own actions, and regulating their emotional responses or impulsivity. Your feedback can teach and reinforce good listening, and using procedures, routines, and focusing on positive feedback will help.
I know how important it is for me and other parents to advocate for helping all teachers have access to additional support staff to provide an appropriate program for students with learning disabilities and the other students in their classroom. This is something we want to do and appreciate when you let us know how we can advocate for you as you work with our students to be successful.
Thank you, dear teacher, for reading my letter. Please let me know how I, as your student’s mother, can help you with my child’s education.
Your student’s parent