How to Help a Teacher When Your Child Has ADHD

Teacher and students looking at tablet
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ADHD symptoms are often misunderstood. Sometimes the problematic behaviors are viewed as willful and intentional. If your child's teachers don’t have accurate information about ADHD, they may not recognize that these behaviors result from an impairment.

An Invisible Disability

ADHD is often referred to as an “invisible disability.” On the surface, symptoms may simply not be very obvious, yet they can significantly impair daily functioning.

Chris A. Zeigler Dendy, MS, a leading ADHD expert and author, a former teacher with more than 35 years experience, and mother of two grown sons and a daughter with ADHD, compares ADHD with an iceberg. “Like icebergs, many problems related to ADHD are not visible,” explains Dendy. While hyperactivity may be obvious, other issues may be hidden beneath the surface.

The Problem with Focusing on Student Behaviors

Often, teachers observe behavioral problems associated with ADHD and attribute them to voluntary, deliberate action. As a result, the response from the adult will be frustration, disappointment, or anger. The strategy will be to eliminate the child’s “bad” behavior. The assumption is that the child is the one who must do all the changing from the get-go. The idea of restructuring or modifying a child’s environment does not come into play.

Dr. Terry Illes, an expert on ADD/ADHD in the school setting, explains further; “The focus will be on stopping a behavior rather than on teaching new skills, the change will be rapid and negative consequences — or punishment — will be used to encourage this change. Thus, [the teacher believes] there is no need to make special accommodations for the child with ADHD.”

Why Greater Understanding Leads to Better Outcomes

Ideally, your child's teacher will understand that their student's difficulties are related to a learning issue that has an underlying neurological cause. When this is the case, your child’s problems are viewed more clearly as struggles and impairments that are not under the total control of the child. Teachers (and other adults) are then more likely to empathize with the child and react with proactive strategies and accommodations to help the child develop coping strategies for symptoms. They may also make more deliberate effort to teach the child new skills to reduce the need for maladaptive behaviors.

“The teacher intuitively understands that the student would prefer to be as academically successful as other students. And this insight directs the teacher to remediate or fix the student’s learning problem,” explains Dr. Illes. “The focus of change will be on skill building. The change will be gradual, and positive consequences will be used to reinforce this progress.”

Helping Teachers to Help Your Child

Teachers are a vital part of our children’s lives, and it is so important to work with them in a positive and collaborative manner. Connect and partner with the teacher. Be a resource for them in helping to provide educational information about ADHD.

Chris Dendy has created an ADD/ADHD Iceberg poster that helps illustrate this point. She lists these “not so obvious” areas of concern, which may include poor executive functioningsleep disturbanceimpaired sense of time, two- to four-year developmental delay, not learning easily from rewards and punishment, possible coexisting conditions, learning problems, low frustration tolerance, and difficulty controlling emotions. Recognizing these less “visible” impairments helps teachers understand more about the challenges students with ADHD often face.

Talk with the principal and check to see if your school has a CHADD Educator’s Manual on ADHD. This book provides an in-depth look at ADHD from an educational perspective and is a wonderful resource, offering practical, concrete strategies teachers can use to help students with ADHD succeed. As with any subject, the more you know about something, the more insight you will have and the better you will be at utilizing effective strategies.

2 Sources
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  1. Ohan JL, Visser TAW, Strain MC, Allen L. Teachers' and education students' perceptions of and reactions to children with and without the diagnostic label “ADHD”. J Sch Psychol. 2011;49(1):81-105. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2010.10.001

  2. Roberts BA, Martel MM, Nigg JT. Are there executive dysfunction subtypes within ADHD?. J Atten Disord. 2013;21(4):284-293. doi:10.1177/1087054713510349

Additional Reading
  • Dendy CAZ. Teaching Teens with ADD and ADHD: A Quick Reference Guide for Teachers and Parents. 2nd ed. Woodbine House; 2011.

  • Illes T. “Why Teachers Resist – Understanding Teacher Attitudes About ADHD.” The New CHADD Information and Resource Guide to AD/HD. National Resource Center; 2006.

By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.