Your son’s teacher just called. He’s not paying attention in class and his grades are beginning to show it. He has trouble focusing on the day’s lesson and is disruptive. Plus he had a meltdown, something that has happened more than once.


These behaviors may be a normal part of a child’s development, or they could be caused by Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, ADHD affects approximately 3 percent to 7 percent of all children in the United States, with boys diagnosed about three times as often as girls. If you suspect that your child has ADHD, don’t worry. An evaluation will be needed to determine whether your child has ADHD; if he does, he can still do as well in school and in life as kids without the disorder.

ADHD can appear as hyperactivity and impulsivity, inattentiveness, or a combination of these. Generally ADHD symptoms emerge by age 7, but often parents fail to see their child’s behavior as unusual because they haven’t compared it with that of other children. That’s why most diagnoses are made after school starts, when the teacher, viewing a child’s behavior in relation to his classmates, may recommend that he be evaluated by professionals.

ADHD is related to an impairment of the areas of the brain that control executive functions, such as memory and problem-solving. Symptoms may include:

  • Trouble retaining information
  • Disorganization
  • Difficulty establishing or using goals to guide behavior
  • Difficulty transitioning from one mental task to another

Many kids with ADHD have overpowering emotions and often become frustrated by tasks or situations. A child with hyperactivity may have a brain that intensifies impulsivity or hyperstimulates his reaction to sight, sound, or touch. Undiagnosed children often fall behind in school and may feel like they are failures.

For even the brightest of children with ADHD, school may not always make sense, says Atlanta-area educational consultant Joan Teach, who was a special education teacher for 50 years. Since kids with ADHD have so much trouble focusing, Teach says, “They may miss the middle, beginning, and the end.”

If your child has symptoms of ADHD and is struggling in school, the first step is to seek an evaluation through the public school system or through a private practice that specializes in diagnosing ADHD disorders. An evaluation will include a review of your child’s social and academic history, a medical exam, a psychological evaluation, and a psychiatric or neurological evaluation. Evaluators will want to talk to your child, his teachers, and his personal physician, as well as to you. Your child may be asked to perform computer-based or manipulative tests.

Getting Help at School

For some children diagnosed with ADHD, all they need to perform better in school is to learn strategies for directing their focus and energy. Others see improvement when a doctor prescribes medication. But some children need additional help.

Depending on how significantly ADHD affects your child, he may be able to receive services under either Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act or the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Both Section 504 and IDEA require educators to work with parents to develop a plan for how the school will meet the student’s educational needs.

Under Section 504, students whose ADHD is determined to substantially limit a major life activity, such as learning, may be able to receive classroom accommodations or additional services from the school. A school district’s Section 504 coordinator works with the schools and parents to accommodate student needs. Students covered under Section 504 usually stay in their regular classroom setting.

IDEA requires schools to accommodate students with an educational disability by providing special education services. Those covered under IDEA might stay in the same classroom, be placed in a special education classroom, or be pulled out for one-on-one instruction.

Some typical classroom accommodations include an extra set of textbooks to use at home; modified homework assignments; more test-taking time or a quieter area to take tests; increased computer use for written assignments; greater supervision of homework assignments; increased attention to time-management skills; social interaction and behavior plans; alternate seating arrangements; and use of tools like audiotapes, calculators, or PDAs.

The plan created for a child who qualifies for special education services is called an individualized education program. The IEP will list your child’s educational needs and goals and determine what services are necessary to meet them. The IEP team should include your child’s teachers; the school guidance or mental health counselor or psychologist; speech, language, or occupational therapists; special education teachers; and you. Because medication is often a primary treatment for ADHD, your child’s personal physician and the school nurse should also be kept in the loop.

To ensure that your child gets needed services, you should establish an ongoing and active partnership with your child’s teachers and IEP team. Because you know your child best, communication between the team and yourself is the key to the partnership’s success, says Eileen Card, director of academic affairs at Bachman Academy, a private school near Chattanooga, Tenn., for children with learning disabilities and ADHD. To prepare for the IEP conference, Card suggests that you read up on the process before the meeting, write down questions, and bring a tape recorder to catch information you might otherwise miss.

Card recommends that parents take home a copy of documents and read them the next day before signing them. “An IEP meeting moves at a fairly quick pace, and something you deemed most important may have inadvertently been omitted in the document,” she says.

Keep in mind that even if your child’s ADHD is managed by medication, he may need to catch up on the social, emotional, and academic learning he missed before his diagnosis, Card says. Parents can consider steps like summer school, additional remedial classes, or tutoring to help regain those losses.

At home, you should encourage your child to stay organized with task lists, calendars, and other tools; provide tutoring or tutoring help; encourage a healthy diet with plenty of physical exercise and sleep; and develop routines that will help your child manage his ADHD at home and school. All these actions should work in tandem with the IEP.

Students diagnosed with ADHD may bore easily and will find ways to entertain themselves when lacking in stimulation. Parents can work with teachers to suggest additional hands-on activities to keep their child from getting distracted. Overall, your main goal as a parent is to see that your child’s academic workload keeps him actively learning and stimulated, but not overwhelmed to the degree that it prevents his success.

A diagnosis of ADHD does not mean that your child will always struggle academically. Even those students needing extra help or special considerations can be just as successful as their classmates. Parents play a key role by monitoring their child’s progress and working in partnership with his teachers to make sure his learning issues are addressed and he gets what he needs to do well in school.

More Information on ADHD

A national resource center for adults and children diagnosed with ADHD, as well as the professionals who work with them.

National Institute of Mental Health
An agency of the National Institutes of Health dealing with mental health issues for adults and children worldwide.

Attention Deficit Disorder Association
An organization dedicated to providing support and resources to adults with ADHD.

American Psychiatric Association
Provides resources and support materials on mental disorders, including ADHD.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Research and information for families and professionals on mental, behavioral, and developmental disorders.