behavioral specialist

I Suspect My Child May Have a Developmental Difference: Could it be ADHD?

"If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn." - Ignacio Estrada

Our modern education system requires students to sit stationary for long periods of time. Traditional school settings often impose expectations that may not be developmentally appropriate or ideal for your child’s learning style. There is a range of acceptable behavior and coping skills that most students employ to get through their school day.

However, for some students, the expectation of sustained attention and kinesthetic limitations is unrealistic. These children may be diagnosed with the neurodevelopmental disorder called ADHD. This disorder can have significant impact on school, home, relationships, and quality of life. However, children with ADHD can lead successful personal and academic careers, with the support of knowledgeable adults and the development of coping strategies. An ADHD diagnosis can provide the framework to design an appropriate, individualized plan to help your child thrive.

What are the signs?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines ADHD as a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. This pattern must persist for at least six months, be inconsistent with the child’s developmental level, and have a pervasive impact on social, occupational or academic activities.

Here is a full read of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD.

There are three subtypes of ADHD. These include the following:

  • Inattentive
  • Hyperactive/ compulsive
  • Combined type

This means that ADHD can manifest in different ways. The stereotype of the child with ADHD bouncing like a ping pong ball simply does not capture the range of manifestations of this disorder.

Parents and educational teams may observe the following in a child with ADHD:

  • Disorganization
  • Impulsivity
  • Low task completion
  • Difficulty retaining, restating, or following instructions
  • “Spacey” behavior, or appearing to be ignoring or tuned out
  • Inability to persist through difficult or lengthy tasks
  • Fidgeting or being “in constant motion”
  • Difficulty initiating tasks
  • Moodiness

ADHD impacts roughly 5% of school-aged children in the United States, with boys being three times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.

Where do I start?

Chances are, if your child is school-aged, a teacher may have already approached you about your child’s attention and behavior. Because they see your child in the context of their peers and through the lens of curricular expectations, educators are often the first to approach parents about such concerns.

A good next step is initiating a conversation is with your pediatrician. At your request, your child's pediatrician will use standardized tools to screen your son or daughter for certain behaviors that may be indicative of ADHD. Comprehensive and best practice evaluations are those where data is gathered from multiple sources and across environments. Parents, teachers, and caregivers may be asked to complete rating scales. Observations and clinical interviews may be completed as well.

All this being said, ADHD can be overdiagnosed. Many other learning or developmental differences can manifest in similar ways to ADHD. For this reason, a comprehensive evaluation (not a simple one checklist approach) is recommended. Furthermore, it’s important to differentiate between a condition that has a “pervasive impact on social, occupational or academic activities” and one that simply presents with behaviors outside of a teacher or caregiver’s preference. Simply ask, “Is this set of behaviors impacting my child’s learning?”

Addressing ADHD: The Medication Question and Other Treatment Options

Many families are reluctant to seek an ADHD diagnosis, because they perceive the reception of this label as synonymous with medication. However, medication is only one of many interventions that may be effective for your child and is not mandatory by any means. We invite you to instead see an ADHD diagnosis as a means of providing context about your child’s needs and behaviors, as well as a possible entitlement to services within the school system.

A myriad of treatment interventions are available for ADHD. These include instructional interventions and accommodations, behavioral support programs, medication, biofeedback, counseling, diet, natural supplements, and more. While medication can be an effective component in the treatment of ADHD, it is not a “magic bullet” and is most impactful when paired with a strong, consistent support system.

Regardless of the treatment option(s) your family chooses, the key to successful intervention is a close, collaborative relationship among caregivers and educators. Work with your child’s educational or care team to determine effectiveness of the interventions, and the impact on your child’s educational and life outcomes.

School Services

ADHD is a medical diagnosis, that must be provided by a licensed physician. It can be confirmed and recognized by your child’s school, but cannot be diagnosed by teachers.

Once you receive a diagnosis from your doctor, you may choose to provide this documentation to the school. From there, your child’s educational team should consider this in light of current educational needs. Again, a guiding question should be whether specialized instruction or accommodations are required, to prevent the disability from impacting learning.

A starting point is to ask for a conference with your child’s teacher, guidance counselor, and/or the campus Response to Intervention (RTI) committee. Behavioral, organizational, and self-monitoring interventions could be tailored and attempted to support your child’s progress. Research-based interventions for ADHD are simple, but must be implemented with fidelity in order to be effective.

If your child’s behavioral or attention needs are impeding learning to a marked degree, a Section 504 or Individual Education Plan may need to be developed. At this point, the RTI committee or educational team may refer your family to the campus Licensed Specialist in School Psychology or Section 504 Coordinator. From there, with your consent and input, a more supportive education plan may be developed to meet your child’s needs.

How can we help?

In the coming months, please revisit our blog as we continue our discussion of developmental differences, educational planning, and how to advocate for and empower your child.

If you have questions about your child's educational or developmental needs and feel that you would like to learn more or benefit from one-on-one support, we provide our potential clients phone consultations to learn more about our services and how we can help you personally.

Melissa Jones is one of our wonderful family advisers specializing in navigating the special education and disability diagnosis process. This includes seeking or understanding the results of academic, behavioral/emotional, or cognitive testing, engaging in the Individual Education Plan process within the school environment, and creating an informed, supportive and therapeutic support network for your child and family. Melissa has a strong passion for special education, specifically working with families and schools to create inclusive, holistic, and rigorous experiences for all learners. She believes that children with learning differences should be knowledgeable about their needs and learning styles, so that they can be their own best advocates! Read more about Melissa in her bio.

If you'd like additional resources on this topic, visit the ADHD Institute.