How to Advocate for Your ADHD Child

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If you have a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you are all too familiar with the inattention, impulsivity, and high-energy level symptomatic of the condition. According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), approximately three to seven percent of school-age children in the United States have this disorder.

Fortunately many public schools have excellent resources and the ability to help your child succeed in spite of his unique challenges. However, you'll still need to advocate for your child since the diagnosis of ADHD alone does not qualify a student for special education services. Classroom allowances and other helpful learning adjustments will likely be required to improve your child's academic performance and you'll have to ask for them. Here, expert advice from the NASP and Larry Davis, education advocate and author of The New School of thought on IEP & 504 Plans: Love, Understanding and Other Best Practices.

ADHD at School: First Steps

The key to success is having mutual understanding. "Before you come up with interventions and strategies to fix it, parents, the student and the school's administrative team need to be on the same page about what makes Sally tick. Without consensus, progress will be limited."

Davis advises parents to go beyond the label of ADHD and look carefully at all the data. Use the clinical evidence and the school-based information to come up with the best plan for your child. "Lots of kids are diagnosed with disabilities they don't have," Davis admits. "What these kids have are inconvenient emotional and behavior issues that require understanding."

Another important component is the school's attitude. Be wary of one-way thinking, cautions the expert. "Some schools want to pigeon-hole children. They assume your ADHD child is like one they've previously dealt with. Wrong! When schools do this, they miss the target every time," says Davis. "ADHD has a million different manifestations and can mean 10 million different things."

Before you meet with the school team, realize that the school's agenda may not be yours. "These days there are budget constraints woes and lots of kids to help. Parents may expect that the school will do everything it can to help their child. The reality is that the school may want to help but can't due to lack of staff, money or other factors. And there's always the possibility of being discouraged by a school that believes your child just doesn't fit into their system."

IEP or 504?

In Davis' 25 years of experience, the solution isn't always an Individual Education Plan (IEP). "In a nurturing school environment, an accommodation plan--also know as a 504--may be sufficient," Davis explains. With a 504 plan, the general education teacher gives intentional tweaks or allowances to the ADHD student to help her perform better. Providing extra time (or no time limits) during a test, for example or testing in a quiet space to compensate for distractibility.

Behavior modification strategies can also be effective. Many schools have had success with a written behavior contract that spells out student responsibilities and rewards (privileges at school or home if responsibilities are met).

The NASP believes that behavior modification works best when combined with medication. Numerous studies have found that medications such as Ritalin, Adderall, Strattera, or Wellbutrin enhance attention, reduce impulsive behavior, and increase academic productivity for the majority of children who are treated. Side effects are relatively benign and may include appetite reduction, insomnia, headaches, and stomachaches. Medication may be a recommended course of action for your child.

ADHD Resources for Parents

Negotiating your way through the public education maze and dealing with the plethora of information and decisions is an overwhelming experience for most parents. Several Web sites are devoted to the topic and have excellent online resources you can tap into.

Funded through the U.S. Department of Education, Education Parent Centers provide parent training and assistance regarding all types of disabilities: physical, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional. Each state has at least one. Parent Centers offer a variety of services including one-on-one support, workshops, and publications. Many staff members are parents of children with disabilities and bring personal experience and empathy to the process. Go to to find a parent center near you.

The National Resource Center on ADHD, a program of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (CHADD) also has information and resources. Learn more at and

Professional education advocate Davis recommends involving a neutral party. "It's not unusual for parents to experience strong emotions like anger, sorrow, and grief when going through this process," he says. "Don't do it alone. This isn't a situation where you can be confident everyone is working for your kid's best interest. A professional advocate will juggle all the balls and work to be sure the school is doing right by your child."

Ultimately Davis believes every ADHD child has unique gifts. "These kids can have incredible insights that can inspire teachers and fellow students alike," he says. "I don't see ADHD as a broken child thing. There's a place for people like this in our world and in our classrooms."

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Interview with Larry Davis, special education advocacy expert

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)

National Resource Center on ADHD

National Association of School Psychologists