Help! My son has ADHD and his teacher makes him feel like a horrible kid!

By Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

Question: 

My son has ADHD, and keeps touching other kids (not aggressively; Just little stuff that he can’t help.) He has an IEP.  The teacher puts him way in the back of the room to be away from the other kids, since being close to other kids distracts him, and the touching distracts other kids.  His teacher also sometimes takes away recess.  She tells me that making him sit in the back of the class, away from the other students (who sit in pods) is not a punishment, but my son feels like it is, and it is making him feel shamed.  How do I deal with this?

Answer:

Well, Concerned Mom, you are definitely not alone. Other people’s negative reactions to our children’s uncontrollable behaviors are certainly relatable and unfortunate occurrences.  And your mama-bear reaction to your son’s sense of shame speaks volumes about the type of sensitive and caring parent that you are.

So, Concerned Mom, this is a very complicated issue with many facets, so let me try to systematically address it from all angles for you:

First off, understand that the following phenomenon may be happening:

adhdmryuck

Next, let’s look at what you are trying to accomplish.  As far as I can tell, you have three main goals:

1)  Get rid of/stave off any behaviors that may be “behavioral” (that he is actually able to control.)

2)  Provide accommodations so that your son is ABLE to succeed given his real neurological condition.

3)  Preserve his motivation/self esteem.

Here are my suggestions for accomplishing all three of these goals in your particular circumstance:

1)  Tips for avoiding/staving off any “behavioral” issues (stuff he can help, stuff not related to his ADHD):

a)  Meet with that teacher ASAP.  (Not email.  Meet.)

b)  Validate and appreciate her position.  “I understand that it is difficult to teach when…”   Start out the conversation with, “I know you are the kind of teacher that really cares and that we both want the same thing- for Jimmy to be successful…” (even if you don’t really think that.) Only then will you have her ear.

c)  Educate her on the “authority anger—-> shame/disobedience cycle.”  Feel free to show her my handy dandy diagram.

d)  Educate her on the reality of ADHD as a neurological condition.  Bring her an article or a note from a doctor.  Whatever it takes to reduce any annoyance/disgust and increase her patience level.  This is important, because no matter how many stickers the teacher gives him, your son can absolutely sniff out her attitude.

e)  GIVE HER a bag full of coupons/stickers/rewards that you would like her to offer your son whenever she notices that he is not touching another kid for a certain amount of time.  (rewarding short term successes is important, because if provides motivation for him to strive for long-term successes.)  You want this teacher to get in the habit of looking for opportunities for positive feedback.

2)  Make sure proper accommodations for your son’s success are in place.

a)  Just because he has an IEP does not mean the proper accommodations are in place.  In fact, often times, very generic “accommodations” are inserted in the IEP that may or may not help the individual kid at all.  Take a LOOK at the IEP, bring it to his therapist, and make sure the school is doing what would actually be helpful to your son.  If changes need to be made (and it looks like they do), call the principal and schedule a follow-up meeting. If you are so inclined, you could also hire an psychologist/advocate to sit with you at the meeting.  (But typically those are pricey, so I would first see if the school is amenable before I’d hire an advocate.)

b)  This is my rationale and the accommodations I would suggest:  Often times difficulties inhibiting behaviors(impulsivity of ADHD) overlaps with compulsive behaviors (strong, intrusive urges to do something in order to relieve an undesirable experience such as boredom or anxiety.)  If he keeps touching other kids, your son may be impulsive and compulsive.  Therefore, he would likely benefit from increased engagement (closer to front of the room, increased verbal cues/ auditory cues/ visual cues and questions asked by teacher) combined with a replacement behavior (something to do to keep him from touching.) and increased physical activity interspersed in small amounts throughout the day (No, don’t take away recess.).  If this does not improve the situation, he may need to be removed from the enticing stimuli of other children while also ensuring engagement — And this CAN be accomplished without shaming him, as long as it is done right (see #3).

c)  These are the suggestions I have for outside of school to ensure your son’s optimal success:  Impulsivity can be helped tremendously by mindfulness training, which teaches people how to simply observe their inner experiences (of boredom in your son’s case) without having to act on an impulse.  It would be ideal to find a therapist that could teach him mindfulness while also consulting with you on accommodations, educating him on his ADHD, and managing slights to his self-concept.  In addition, I would suggest at least getting a consultation with a pediatric psychiatrist to explore the pros and cons of medication.  And finally, I would suggest that you explore the possibility of neurofeedback, which has shown success in helping train children to inhibit desired behaviors.

3)  Preserve your son’s motivation and self-esteem.

a)  Educate your son on his ADHD, explaining it matter-of-factly as a difference in his brain, that makes it harder for him to pay attention or stop himself from doing stuff.

b)  Put him in a group (a fun group, not just a group where kids talk about ADHD) that includes at least a couple other kids with ADHD.  Make sure he knows that he’s not alone.

c)  When you meet with his teacher, let her know that you understand that his impulsivity can be frustrating, but that you are noticing that he really takes other people’s reactions to heart.  Point out that although it may not look like it, the teacher’s tone of voice and facial expressions really matter to your son.  In the event that he needs extra help or to sit at the front of the room away from the distraction of his friends, such an accommodations should be stated matter-of-factly.

d)  Use “me too,” A LOT.  Share times that you have messed-up, made mistakes, forgotten things, etc, from both your childhood and your adulthood, and let him know early and often that this is a part of life.  Also talk to him about the “accommodations” you make for yourself, such as alarm clocks, grocery lists, etc. And, for god’s sakes, please ask if there is any way that the teacher can change the classroom arrangement from pods to just regular desks.  I mean, putting him at the front of the room will make him stick out like a sore thumb, and in the scheme of things, is the desk formation really that big of a deal? 🙂

Best of luck, Concerned Mom, with managing the difficult situation you are in.  Your obvious involvement in your son’s well-being tells me that you are doing a great job, and I’m sending lots of validation and support your way!

Be sure to check out my Facebook page, And if you have any questions for me to answer about parenting, relationships, or psychology in general, shoot me a message– If you’re lucky, I might give you a cartoon picture or a marker flow-chart since I’m blunt and entertaining like that.

Disclaimer: While intended to be food for thought, the advice provided on this site is not intended to replace or act as therapeutic intervention/diagnosis formulation. Please consult with a professional who conducts an in-depth intake/evaluation/interview/observation in the event that you need therapeutic assistance.

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8 thoughts on “Help! My son has ADHD and his teacher makes him feel like a horrible kid!

  1. This is awesome! And validating. My husband and I were just discussing some of these things as we are getting ready to meet with our son’s teacher. I’ll be showing this to him. He didn’t see that we had time for all this ‘touchy-feely, telling her how great she is stuff” when clearly she’s not exactly loving our kid, which is totally understandable — he works our nerves on a daily basis. I was trying to explain to him that it was important for her to see that we are on her side, which we absolutely are since a partnership between teacher and parent is essential for students’ success. Thanks to you I might actually let my husband come to the meeting now! 🙂

  2. Thanks Dr. Shiels for having a link to a post in our Special Needs Blog, “Fidgets for ADHD: Toys or Tools for Children with Special Needs?” Since that post was written we have designed another chew necklace that also double up as a hand fidget like our original (2007) KidCompanions Chewelry does. They are called SentioCHEWS and are on a longer, 24 inch breakaway lanyard and more durable to satisfy more aggressive chewers. Both are found at http://www.kidcompanions.com

  3. This is a great post. I’m an elementary-teacher-turned-high-school-math teacher and I can’t reiterate enough how important (a) is. We, as teachers, don’t know your child has ADHD unless you tell us so. Sure, we can suspect, but the truth is there are dozens of reasons why a child, even a teenager, is fidgety, or a daydreamer, or impulsive. As a matter of fact, I really hate it when people throw around “ADHD” as a tagline. “Oh my gosh, I forgot to call you. I’m so ADHD.” No, you’re not. There are real kids and adults walking around struggling with a very real problem. Unless you actually have ADHD, you don’t have ADHD.

    That being said, we as teachers should be extremely wary of self-diagnosing the kids ourselves. Parents shouldn’t want us to do that. On the other hand, it’s also extremely important that if there’s a pattern of what appears to be uncontrolled impulsivity, or fidgting, or inattentiveness, that we let the parents know. So, parents, be receptive to the possibility that this might be the case. But teachers, our charge is greater. We can’t claim that every kid who can’t sit still has ADHD. Just because they’re not doing what we say to do doesn’t make a student ADHD. Usually, that’s not the case. Sometimes he’s just being a kid. But sometimes it’s not. We have to be vigilant in knowing the character and the children so well that we know the difference between the two.

    So thanks for encouraging parents and teachers to communicate. We, as teachers, really do love your kids. Well, I love my students like my own, anyway. We’re really all in this together.

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