Is it ADHD?

Our expert advises a parent who fears her son may have a disability.
My son is in first grade. All of his teachers say how much potential that he has, but that he has a problem focusing. They say that he is very well behaved, but when the teacher is doing a board assignment, for example, he's off in his own world, and when it comes time to do the work, he doesn't know what to do. It also takes him longer than the other children to do his work. When the teacher works one-on-one with him and points to what has to be done, he finishes on time. He constantly has to be redirected. Are these signs of a disability? What can I do to help him stay on task? Thank you.
Your son could be exhibiting some of the signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (without the hyperactivity). But before we jump to any conclusions, I would suggest that the teacher do the following:
  • When she's working at the board, have your son come up with her sometimes to hand her the chalk, make the marks for her, point to the sentence so other kids don't lose their place when they're copying, underline the most important words she writes, etc. Of course she won't do this all the time, and she'll ask other kids to do this as well, but you can bet it'll be hard for him not to focus.
  • When she's at the board, have two kids work with each other to make sure they are paying attention, and to have them do something interactive that's related to what's on the board. (Like solving a problem and raising their hands when they get it). This teaming for small tasks will help engage your son in a positive way and get his head out of the clouds.
  • To get him to work faster, divide the task into four sections and use an egg timer on the desk (or the teacher's desk, if it distracts him too much). He'll be expected to get all of the items in one section done by the time the timer goes off. If he beats the clock (and doesn't sacrifice accuracy), he can get some bonus points.
Some kids tune out because the work is too hard (or they think it is). Is the teacher sure that your son can handle the concepts she's teaching? Does he agree with her? Maybe she needs to make things more concrete, or check in with him more often during a lesson. Does he have problems with auditory processing (understanding spoken language in an active environment)? Ask for an observation by the speech and language therapist.

Some kids are more excited by what's going on in their heads than by what's coming out of the teacher's mouth. Is the teacher at the board too much? (This is first grade, not freshman year). Is your little boy bored? Are there ways to make learning more engaging for him. Has anyone asked him how he'd like to learn something? His answers might surprise you.

If all these things are being done and he's still tuning out, ask for a series of observations by the school psychologist. Then meet with the people at the school to consider the possible causes of this behavior. (By the way, do you see these behaviors at home or other places?) If you do, then there's more of a pattern and this may point to ADD/ADHD.

Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.

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