Does My Son Have ADHD?

A parent disagrees with her child's teachers, who think he has ADHD.
Q
My second-grade son has a problem with paying attention. His first- and second-grade teachers are bringing up the possibility of ADHD, but I disagree. ADHD is the first excuse teachers think of when they can't reach a child. My son does not show any signs of hyperactivity -- he just has a problem with paying attention in certain situations. He's an A/B student, but when he isn't paying attention to the teacher, his grades drop. His paperwork (writing, spelling, and reading) is within his grade level.

I don't feel that he needs to be tested for ADHD. If he's interested in something, or if someone makes eye contact with him, he will pay attention. What do you think?

A
Many teachers have had at least some training to help them recognize the symptoms of ADHD. This is important, since teachers are in a great position to observe a child in many different settings or activities during the school day and collect data that helps a team confirm or rule out ADHD. This is a key to answering your question. You say that your son has difficulty paying attention in "certain situations." It's important to know exactly what these situations are, in order to really understand the nature of his inattention.

Some kids may appear to have difficulty "attending" during group instruction, when in reality they might have an auditory processing disorder, a type of learning disability that makes it very hard for them to understand what's being said, even though they can hear the sounds just fine. Other kids' minds wander when they are given math that's way beyond their level of mastery. If they don't understand how to do the problems, it's no wonder that they drift and seem inattentive. They see no hope of doing the work correctly and to keep at it may seem to them a waste of time.

Other kids may have dysgraphia, another type of learning disability that makes it hard for the brain to control the muscles of the arm and hand in order to write or draw, or do paper-and-pencil math very well. Their brains function more quickly than their hands. These kids take so much time to "draw" the letters and numbers that they get bored. The creative process gets put in the back seat by this problem with fine motor coordination. Still other kids find it hard to read the social cues in the classroom, and "tune out" because they can't keep up with the flow of verbal and nonverbal communication.

Ask the teachers to tell you more about what they see as inattention. Ask to see the written results of their observations in a variety of settings. It's important to remember that a child can have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder without being hyperactive, so the absence of that behavior does not rule out the condition. However, it's very important to analyze both the learning strengths and weaknesses of a child, and the demands of the classroom or the environment, as well as the style of teaching before anyone jumps to the conclusion that ADHD is the culprit. (Remember that boring teacher, Mr. Yawn? Enough to drive anybody to distraction.)

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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