Pay Attention! ADHD & Special Education Law
Students with "invisible" disabilities often face misinformation, misunderstanding, and misjudgment.
Perhaps the most common "invisible" disability is Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"). Students with ADHD can present as highly intelligent and academically capable, but may struggle to organize and finish tasks, attend to details, and follow instructions. Some students have another diagnosis (e.g., autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, emotional disturbance, learning disability), which is complicated by a dual diagnosis of ADHD.
Because attention problems are considered "normal" for all children, many students with ADHD do not receive the understanding and interventions they need (and deserve). What does the law say? What can be done?
A short summary and some suggestions.
ADHD is a Legally-Recognized Disability
ADHD is a well-researched, well-established neurodevelopmental disorder, often diagnosed in childhood and frequently lasting into adulthood. ADHD is characterized by difficulties with paying attention, problems controlling impulsive behavior, and being overly active. Children with ADHD demonstrate hyperactivity and inattention noticeably greater than expected for their age and/or have problems functioning at home, at school, and/or in social situations.
IDEA, the main federal special education law, creates thirteen (13) categories of legally-recognized disability. Among the categories is "Other Health Impairment," which includes having "a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment ... due to chronic ... health problems such as ... [ADHD]" that "adversely affects a child's educational performance." 34 CFR § 300.8 (c)(9).
It's Not Just "Special Education"
Some students with ADHD don't need the support of a special education teacher, but may still be entitled to a "504 Plan" of accommodations and supports. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") require schools to make reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities, including students whose ADHD substantially limits their ability to access education.
A student's academic achievement doesn't necessarily mean she does, or does not, have a disability. A student with ADHD may get good grades, but nevertheless be entitled to 504/ADA accommodations because of the additional time or effort she must spend compared to the general population to complete projects, take tests, or attend in class.
Consult a Health Care Professional. Although a formal ADHD diagnosis is not necessary to qualify for special education supports and accommodations (the school is required to conduct its own evaluation), the assessment and recommendations of a qualified health care professional can help establish disability and guide programming decisions. In addition, although schools cannot require a student to take medication, some families find medication helpful as part of an overall program that includes other supports and accommodations.
Advocate for Accommodations. Students with ADHD may benefit from a range of accommodations, including positive behavior supports, extended time on tests, movement breaks, checks for understanding, and testing in a separate location with minimal distractions.
Push Skill-Building Supports. A plan that only accommodates the student's ADHD may not be a good long-term solution. Proactive supports should also be included to help the student build skills to "work around" the fact that he or she struggles with attention and will likely continue to do so throughout his or her life. These proactive supports can include resource room or tutoring services that teach organizational tools and strategies, including homework folders, graphic organizers, and checklists.
Empathy & Patience Please. Our natural response to a child not paying attention is to remind/encourage them to "Pay Attention!" - with that instruction often not being provided in a particularly patient way. Paradoxically, telling someone who struggles with attention to "Pay Attention!" or (worse) reacting negatively or disciplining them will very likely increase their anxiety and frustration, thereby decreasing their attention and impulse control even further! Understanding and information are key to calibrating our responses in ways that create strong relationships, foster self-confidence, and build self-advocacy skills in students. Here's some good guidance.