Navigating the school system can be one of the most challenging situations for parents of kids with ADHD. These children often require special support to succeed. And while most schools offer some kind of resources, accessing them isn’t always easy. In this chapter, we look at how to find the right school for a child with ADHD and how to advocate within the school system to ensure special modifications are put in place.
When it was time to enroll her daughter Layne in kindergarten, Joan Chand’oiseau left no stone unturned.
“I went to every school—Catholic, public and even some private—and interviewed every principal on what resources would be available,” Joan says.
While Layne hadn’t been officially diagnosed yet, Joan’s husband had ADHD, and it seemed likely Layne did too. She moved so much at the table that she would often fall off her chair; she had trouble regulating her emotions; and she would sometimes lose focus during a simple task like going to her room to get her hairbrush.
The most supportive school was outside their school district and 20 minutes away, so Joan drove her daughter back and forth every day.
“Right from the very first meeting, I knew it was the right school. They were deliberate with a plan and used language that was respectful,” Joan says.
Here are some tips for finding the right school for your kid, whether they are just starting out, switching schools, or ready to graduate to middle or high school.
Start early Begin your research at least one year ahead—if possible—as the schools with the best resources can fill up fast.
Conduct interviews This will help you understand whether the school is flexible enough to accommodate your kid and find out what special resources will be put in place. The first step is meeting the school principal, who can then connect you with classroom and resource teachers. The principal may even be willing to reach out to ADHD families already in the school to ask if they’ll chat with you.
Tour the school Some schools have formal tours during open houses; others will arrange smaller tours for incoming families. Ask to see classes in progress, and make sure you pay attention to the homework up on bulletin boards to understand the kinds of tasks kids are expected to do.
Get an individual education plan (IEP) This is a written document that outlines a specialized teaching approach for children with special needs. An IEP summarizes accommodations and modifications in broad strokes and is typically drawn up collaboratively by the school and the parents.
Request accommodations These could include supports, like being able to listen to audio recordings of textbooks, using a computer supplied by the school board or having weekly one-on-one time with a resource teacher. Accommodations could also include extra time to complete tests or fewer pages of homework. However, kids with ADHD are still expected to complete the standard curriculum.
If necessary, request modifications Go beyond accommodations for children who are not able to meet the basic curriculum requirements. For example, if most kids need to learn to spell 20 words for a French test, a child with modifications in place might only need to be given 10 words—or a different and less demanding set of words.
Depending on your school board and your kid’s personal situation, there are different processes for the initiation of an IEP, but it usually begins with the school principal. Typically, parents or a teacher will approach the principal and request an IEP be put in place. Parents are always involved in the process, either by attending a meeting at the school or signing off on the child’s IEP.
Sometimes a child goes through a more intensive process to get a formal designation or code, which should give them access to more resources. Most provinces do not give a formal designation for ADHD, but they may provide an alternative designation such as “learning disability” or “behaviour” in regards to a child’s ADHD symptoms. These formal designation processes usually involve representatives from the child’s school (the principal, classroom teacher or resource teacher), as well as the school board (such as a social worker or psychologist). Parents should participate in these meetings and are usually allowed to bring third-party advocates, such as a grandparent or private therapist.
The specific details on how to obtain an IEP and what it entails vary by province and school board.
Parents of children with special needs often learn that it pays to be pushy in the healthcare and school systems. Advocacy works best when it is firm but respectful. In the school system, parents may need to be persistent and follow up after initial requests, such as when a principal is resistant to putting an IEP in place or a child who has ADHD is having problems with peers.
Be organized Keep written notes of all your conversations with educators or healthcare professionals, along with what they’ve promised to do. If you don’t hear back, follow up.
Escalate If you feel teachers aren’t being helpful, progress to the school’s resource teacher or the principal. Beyond that, you can escalate the situation and contact a school trustee or superintendent. If you feel blocked in a hospital setting, reach out to the patient relations team for advice on the right escalation path.
Keep pushing Advocacy is an ongoing process; it doesn’t stop when a goal has been reached. If you’ve had to push for an IEP and finally have one in place, celebrate the victory, but also book a follow-up meeting with the principal and teacher for a few weeks later to ensure the IEP is being implemented and is helping.
Connect with all the teachers Families of kids with ADHD often find the transition into middle school a challenge. In earlier grades, where kids spend most of the day with a single teacher, teachers are better able to understand the special needs of each student. But starting in grade six or seven, kids can have six or more teachers for different subjects. And those teachers can see as many as 200 different students per week.
“I will be the one who sends the email to all the teachers saying, ‘I am introducing my son. I hope to have a successful year. Please note the child does have ADHD. He does have an IEP. If you do need any strategies, please contact me,’” says Karen Ryan of Vancouver.
The good news is that by the time they reach middle school, kids with ADHD are often ready to play a greater role in their own advocacy. It’s good to encourage them to speak up respectfully when they need to remind one of their teachers about the special accommodations that have been put in place through the IEP.