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The Law, Your ADHD Child and School

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Many children with ADHD have learning difficulties in school. Did you know the law requires public school systems to accommodate children with ADHD and learning disabilities?

Many children with ADHD have learning difficulties in school. Did you know the law requires public school systems to accommodate children with ADHD and learning disabilities?Children with ADHD have a variety of needs. Some children are too hyperactive or inattentive to function in a regular classroom, even with medication and a behavior management plan. Such children may be placed in a special education class for all or part of the day. In some schools, the special education teacher teams with the classroom teacher to meet each child's unique needs. However, most children are able to stay in the regular classroom. Whenever possible, educators prefer to not to segregate children, but to let them learn along with their peers.

Children with ADHD often need some special accommodations to help them learn. For example, the teacher may seat the child in an area with few distractions, provide an area where the child can move around and release excess energy, or establish a clearly posted system of rules and reward appropriate behavior. Sometimes just keeping a card or a picture on the desk can serve as a visual reminder to use the right school behavior, like raising a hand instead of shouting out, or staying in a seat instead of wandering around the room. Giving a child like Lisa extra time on tests can make the difference between passing and failing, and gives her a fairer chance to show what she's learned. Reviewing instructions or writing assignments on the board, and even listing the books and materials they will need for the task, may make it possible for disorganized, inattentive children to complete the work.

Many of the strategies of special education are simply good teaching methods. Telling students in advance what they will learn, providing visual aids, and giving written as well as oral instructions are all ways to help students focus and remember the key parts of the lesson.

Students with ADHD often need to learn techniques for monitoring and controlling their own attention and behavior. For example, Mark's teacher taught him several alternatives for when he loses track of what he's supposed to do. He can look for instructions on the blackboard, raise his hand, wait to see if he remembers, or quietly ask another child. The process of finding alternatives to interrupting the teacher has made him more self-sufficient and cooperative. And because he now interrupts less, he is beginning to get more praise than reprimands.

In Lisa's class, the teacher frequently stops to ask students to notice whether they are paying attention to the lesson or if they are thinking about something else. The students record their answer on a chart. As students become more consciously aware of their attention, they begin to see progress and feel good about staying better focused. The process helped make Lisa aware of when she was drifting off, so she could return her attention to the lesson faster. As a result, she became more productive and the quality of her work improved.

Because schools demand that children sit still, wait for a turn, pay attention, and stick with a task, it's no surprise that many children with ADHD have problems in class. Their minds are fully capable of learning, but their hyperactivity and inattention make learning difficult. As a result, many students with ADHD repeat a grade or drop out of school early. Fortunately, with the right combination of appropriate educational practices, medication, and counseling, these outcomes can be avoided.

Right to a Free Public Education

Although parents have the option of taking their child to a private practitioner for evaluation and educational services, most children with ADHD qualify for free services within the public schools. Steps are taken to ensure that each child with ADHD receives an education that meets his or her unique needs. For example, the special education teacher, working with parents, the school psychologist, school administrators, and the classroom teacher, must assess the child's strengths and weaknesses and design an Individualized Educational Program (IEP). The IEP outlines the specific skills the child needs to develop as well as appropriate learning activities that build on the child's strengths. Parents play an important role in the process. They must be included in meetings and given an opportunity to review and approve their child's IEP.

Many children with ADHD or other disabilities are able to receive such special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Act guarantees appropriate services and a public education to children with disabilities from ages 3 to 21. Children who do not qualify for services under IDEA can receive help under an earlier law, the National Rehabilitation Act, Section 504, which defines disabilities more broadly. Qualifying for services under the National Rehabilitation Act is often called "504 eligibility."

Because ADHD is a disability that affects children's ability to learn and interact with others, it can certainly be a disabling condition. Under one law or another, most children can receive the services they need.

You are your child's best advocate. To be a good advocate for your child, learn as much as you can about ADHD and how it affects your child at home, in school, and in social situations.

If your child has shown symptoms of ADHD from an early age and has been evaluated, diagnosed, and treated with either behavior modification or ADHD medication or a combination of both, when your child enters the school system, let his or her teachers know. They will be better prepared to help the child come into this new world away from home.

If your child enters school and experiences difficulties that lead you to suspect that he or she has ADHD, you can either seek the services of an outside professional or you can ask the local school district to conduct an evaluation. Some parents prefer to go to a professional of their own choice. But it is the school's obligation to evaluate children that they suspect have ADHD or some other disability that is affecting not only their academic work but their interactions with classmates and teachers.

If you feel that your child has ADHD and isn't learning in school as he or she should, you should find out just who in the school system you should contact. Your child's teacher should be able to help you with this information. Then you can request—in writing—that the school system evaluate your child. The letter should include the date, your and your child's names, and the reason for requesting an evaluation. Keep a copy of the letter in your own files.

Until the last few years, many school systems were reluctant to evaluate a child with ADHD. But recent laws have made clear the school's obligation to the child suspected of having ADHD that is affecting adversely his or her performance in school. If the school persists in refusing to evaluate your child, you can either get a private evaluation or enlist some help in negotiating with the school. Help is often as close as a local parent group. Each state has a Parent Training and Information (PTI) center as well as a Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agency. (For information on the law and on the PTI and P&A, see the section on support groups and organizations at the end of this document.)

Once your child has been diagnosed with ADHD and qualifies for special education services, the school, working with you, must assess the child's strengths and weaknesses and design an Individualized Educational Program (IEP). You should be able periodically to review and approve your child's IEP. Each school year brings a new teacher and new schoolwork, a transition that can be quite difficult for the child with ADHD. Your child needs lots of support and encouragement at this time.

Never forget the cardinal rule—you are your child's best advocate.

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