Nearly 10 percent of children in the United States are diagnosed with ADHD, so schools are learning how to adjust the classroom to help all children be successful.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 9.5 percent of children 4-17 — or 5.4 million children — have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2007. The number of parent-reported cases increased 22 percent from 2003-2007.
When it comes to academics and ADHD there is a difference between a medical diagnosis and educational diagnosis, said Polly Ortiz-Lutz, Jefferson County Public Schools director of special education who is also a licensed school psychologist.
“We don’t do medical diagnoses at schools,” Ortiz-Lutz said. “We look at characteristics that prevent them from being successful at school. The key is does it significantly interfere with both academic and social success. It does have to interfere with both of those.”
When a child is suspected of having ADHD based on symptoms such as attention problems, over-activity and impulsiveness to the extent it interferes with academics, a multidisciplinary team works with the child and his parents to figure out how to best help him succeed, Ortiz-Lutz said.
A team consisting of the school psychologist, social worker, teacher, special education teacher and others look at three areas to determine the condition’s pervasiveness — at home, at school and in the community.
“For kids, common things we look for are they are less attentive, more impulsive and more active,” Ortiz-Lutz said. “The difficult part of it is kids are kids. The active part we love, the creative part we love. They’re thinking outside of the box and have energy. That’s what young children do. We’re very cautious that we don’t put labels on kids when that is typical behavior.”
Often, Ortiz-Lutz said, children with ADHD have average or above average IQs, but because of attention deficit, they don’t turn in work and don’t pay attention, making it difficult to get good grades.
Because of rising levels of ADHD, which really have no one explanation according to Ortiz-Lutz, teachers are being trained on how to deal with and educate children with ADHD.
“One of the things we always talk about is what we’re looking for is knowledge and skill acquisition, not production,” she said. “Teachers can look at the production of work differently, give them credit and praise them. They can show knowledge and skill acquisition in ways other than four pages of homework.”
Most Jeffco children with ADHD stay in their core classroom settings instead of being pulled out to receive special assistance, and the classroom is modified to enhance their attention.
For children that have tons of energy — a common characteristic of ADHD — schools provide small, non-distracting ways to let them get that energy out, improving their focus in the classroom. Examples include items they can play with, straws to chew on and wrapped bike tubes between the legs of their desk to tap their feet on, Ortiz-Lutz said.
Keeping children in their core classrooms helps them improve both work production and social skills, she said, and teachers have been trained to focus on positive behavior support plans, or PBSP.
PBSP uses positive reinforcement instead of punishment to help children learn the appropriate behaviors.
ADHD has a continuum of mild to severe symptoms, and children with more severe symptoms often need more support, she said.
One of the biggest components to success is advocacy — from the child’s parents, healthcare providers, school officials and even the child.
“We collaborate and consult with family and outside stakeholders supporting the child,” Ortiz-Lutz said. “The parent knows the child best and we collaborate with medical providers, the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, the Division of Youth Corrections, high schools. We’re not doing this in isolation.”
As children age and matriculate into middle school and high school, they are taught to advocate for themselves.
“We help them realize their uniqueness,” she said. “We show them it can be something positive. They are really creative kids, it just looks a little different than the kids sitting doing seat work easily. As they get into middle and high school, we really start teaching advocacy skills because they have to manage and understand ADHD and advocate for themselves.”
ADHD often lasts into adulthood, but many children learn to cope and control their symptoms.