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punishing an ADHD child in school doesn't work, accommodations do

Posted Mar 01 2010 6:42am
I started an "a mom's view of ADHD" fan page on Facebook recently. Anyone a member of Facebook (who isn't these days?) can access a discussion forum there to share ideas and experiences with each other. I have wanted to have a discussion tool for myself and my readers for a long time now. In just over two weeks, there are 38 fans and we have three discussions going. I am thrilled. It is so calming to know there are so many others on a parallel journey.

Within the discussions and comments on the wall from other parents of ADHD, I am seeing a real trend. I am seeing this same issue surface again and again in other ADHD parenting forums I follow as well. ADHD kids are being punished at school for non-compliance due to ADHD symptoms out of their control.

PUNISHMENTS AND CONSEQUENCES DO NOT ALTER OUR CHILDREN'S NEUROLOGICAL DIFFERENCE SO THAT THEY CAN COMPLY! If punishments and consequences worked, it would just be parenting skills and our children's listening skills and they'd be cured and there wouldn't be an ADHD. What an exciting thought but completely and utterly fictitious.

Believe me, we tried punishment with Luke. At one point, my son had zero toys in his room. (This was due to a soiling issue we were having. At the time, we had no idea it was more than stubbornness and laziness with toileting. We now know it's called Encopresis and is related to his ADHD since it's no longer a problem since starting ADHD medication. That's another subject altogether though and one I've never touched on here because I didn't want a permanent and very public record of it for Luke when he's older.) He lost all his toys from non-compliance on this issue when he was about 5 years old. He had to earn them each back but he couldn't. It didn't work. He still couldn't control the offending behavior despite loosing all his toys and desperately wanting to earn them back. At that point I knew we were up against something beyond his control. And when I had that epiphone, he got all his toys back immediately.

I still carry an enormous amount of guilt for all the loss of toys and privileges we prescribed for behaviors completely out of his control. I feel overwhelmingly sad every time I think about this particular incident in our family history. We even instilled shame and embarrassment to try to help him change the behavior. We made him feel really awful. We thought we were helping him having no idea he has this neurological difference, this ADHD.

So punishments don't change ADHD. The part of a child's brain that controls regulating impulses is weakened or not functioning in an ADHD child. This is the part of the brain that reminds a child they will get into trouble if they don't finish their math worksheet on time, raise their hand in class before talking, or take their time and improve the quality of their school work.

What is even more sad than thinking of these children being punished as purposefully non-compliant at all is to think about the typical punishment for these children in a school setting. More often that not, they are banned from participating in recess, gym class, or field trips. These activities are taken away because they are activities kids enjoy. But these activities are three of the most important parts of the school day for ADHD children. And they are activities that will actually help an ADHD child to focus on school work. Exercise boosts brain function ! It makes it easier to sustain mental focus for longer periods of time by increasing blood flow to the brain. Exercise is brain fuel.

This entire discussion on ADHD kids being punished for behaviors out of their control at school encompasses the topic I am so passionate about these days: classroom accommodations for ADHD children. When an ADHD child is really understood at school and accommodations are made to give them a level playing field and an equal opportunity for education and learning there is no need for punishment. Even better, they can feel good about themselves and feel more like their peers and enjoy some self-confidence they are robbed of when they are constantly reminded of what they can't do and being punished for it.

I am noticing that many parents are not aware of their ADHD child's rights in the classroom and certainly don't understand the process better their child's school experience. While I am certainly not an expert on this subject, I have been through the process in my state (North Carolina) and I have been able to attain accommodations for my son that have positively affected his self-esteem, his school performance, and his social acceptance. In my opinion, every child with ADHD should be treated differently in the classroom, in a discreet and POSITIVE manner.

Here are the steps to work for accommodations and services for your child (state laws are different and local boards are structured differently so this will be a general outline):
  1. Keep a journal/log of everything as it happens. Note the bad, the ugly, and the good too. If your child had a particularly good day or a particularly bad day, note what was happening that day and make any correlations you can. Keep meticulous records of doctor's visits, medications, professional evaluations, etc. and share them with the school during the process.
  2. Make a formal request to the school principal in writing. You can write a letter stating that you have a concern that your child's disability is hindering their education. You can write a letter requesting that your child be tested for learning disabilities to see if they qualify for special education services (most ADHD kids don't). You can write a letter requesting that your child be considered for a 504 Plan with classroom accommodations. Include any private documentation of your child's condition an an attachment to the letter. Sample letters can be found at: EVALUATIONS: LD Online , Parents Educating Parents and Prof. , ADDitude Magazine , 504 PLAN: askresource.org , ADHD Parent Support .
  3. The school has a certain period of time by law to answer your request (I think it's 5 days). If you request an evaluation, they have no choice but to evaluate your child. Be specific in your request letter and list all issues you want your child evaluated for. Some will evaluate for ADHD but my district would not (state law I think). Since I knew they weren't going to evaluate my son for everything, I scheduled a private evaluation as well.
  4. Have patience. This one was really hard for me but they have 60 days to test your child and they are going to use it (all my son's testing was done in the last 3 days). They are typically understaffed in the special education department. Like you, I wanted to fix everything wrong in my son's life instantaneously, I wanted answers right away. But good things come to those who wait, right?
  5. While you are waiting, read up on your child's rights and how to advocate for them. WrightsLaw.com is the best web site I have found to provide all necessary information in one resource. There are many blogs you can read from Special Education Lawyers and advocates as well (I follow this one even though she is practicing in Connecticut under different state laws. Remember, IDEA and Section 504 are federal laws governing all states. http://www.connecticutspecialeducationlawyer.com/ )
  6. Be prepared to appeal if you don't agree with the decision. When my son was denied special education despite a very obvious need to work with the school occupational therapist on handwriting and other sensory issues, I found contact information for the director of special education in my county and I sent her a polite and professional note asking what the procedure was to appeal my son's denial for inclusion. I knew it was a due process hearing and a big official legal battle I wasn't sure I was up for. I contacted her to let her know I was leaning in that direction and give her the opportunity to keep it within the Board of Ed to resolve. Like I'd hoped, she responded with an offer to look over his file and test scores and observe him in the classroom herself. While she ended up denying him too, I felt like I had pushed without a legal battle and she helped me to understand how he he can be excluded under the law (the law is hokey and ridiculous by the way).
  7. After the denial for an IEP, I made the official request in writing for 504 Plan inclusion. By this time the staff knew me well, my son's teacher had been on board with him needing more from the very beginning, and I had read a lot about my son's rights. I even had suggestions from that kind heard of Special Ed (504 Plan is a separate department in our district and fell under someone else's responsibilities).
  8. Be sure to attend all meetings for IEP and/or 504 Plan. The first step for my son's teacher was to fill out a form suggesting that he was "at risk" and then meet with the "at risk" committee. She was to take their suggestions and implement them in the classroom to try to help him. I asked to be involved in those meetings as well. I was greeted as though I was the only parent ever to take an interest in their meetings but they were kind to me and applauded my participation and advocacy of my son. You must attend all meetings and advocate for your child.
  9. Get everything in writing. I mean everything. Keep a copy of all notes home, etc. If the teacher has a complaint about your child, ask for it in writing. I have a small notebook that was made by 5Star (Mead?) that was meant for a kid to keep as a planner. It stays in my son's bag and every day the teacher writes comments on his behavior on the lines provided for that date. It makes a wonderful chronological log to keep tabs on school success but also helps me convey to the doctor what is happening when if there are questions about meds or we are trying a new medication.
  10. If you think a decision is not the right one for your child, fight it.
The bottom line is that you have to advocate for your child. You are your child's voice and their protector. They will not just be offered an IEP or a 504 Plan, especially just for ADHD, without a request from the parent or guardian to be evaluated. I have been very blessed to have my son in a school where the administration really understands ADHD and his needs and supports classroom accommodations 100%. His has only been punished once for his behavior (out of his control) by having to sit in time out for 5-10 minutes during recess. While I didn't agree with it, he was being punished for a squabble with another child and he did need some sort of consequence for it. He has never been punished for not completing his work, thank goodness.
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