A proposed law would require school districts to have an attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder specialist. But is that enough to help students?
by Blaise Mesa
- Students with ADHD are less likely to do well academically. A Kansas parent wants to change that.
- A proposed law would require districts to have specialists trained in addressing the unique needs of students with ADHD.
- A strong teacher-student relationship is key in addressing the challenges faced by students with ADHD.
Lisa Reynolds pulled her son out of school because educators struggled to handle his symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
He was called a distraction. Or lazy. He regularly ran into disciplinary issues. Olathe Public Schools or online school — it didn’t make a difference. Special education teachers kept giving him failing grades, and another teacher said the boy needed to learn the “natural consequences of his laziness.”
He was “refusing to go to school, crying on our floor,” Reynolds said. “He was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, panic disorder and school avoidance.”
This all could have been avoided, she said, if the school district had hired a specialist to help kids with ADHD. Now, she’s teamed up with Rep. John Resman, an Olathe Republican, to try and require each district to do exactly that.
Meanwhile, schools see the push for ADHD specialists as daunting. That would represent an extra cost to districts already complaining that the state doesn’t fully pay for the special education requirements imposed on them. What’s more, it’s currently unclear what would qualify an educator as an ADHD specialist.
Students with ADHD generally do worse than students without ADHD. There is no Kansas-specific data, but national studies point to a problem.
High schoolers with the diagnosis get lower grades, are less likely to be placed in honors classes, are more likely to be late to class and are more likely to drop out, an April 2011 study published in the National Library of Medicine said.
Similar studies of college students also confirm the issue. Research found that students with ADHD average a 2.75 grade point average instead of a 3.0 average like students without attention disorders. Other studies say students with ADHD average GPAs 0.6 points lower.
Reynolds said teachers might be overwhelmed by the number of kids they need to help, which is especially difficult for kids with ADHD who may need more one-on-one time.
Before every school year, she’d write emails to staff to tell them about her child and his needs. But that didn’t stop those teachers from seeing her child as a problem.
“A teacher will tell (my child to) just be more independent. He can’t,” Reynolds said. “(They’ll say), ‘Well, just get it done.’ He can’t.”
That’s why Reynolds wants specialists in schools. Teachers struggling to manage her child in the classroom would have resources to go to. Those specialists could also help teachers adjust lesson plans to help students succeed.
Schools do have many qualified professionals with backgrounds in special education and various diagnoses, but there is no guarantee a school has an expert in ADHD.
The bond between a student and the teacher is crucial to success, said Bert Moore, director of special education and title services for the Kansas State Department of Education.
That’s the school’s first plan of attack to help students with ADHD.
The Beacon reached out to several Kansas districts to see how they help these students. The Manhattan-Ogden school district said it trains staff to have positive behavioral supports and predictable classroom structures that students can rely on. But that training isn’t specific to ADHD. It also has psychologists who can identify if more resources are needed for certain students. Some districts were limited in what they could say, like the Andover School District. It declined to share what it does because ADHD is a medical diagnosis and “educators typically can’t get involved in those conversations.”
Moore said the teacher-student bond can address many issues. Teachers would know when to give students breaks so their behaviors didn’t spiral, or would be able to tell when the student is distracted and get them focused again before too much time passes. Those are the most common ways schools help students because districts aren’t in the business of treating students.
Moore said treatment implies doctors giving medication or therapy to work through issues. Schools can provide accommodations, like more time on assignments or distraction-free places to take a test.
More serious cases of ADHD can get a 504 plan or an individualized education plan. Those plans are designed to prevent discrimination and give students accommodations to succeed.
The call for school ADHD specialists isn’t about blaming educators, supporters say. Instead, they say, it’s about helping them.
“School staff of all disciplines are some of the most well intentioned, eager to help and motivated people to make a difference for kids,” said Steven Evans, distinguished professor of psychology at Ohio University. “What’s wrong is we don’t arm them with the best tools.”
Evans is working alongside Reynolds to change state law. They both back the proposal that requires districts to have an ADHD specialist.
Students come to schools with a range of diagnoses or issues in class — depression, anxiety, substance use or ADHD. It isn’t realistic for one person to be an expert in all those areas, Evans said. But he wants schools to have at least one person who’s an expert in ADHD to work with case managers and teachers to help students.
Moore, with Kansas schools, said he does have some concerns about how the legislation is currently written. He said it isn’t clear what can make someone an expert in ADHD, though the bill says the Kansas Department of Education would identify these training programs to define a clear path of certification.
He said that could also open the door for requiring all types of specialists in depression, anxiety or any other possible issues students face. All important, but that could mean hiring even more professionals. Some smaller, rural schools may also not have that many students who would require an expert.
Bills introduced in the Legislature often come with an estimate of spending, but the fiscal note on this bill couldn’t estimate how much it’ll cost districts. Some districts may already have trained staff who can do the work, the fiscal note reads, while others would need to find them.
Moore said it’s important for parents to talk with teachers and school staff to help students.
“Ultimately, it’s the student that needs to be the center of our discussion,” he said. “And we need to ensure that student’s needs are being met so they can get a quality education.”
This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Beacon