ADHD Treatment Has Nothing To Do With School

Jillian Enright

ADHD Treatment Has Nothing To Do With School

And everything to do with self-worth, daily functioning, quality of life, and mental health.

Written by Jillian Enright, CYW, BA Psych.

Many children with ADHD are identified as struggling with focus, impulsivity, hyperactivity, and other symptoms when they start school. This is because the demands of our traditional school system are often unrealistic even for typically developing children, let alone children with neurodevelopmental disabilities.

Sit still, stay in your seat, pay attention, stop wiggling, did you hear what I said? Follow instructions, don’t talk out, raise your hand, and keep your hands to yourself please!

Oftentimes it is teachers who approach parents with concerns about a student, citing these difficulties, and encouraging caregivers to speak to their child’s paediatrician, or asking for permission to refer the child to their school psychologist for assessment.

(Side-note: This isn’t always the case, sometimes it’s the other way around, and I addressed this experience in another article).

So it is understandable that when their child is diagnosed with ADHD, parents tend to focus on what their child needs to do better in school. “Doing better” may mean improving academically, behaviourally, socially, or all of the above.

Yes, school is important, but

Children spend approximately 30 hours of their week at school, so their experience of feeling secure, accepted, and successful in school is indeed important. That said, school is not the be-all and end-all of our lives and we cause children great harm when we portray it as such.

Some kids will absolutely hate school and they need to know there is life outside of those walls. Some students don’t do well on standardized testing, or don’t do well in school in general, and they need to know that many people received low grades and still went on to be very successful in life.

The primary goal of treating a child’s ADHD (or any life-altering disability) should never be for them to do well in school.

To clarify: when I say treating, I don’t just mean with medication. Medication can be a very important part of ADHD treatment, but it’s not the only way to mitigate its effects. When I refer to treatment, I am including all forms: therapy/counselling, exercise, accommodations, strategies and tools, etc.

The primary goal of treating a child’s ADHD should never be for them to do well in school.

Anyway… where was I again? Oh yes.

ADHD impacts much more than school performance

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder which impacts every part of a person’s life (we expanded further on this topic in another article, “ADHD, Actually: The Struggle is Real”).

When our son was about 6 years old, before he was diagnosed with ADHD, he once said “I’m just a bad kid who does bad things”. It broke my heart. He had gotten in trouble at school yet again and was internalizing every negative incident and putting all the blame on his little 6-year-old self.

Once he was diagnosed, effectively treated, and learned more about his own divergent brain and how it works, his self-concept greatly improved. He understood that some things were harder for him and some things were easier, and that’s just how his brain works. As he grows, he can further develop strategies and tools for managing his symptoms, and continue to learn more about what works best for him.

We still have our struggles, and our son is still hard on himself, but not nearly as harsh as he used to be.

Think of the bigger picture

As this school year is beginning to wind down, some parents ask me about having their child take a “medication holiday” for the summer. Some parents of children who were recently diagnosed ask about waiting until September to seek out and begin trying different treatment options.

If your child tends to do well unmedicated at home and during their summer activities, then there is nothing wrong with taking a break from their meds, especially if they are experiencing side-effects and would like to try going without for a bit. If they do, please consult with their doctor to ensure they do so safely, and they gradually taper off of their medications properly if needed.

On the other hand, many who have found effective treatment for their ADHD cannot imagine their lives without it, especially if they struggled a great deal to find the right treatment for themselves or for their child.

Many who have found effective treatment for their ADHD cannot imagine their lives without it.

Allow me to paint a picture of my own

I will share a bit about what my life was like before ADHD diagnosis and treatment.

I was erratic. I experienced what we in child psychology often refer to as “big feelings”. My emotions were quite intense to begin with, then add in being bullied at school and having an unstable home life, I experienced emotional dysregulation on a regular basis.

My house was a mess. Later, as an undiagnosed young adult with ADHD, my physical environment very much resembled the chaos inside my head. I had a home office, yet my husband would often come home to find our kitchen table buried under mountains of papers. I didn’t want to file them because then I would forget to follow-up or complete whatever task was associated with the offending paperwork. We didn’t need to actually eat at that table, did we?

I was highly impulsive. This combined with intense emotions and rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD) is a doozy. When my feelings were hurt, or I felt something was unjust, I was explosive. My emotions took over my rational brain and I was no longer fully in control of myself. I was overcome by a flood of anger and hurt and sadness.

It was as though my brain could no longer comprehend that emotions are temporary. The feelings were too intense to endure. I sought any way to release them, suppress them, stop them, or at least stop feeling them. This led to self-destructive, maladaptive behaviours, and caused problems in my relationships.

The experience (or perception) of constant rejection and intense emotions led to me withdrawing more and more. I couldn’t take any more of the anxiety and self-doubt I experienced with nearly every social interaction.

Over the course of a few years, I went from being a highly social, gregarious person who was always up for a good time to someone who rarely went out and spent most of her time reading alone at home.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Loud but Lonely

Reading alone is a wonderful way to spend my time, but I was also neglecting friendships and isolating myself, rather than striking a balance between spending time with people I enjoy and also enjoying time by myself.

I realize now that I’m one of those “loud” introverts. I often talk a lot due to ADHD and social anxiety, and I don’t come across as shy, but prolonged social interaction exhausts me. I now also realize that a large part of my fatigue came from masking all the time and trying to fit in to neurotypical expectations.

Masking is what many neurodivergent individuals do in an effort to hide their symptoms and appear “normal” to others, and many children mask all day at school and in other social situations.

But look at us now!

Okay, so I haven’t climbed the proverbial corporate ladder and made millions, nor have I invented a life-saving device. I still have ADHD and I still struggle sometimes, but my house is less messy (we can use the kitchen table!), and my office is fairly organized.

I’m way less reactive and much more regulated, I can even keep my cool when my son is having a meltdown — partly because I know how it feels to be overwhelmed by intense emotions, but also because my ADHD is being properly treated.

My son is also doing much better, both at school and elsewhere. This is beneficial for us as his parents, but more importantly, it’s beneficial for him. He is more regulated, less impulsive, and explosive meltdowns are a rare occurrence. This has helped him to feel better about himself and also allows others to see beyond his hyperactive and impulsive behaviours to the sweet, funny, caring, and sensitive boy that co-exists with those other parts of him.

Whichever road your family may choose, and whatever treatment is right for your child, please remember that the primary goal of any form of treatment should be to allow your child’s strengths to shine through.

The priority is to make their life easier by managing the symptoms that cause them difficulty. If that also happens to make things easier for the adults at home, school, and elsewhere, then great. That should simply be a fortunate side-effect of the treatment, never the focus.

© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

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Barkley, Russell A. (2015). Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis & Treatment. The Guilford Press.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.


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