An overview of how well Canadian provinces and territories are supporting students with ADHD
Today is the last day of Inclusive Education Month, and the Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada (CADDAC) has put out a policy paper entitled 2021 Report Card: ADHD in the School System. This paper a 10-year follow-up to a similar report the CADDAC shared in 2010.
This article will summarize some of the main points of this report, and I will add some important points I feel are missing.
Highlights from this report:
- No province or territory received an “excellent” grade because no province was able to confirm that their educators were trained in ADHD.
- Most also did not have easily accessible information on ADHD should an educator wish to educate themselves.
- The degree in implementation of the “inclusive system” varies between provinces and territories from absolute inclusion of all students, no matter their level of need, to most students with less severe disabilities remaining in the general classroom.
- The CADDAC’s 2010 report stated that “Without adequate funding and resources this system (inclusive) can result in an overwhelming load placed on the classroom teacher.”
- If a student receives identification due to a coexisting condition (such as behaviour), that condition, rather than ADHD, becomes the focus of the educational plan.
“Without adequate funding and resources this system (inclusive) can result in an overwhelming load placed on the classroom teacher.”— CADDAC
That is exactly what has happened.
- In the name of “inclusion”, neurodiverse and disabled students are often included in the general education classroom, but with little to no appropriate supports.
- Schools are inadequately funded, so they are hiring unqualified support staff, and schools don’t have the resources to properly train and educate their staff.
A very important point made in the report was this:
If a student receives identification due to a coexisting condition (such as behaviour), that condition, rather than ADHD, becomes the focus of the educational plan.— CADDAC
- In my personal and professional experience, that is exactly what happens.
In order to make their jobs easier, school staff tend to focus on the child’s behaviours which they feel are “inappropriate”.
- This takes the focus from where it should be: on what supports, accommodations, and guidance the child wants and needs.
- The focus should be on what is best for the child, regardless of what the school feels should be the priority.
- The child’s strengths, needs, and self-determined goals are what matter.
- The adults need to adapt and accommodate the student, not try to “mold” the child through rewards and punishment, to fit in to what the adults believe the student should or should not do.
The report cards
Each province or territory was evaluated on their inclusion model, their staff and teacher level of knowledge and training about ADHD, and their processes for identifying and supporting students with ADHD.
Based on the information obtained through meetings with each ministry, as well as evaluating their existing education policies, each province was given one of four grades: excellent, good, satisfactory, or fail.
4 provinces received a grade of “good”, 6 of the provinces received a “satisfactory” grade with two or three concerns expressed, and 3 provinces received a grade of “unsatisfactory”.
Overall the report is well done, and a very important part of highlighting the inequity and lack of support for students with ADHD in Canada’s public schools.
One issue I found was the emphasis on formal diagnosis. It seemed, through reading the report, if a province’s ministry of education included ADHD in their list of conditions that qualify for support services, this entitled them to a higher grade than if they did not.
I agree, in principal (no pun intended).
To their credit, the CADDAC did point out where provinces allowed referrals to be made without requiring a formal diagnosis, and did include this as a strength within their education system.
I’ve written extensively about the barriers to accessing formal assessment, diagnosis, and support services, so I will briefly summarize them here.
Inequities in diagnoses
- Students of colour are less likely than their white peers to be referred for ADHD assessment.
- Marginalized groups do not have the same access to assessment and diagnosis as others, including (but not limited to): girls, trans youth, children living in poverty, black and brown students, and LGBTQIA+ students.
Further, due to chronic underfunding, wait times are a serious issue. Even if a student does receive a referral for an ADHD assessment, they are generally waiting between 6 months to 2 years to be seen.
Even going the private route has a waiting list of 2–6 months, and costs thousands of dollars. Certainly not all families have the resources, funds, or insurance coverage to go this route.
Lack of training isn’t the only problem
Far from it.
The report cited a lack of teacher training about ADHD as a serious issue, and I certainly do agree. School staff absolutely do need better understanding of ADHD and other neurodiverse conditions, and how to best support complex students— and all students.
That said, teachers are not supposed to diagnose ADHD, or even suggest to parents that a child should be assessed for ADHD. Their role is to notice signs in their classroom and make a referral to their division’s school psychologist if appropriate.
Again, due to chronic underfunding of our public education system, class sizes are too large. One or two adults in a room with over 30 students makes it quite difficult to notice one student struggling unless their behaviour is quite obvious or disruptive.
Only the children who seem to be “acting out”, or whose academic performance is seriously impacted, will likely be identified.
ADHD can present in many different ways, but some symptoms are more apparent than others. It’s a lot easier to notice a little boy who is hyperactive, can’t sit still, and shouts out in class than it is to notice a little girl who has trouble focusing and keeping her work organized, yet tends to be quiet in class and follow the rules.
An important message
For me, an important message this report highlights, is that adults need to look beyond and beneath student behaviour.
“Rather than focusing on managing the behaviour, we need to look past our reactions and begin to wonder why.” — Nicole Biscotti
A child who acts out may be stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, lacking skills, or neurodevelopmentally incapable of meeting the expectations at that moment in time.
Rather than labelling these behaviours — or worse, the children themselves — as “defiant”, disobedient, or willfully choosing not to follow the rules, it’s so important that adults understand and seek out the underlying factors contributing to the concerning behaviours.
We’re not going to change someone’s neurological development through rewards and consequences, behaviour plans, sticker charts, detentions, or suspensions. We’re not going to change someone’s neurological wiring at all.
Instead, the focus must be on how to accommodate and support the student so they can do their best, in a way that preserves their autonomy, dignity, and self-concept.
“Connections create a feeling of safety in which children are comfortable enough to take risks, explore, and learn new things.” — Susan E. Craig
The responsibility falls on us, the adults, to help children learn the skills they need, and to create an environment of caring, acceptance, and understanding — rather than one that expects, even demands, compliance — so that children feel safe and connected to their school community.
Sadly, I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of that right now. The political powers that be don’t seem to value our children’s education much, at least not in the ways that matter — the ways that provide resources and funding.
CADDAC gave Manitoba a passing grade, evaluating our ADHD supports in public education as “good”. Unfortunately, I think they were a little too generous, simply because ADHD qualifies for support services here. That element seemed to be the tipping point from “good” to “satisfactory” in this report.
Personally, I would not (yet) give Manitoba a passing grade.
Our Minister of Education and provincial government need to provide much better funding to our schools. This would allow divisions to hire qualified staff to support complex students, educate staff about neurodiverse conditions and disabilities, and provide adequate supports for both staff and students.
Our children spend over 30 hours per week with the adults working in their schools. Of those students, approximately 20% have complex learning and behaviour needs, such as ADHD and learning disabilities.
Until we provide the staff proper education and training, and the resources to provide appropriate supports, we are failing at least 20% of our students. According to 2019–2020 enrolment data, that’s 190,000 children in Manitoba, and 5 million children in Canada.
That is neither “good”, nor satisfactory.
© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB
My 15 seconds of fame
“They view these behaviours as intentional, willful, disobedient, defiant, and then address them as such. So, the children get consequences or punishment and that just further alienates and stresses the child,” said Enright.
CityNews: Guys, let’s interview someone with ADHD about ADHD via video!
ADHDer (aka me): *proceeds to fidget, fix glasses, and move awkwardly while speaking*
Biscotti, N. (2021). I Can Learn When I’m Moving: Going to school with ADHD. EduMatch.
CADDAC. (2021). 2021 Report Card: ADHD in the School System. [Online]. https://caddac.ca/news/#policy-papers
Craig, S. E. (2017). Trauma Sensitive Schools for the Adolescent Years: Promoting resiliency and healing, grades 6–12. Teachers College Press.
Kohn, A. (2016). The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Coddled kids, helicopter parents, and other phony crises. Beacon Press.
Venet, A.S. (2019). Equity-Centred Trauma-Informed Education. W. W. Norton & Company.