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ADHD and School: Helping Your Child Succeed in the Classroom

Students living with ADHD may experience unique challenges in the classroom. The common symptoms of ADHD—inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity—can cause disruptions to a child’s learning, peer relationships, functional performance and behavior within the school setting. ADHD may manifest itself differently in the classroom than what you see at home. For example, students living with ADHD often:

  • perform better one-on-one than in groups;
  • have trouble paying attention to details and are often caught daydreaming;
  • avoid, dislike or are reluctant to engage in activities that require sustained attention;
  • experience challenges listening to or following through on instructions;
  • are highly distractible, forgetful, absent-minded, careless and disorganized;
  • display extreme physical agitation—fidget, squirm or cannot stay seated; and
  • speak out of turn and talk excessively.

Joanne JohnsonJoanne Johnson:
My Story

My family’s outlook on living with ADHD has been to focus on the strengths of the disorder rather than its weaknesses. My husband and son live with severe ADHD; they are high energy, always on the go, very creative and active. My son was having issues around age 4 and we went to a neurologist. During the interview process, we realized my husband also had ADHD. They didn’t want to diagnose my son at such a young age, but around age 6 they confirmed the diagnosis and he began taking medication.

He is 20 years old now. Read more.

To better understand how ADHD impacts your child’s school behavior, academic progress and other related issues, it is important to have open communication with your child’s teachers and other key school personnel. They can share with you important observations they have of your child at school.

If you discover that the symptoms of ADHD are causing challenges for your child within the school setting, there are many services and supports that can help your child thrive.

Understanding Your Child’s Rights in the School Setting

There are two federal laws to ensure a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for your child, including:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is designed to ensure that individuals are not discriminated against because of a disability. Students living with ADHD may be entitled to receive a 504 plan that identifies appropriate accommodations to help them succeed in school. To receive 504 services, you must show that the ADHD is continuous, documented and significantly limits at least one major life activity, which includes learning in school.

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal special education law. IDEA services include the development of an individualized education program (IEP), which is a detailed plan outlining how the student’s academic, social and emotional needs will be met to ensure the student receives an appropriate education. It goes well beyond the accommodations typically provided through Section 504. The IEP is developed by a team that includes parents, teachers, administrators and related service providers. Students receiving special education services must be placed in a general education setting whenever possible.

  • Helping Parents Understand Their Rights in Special Education

Obtaining School-based Services and Supports for Your Child: A Step-by-step Process

Here is a brief overview of how to obtain accommodations for your child, whether under Section 504 or IDEA.

  1. Evaluation. You may contact your child’s school at any time to request an evaluation for special education services. This evaluation is an assessment of your child’s functional and academic ability and includes reviewing your child’s academic records and performance, any observations that have been made (at home and in school) and his or her social and emotional status. The evaluation will determine if your child has a disability that requires services, what your child’s needs are and which special education services are appropriate for addressing these needs.

    If you disagree with a school’s evaluation of your child, you can always request an additional, independent evaluation to be done outside of the school. You can also request a Functional Behavioral Analysis, which assesses your child’s behavior within the school environment and identifies how to predict negative behaviors and reinforce positive behaviors. If it identifies problem behaviors, a Behavior Intervention Plan should be developed that includes instructional strategies, accommodations and supports based on the analysis. This plan should be included in your child’s 504 plan or IEP.
  2. Eligibility. The evaluation will be used to determine if your child is eligible for Section 504 or IDEA services. If ADHD interferes with your child’s ability to learn and function in school, he or she will likely qualify for IDEA services. If not, a Section 504 plan will likely be developed with accommodations for your child.

  3. Planning. If your child is found eligible for services and supports, the school should convene an IEP or 504 meeting with you and other key stakeholders within 60 days. An IEP should identify your child’s academic needs along with emotional, behavioral, developmental, social and organizational needs. The school should include a specific, measurable and achievable goal to address each need and should have specific services and supports to assist your child in accomplishing each goal. Unlike the IEP, a 504 plan is not as structured, is less detailed and does not require schools to monitor student progress or to measure progress in achieving goals.

  4. Implementation. Once a 504 plan or IEP is approved, your child should begin receiving the services and supports outlined in the plan immediately. The school is responsible for carrying out the plan as written and sharing the plan with all school personnel who work with your child and will be implementing it.

  5. Review. Any plan should be reviewed at least once a year or more often if you or the school asks to review it. If necessary, the 504 plan or IEP can be revised. With an IEP, your child’s progress toward the goals should be measured and shared with you on a regular basis.

Some students living with ADHD are classified as “twice exceptional,” meaning that they live with ADHD and are also gifted in one or more areas. For these students, ADHD may not present a significant problem until they are in middle school. Many twice exceptional students do not perform at their full potential, but because they are exceptionally bright, they do still achieve at an academic level that can make it more difficult to receive accommodations under IDEA. It is important that parents are attentive to the needs of this population and to remember that IDEA does not only require that students’ academic needs are met but also their emotional growth, behavior and social skills needs. Additionally, IDEA requires schools to provide services that allow a student to make reasonable or meaningful progress and to achieve progress toward independence. A number of resources are available for parents who want to learn more about how to support twice exceptional children.

Developing an Effective IEP: 10 Tips for Parents

  1. Prioritize. Before the meeting, write down your child’s academic, social, physical and emotional challenges, in order of priority. Also, write down important questions or issues you want to bring up during the meeting.

  2. Research. Know beforehand who will be attending the meeting and also what special education services are often provided to students living with ADHD in your child’ school and other schools in the district. Have your observations from home and your child’s medical records and evaluations on hand.

  3. Invite a friend or family member. Friends and family members can act as a second set of ears and eyes by taking notes so you do not miss anything important. They can also provide emotional support, offer a kind word or just listen.

  4. Find an advocate. You may also want to bring a family advocate who can stand up for the special education services your child needs. Your child’s treating provider can also provide valuable insight during an IEP meeting.

  5. Celebrate your child. IEP meetings are a wonderful time to talk about your child’s achievements and strengths. Take a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting to talk about your child—this helps start the meeting on a positive note.

  6. Don’t settle for less. Your child’s school may tell you they do not have the funding or resources to cover the services needed by your child. However, federal law may require that they provide these services. Do not settle for anything less than what your child needs to succeed.

  7. Be specific. Move away from any goals and interventions that are vague. The IEP should address who, what, where and when any interventions will be provided and how effectiveness will be evaluated.

  8. Don’t feel pressured. You do not need to accept every service the school offers nor do you need to sign the IEP before you leave the meeting. You can take the IEP home for additional review before agreeing to it.

  9. Be open. Be open to any recommendations made by IEP team members—each person at the table has a set of skills that can help. Approach the meeting with a positive attitude and work as a team to help your child reach his or her goals

  10. Write everything down. If it is not written down, then it did not happen. Make sure to make copies of any and all documents, including the IEP, and to document any agreements that were made during the IEP meeting.

Recognizing Common School-based Accommodations for Students Living with ADHD

The following is a list of typical accommodations that a student living with ADHD may have included in a 504 plan or IEP:

  • modified homework assignments, testing and deadlines;

  • use of helpful tools (calculator, tape recorder, computer and electric spell-checker);

  • behavioral plan or social skills training;

  • continual progress reports assessing behavior and assignments;

  • peer, volunteer tutors or working one-on-one with the teacher;

  • sitting the student near the teacher and away from doors and windows;

  • increased parent and teacher collaboration;

  • providing the student with a note-taking partner; and

  • letting the student run occasional errands for the teacher to burn off some energy.

The following is a list of more intensive services and supports that may be provided for students living with ADHD who have an IEP:

  • supplementary aids and services;

  • school-based counseling;

  • family counseling and training;

  • resource room services (small group work);

  • test modifications (e.g., small group testing in a separate location);

  • one-on-one service providers (e.g., crisis management services, transportation services and more); and

  • collaborative team teaching.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

IDEA requires schools to consider positive behavioral supports for a student with behavioral challenges and include these in an IEP. Many schools have implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) programs to promote school-wide positive behavior and provide more intensive interventions for students who need it. For more information, visit

Your child’s 504 plan or IEP should be individualized and focus on his or her strengths, interests and goals. To learn what accommodations may best support your child, meet with your child’s treating provider for some recommendations and share this information with your child’s teachers and other school personnel.

Overcoming Challenges in Seeking School-based Services and Supports

Under IDEA, if there is dispute related to a student’s evaluation, IEP or implementation of services and supports, parents can request a due process hearing. However, it is always best to attempt to work out conflicts with the school informally or through mediation. You can always seek help from local family advocacy organizations, your state’s Protection and Advocacy agency or your state’s Parent Training and Information Center.

Tips for Teachers and School Personnel

You may want to share the following tips with teachers and school personnel to help your child achieve his or her academic and functional goals in school.

  • Work on difficult tasks early in the day.

  • Give directions for one assignment at a time rather than directions for multiple tasks.

  • Seat your child away from distractions or near another student who is working on a similar assignment.

  • Vary the pace of activities to help maintain the child’s attention.

It is possible that not all of these apply to your child, but share those that do with your child’s school.

Visit the Resources section for additional information and references.