Lived Experience: School – the catalyst for an ADHD diagnosis

The peak age for a diagnosis of ADHD is in primary school children aged 5–10 years.

Our diagnosis journey in the early years of primary school

“He has difficulty waiting his turn” 

“He needs to take better care of his belongings”

“He finds it difficult to work in a group”

At the beginning of kindy my son wasn’t yet diagnosed with ADHD, but we began to notice that teachers would use particular phrases that indicated to us that he was struggling. 

His kindergarten teacher was incredibly kind and would always use the poop sandwich to deliver her message – which basically means wedging negative feedback between a couple of positive comments, “he is so bright”, “it’s all very developmentally appropriate, many in the class have similar challenges”.

But, as my kid progressed through school, we noticed that it was becoming more challenging for him to hold it all together, especially at home. My gorgeous boy spent so much of his day trying to be “good” that as soon as the final bell rang, he would explode. 

The intense emotions were reserved for us, his family and safe spot, and teachers were not yet concerned because he was holding it together at school.

Time to investigate

We decided it was time to see a developmental paediatrician in the middle of year 1 to investigate what was going on for him. Our very experienced paediatrician was able to put together a clear picture of what was happening by nuances in the teacher’s comments, experiences at home and her observations at the appointment. We walked out with an ADHD diagnosis. I was so relieved, not knowing was the worst! Now I could stop researching all the catastrophic possibilities!! 

We didn’t want to rush into medication, our kid was still “coping” and everyone was hoping that things would stay stable. Yes, I know, wishful thinking. By year 2 it was clear that the wheels were starting to fall off. My lovely kiddo was no longer able to meet the expectations placed upon him. I would use bed time to ask him for his perspective, his feelings and his worries, but all I got was “school is boring”, “I don’t know why”, “it’s so boring”, and “I can’t help it”.

I can’t watch anyone struggle, especially not my child. My brain sees a problem and hyper-fixates on it. I then become obsessed with uncovering why something is happening so I can fix it (haha I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD yet). Off to the psychologist we went. We were incredibly lucky to find another experienced professional. She ran a number of cognitive tests, which confirmed the ADHD diagnosis, but also identified him in the gifted range for some of the key components of the tests. No, my kid is not a genius. 

Twice exceptional kids have two exceptionalities and present with something called a spiky profile – this means they can do exceptionally well in certain parts of these cognitive tests and poorly in others because of their disability.

Penny drop. Now I understood why school was so boring and why they were getting in trouble for being disruptive! Not only were they struggling with ADHD executive functioning challenges

  • Regulating emotions and impulsivity
  • Getting started on boring tasks and being motivated to finish
  • Working memory and focus

They were also bored in the classroom with nothing to keep their body or mind busy. And what does a bored and impulsive child do? They become disruptive. An inexperienced teacher doesn’t have the skills, tools or resources to help. Sometimes inexperience can make things worse…

  • Strategy 1: Ask the child to mark other students’ maths work – failed, because it  doesn’t provide extra stimulation.
  • Strategy 2: Give the child more worksheets – failed, it only made them angry at the unfairness of it all, why do they have to do more than the others?
  • Strategy 3: Let the child do another (not learning related) preferred activity – failed, it only motivated them to finish teacher assigned tasks even more quickly (rushing and not checking work) so that they can do the preferred activity.

At this point we also started noticing social difficulties. When you work so hard at following instructions, paying attention, keeping fidgeting under control, and so on, there is little left in the tank for social interactions with your peers.

Time to advocate

I was also acutely aware that most teachers don’t have the training or resources to help students with ADHD. I put my big advocating pants on and designed a Dear Teacher handout to give to educators. It was a simple one-pager, but  it helped guide our conversations about “concerning behaviours” and the support my kid needed.

One handout was not going to change everything for the better – I knew that. Back to the paediatrician we went, and at this point we knew it was time to give medication a try. I had read enough stories from adults to know that medication can be life changing, and those who didn’t have the option to take it, felt that they had struggled unnecessarily. 

It took a few different medications and combinations, but we finally landed on a good combination. 

Life with ADHD is a rollercoaster, especially in the early years as children are growing and learning to navigate social interactions and relationships with a dynamic disability.

That first single page handout has now grown into a teacher’s booklet: Supporting Students with ADHD. Every year I march into the school with my updated booklet in hand to start the advocating process early. I want each teacher to understand my child, his challenges but also his incredible strengths, so that they feel confident in providing the support he needs. 

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