Struggling in School?

Are you seeing your child struggling in school, yet the school doesn’t feel it’s “that bad“?  

I grow weary of hearing comments along the lines of “they’re not struggling enough to qualify for resources.” 

Based on whose measure of “struggling“?  

If a parent is expressing a concern, then the child is obviously struggling in some way, otherwise the parent wouldn’t be bringing it up.  It’s time that schools* started taking parent concerns seriously, rather than trying to sweep them under the rug, minimize them, avoid taking responsibility, or put up a fight in order to see if the parent is serious enough to push.  Not all parents know how to advocate for their child or know when it’s within their rights to do so.  

*Note:  This is absolutely not all schools, nor all teachers, nor all administrators.  Many school staff go above and beyond for their students and all schools in Manitoba are underfunded, under resourced, understaffed, and over stressed.  Unfortunately schools have been put into the position where they have to triage in order to ensure their very limited resources are available for the students who need them most.  

Our focus here is on the teachers and administrators who don’t take parent concerns seriously or think that a child is doing “fine” simply because there aren’t obvious behaviours or indicators that are easy to spot.  Some children are very good at “masking” or hiding their struggles, some students do very well on standardized testing and are still seriously struggling.

Masking can be a result of a child developing strategies to “fit in” with their peers, not wanting to stand out, or being afraid or embarrassed to ask for help when they need it.  It can also be a result of having behaviours punished repeatedly or being shamed for problems related to their disability (such as a child with ADHD behaving impulsively and speaking out of turn in class) to the point where these behaviours are suppressed.  Suppressing behaviours is not the same as providing support for the underlying causes and masking can have a serious negative effect on people’s mental health, self-esteem, and wellbeing.

When it comes to accessing resources and referrals at school, this usually means either the student’s behaviour is disruptive, or their struggles are made obvious on standardized tests.  

Those are not the only two ways in which children struggle and it’s long past time all schools recognize that and prioritize student mental health and social-emotional learning.

What Masking Can Look Like

  • The school reports that a child is doing very well, yet that child has has a meltdown when they come home from school, or is very emotional before and/or after school. 
  • Your child is struggling socially: expresses feeling lonely, describes being left out, and/or has frequent trouble with peers at school. 
  • Your child does well on academic tasks, but this comes at great cost.  They may spend hours on homework in order to get it right, show traits of perfectionism, and have a great deal of stress and anxiety about their school work or about school in general. 

Please note: These are general examples, but of course masking will not be the only reason for children experiencing these struggles at school.  It is even more challenging when a child with ADHD is also academically very bright or gifted, as their intelligence may also overcompensate for their challenges related to their neurodiversity.  (There are actually quite a few aspects of giftedness that overlap with ADHD, such as emotional intensity, but I digress…). 

If readers get nothing else out of this blog post, I want the following two points to be made abundantly clear:

  1. Academic success is not an acceptable reason or excuse to deny a child their right to accommodations and supports for their disability.  
  2. Social-emotional health is much more important than academic performance and children do not learn well when they are highly stressed, anxious, fearful, or working so hard to mask that they cannot absorb what is being taught.  

I repeat: Academic success is not an excuse to deny a student accommodations and supports for their disability.

And, perhaps just as harmful, please do not tell a child with ADHD or a learning disability “you’re so smart, you just need to work harder and apply yourself.”  They would if they could.  They very likely can, but first they need (and have the right to receive) the appropriate help to do so.  All students deserve to be able to show the very best of themselves, not just “good enough” based on the classroom teacher’s opinion.  Meaning: if a child is doing well academically, but it’s causing them significant psychological, emotional, or social difficulty, then they still require accommodations so that they can be their best self without it taking a toll on their mental health.  

Beyond assessment, we want to instil in students a love of learning and foster a joy in curiosity.  If a student is very bright, but school is a daily slog which they dread every day, then their chances of meeting their potential and pursuing higher education decrease every year that goes by without proper support.  

Beyond academics, the core subjects are not the only thing children learn at school.  In fact, there have been many studies clearly demonstrating that students forget a significant portion of the academic cotent they are taught in school.  What they do learn and remember meaningfully are relationships: Relationships with peers, teachers, and other school staff.  Public safety data in Canada indicates that 47% of parents report their child has experienced bullying in school.  Children with ADHD are 13% more likely to experience bullying and social challenges, that’s up to 60% of children with ADHD who might experience bullying (Unnever & Cornell, 2003).  

Much more important than memorizing multiplication tables, all children in schools need to learn about neurodiversity, disabilities, and celebrating individual differences in general.  When whole classes and schools are taught facts about neurodiversity, those students are significantly less likely to bully other children for being different, and are much more likely to be kind and inclusive toward those children (Cook et al., 2020).  Knowledge and understanding goes a long way toward fostering acceptance — acceptance from peers, and acceptance of ourselves and all the strengths and struggles that come with our neurodiverse brains.  

When students are given appropriate accommodations and supports they are less anxious, less stressed, and more able to engage with their peers because they feel more comfortable at school.  The CADDAC has some great suggestions for specific accommodations and supports for various ADHD symptoms that can impact children at school.  

In closing, I will reiterate the two most important points I wanted to make clear in this post:

  1. Academic success is not an acceptable reason or excuse to deny a child their right to accommodations and supports for their disability.  
  2. Social-emotional health is much more important than academic performance and children do not learn well when they are highly stressed, anxious, fearful, or working so hard to mask that they cannot absorb what is being taught.  

If you are concerned about your neurodiverse child and need help advocating for them, please do not hesitate to contact us.  


Further Resources

ADHD 2e MB has compiled an extensive list of Manitoba-local and online resources for ADHD.  

We also have a blog post with advice for advocating for your child:


For more on education, neurodiversity, and advocacy, visit our Back-to-School Series:


References 

Cook, A., Ogden, J., & Winstone, N. (2020). The effect of school exposure and personal contact on attitudes towards bullying and autism in schools: A cohort study with a control group. Autism : The International Journal of Research and Practice, 24(8), 2178–2189.

Unnever, J. D. & Cornell, D. G.. (2003). Bullying, Self Control and ADHD. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(2): 129-147.


Visit ADHDMB.ca and facebook.com/ADHD2ePro to learn more.

Published by Jillian ADHD 2e MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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