Helping Your Child's Teacher Understand ADHD: Behavior Model vs. Academic Model

Health Writer

As a new school begins, children across the United States will be heading into classrooms and meeting their new teachers. For many parents, this is an exciting time. New teachers mean your child has the opportunity to learn from someone new, to see a new perspective on literature, math, history, science and life in general. For parents of children with ADHD, however, meeting a new teacher means starting over, possibly with someone who just doesn’t “get” ADHD.

Terry Illes, a school psychologist, explains why some teachers don’t understand ADHD in an article published by CHADD.

The Behavioral Model

Parents, teachers and the general public have all bought into the behavioral model at some time. This concept says that behavior is a choice. If you see a child misbehaving in public, throwing a tantrum in the middle of a store, running around in a restaurant or screaming when not allowed to buy a toy, you might attribute this behavior to a choice - the child is acting spoiled, the parents have not disciplined their child. As parents of children with ADHD, you might see it a little differently now, you might attribute this type of behavior to a neurobiological or neurological problem. Chances are, however, that before you spent years dealing with a child with behavioral difficulties, you jumped to the conclusion more than once that a child was misbehaving because he chose to misbehave or because his parents chose not to stop the misbehavior.

This is an underlying bias in our society, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that there are teachers who think this way. They don’t immediately think, “There is something wrong biologically.”  When you apply the behavioral model, you assume that it is the other person (in this case the child with ADHD) that must change. You do not see or think that by changing your behavior (teaching in a different way), you can help to change the child’s behavior. Instead, it is “the child or the parents fault.”

The Academic Model

When you apply the academic model, you assume that a child’s learning, disruptive, impulsive or inattentive behaviors are the result of an underlying neurological problem. You believe that, if possible, the student would perform better behaviorally and academically. When this is your belief, you look at yourself, your teaching methods and your classroom to see what you can do to help this child succeed. You look for ways you can help to address the issues and help the child learn.

Tips to Help Teachers Understand ADHD

Illes points out that teachers can apply either the behavioral model or the academic model indiscriminately. They might see one child being disruptive and apply the behavioral model and another child who is showing similar behaviors receives the academic model. Most teachers probably aren’t even aware they are doing so. Working to help a teacher better understand a child with ADHD sometimes means gently pointing out the difference, while working to keep the teacher a partner in your child’s education. He suggests the following:

Use the metaphor “behavioral seizure.” One of the most difficult parts of ADHD to understand is the inconsistency. Your child might be focused and attentive one day and hyperactive and disruptive the next, leading the teacher to assume the behavioral model. Illes explains this with a metaphor. Suppose a child has a seizure disorder. He might go without a seizure for days, weeks or months; however, this doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a seizure disorder, it means the symptoms were under control for those days. It doesn’t diminish the need for assistance when he does have a seizure. He uses “behavioral seizure” to explain the ups and downs of ADHD.

Provide medical information. Pass on articles to your child’s teacher that explain symptoms of ADHD and provide evidence of a medical basis for the symptoms. Help the teacher to view certain behaviors as resulting from possible neurological problems rather than a deliberate choice.

Make sure you use ADHD as an explanation instead of an excuse__. This means that while you understand that ADHD can be an underlying cause for certain behaviors, you do not accept that your child must not have consequences for inappropriate behaviors. Discuss what appropriate consequences you use in your home and how the teacher can hold your child accountable while still be understanding of ADHD. Teachers who know you are “on the same page” are more willing to work together and find ways to best help your child.

Remember, your child’s teacher is an important part of their school day. She can provide you with valuable information on how your child learns and offer opinions on which strategies are working and which are not. Let the teacher know you consider him or her a valuable part of your child’s treatment team.

For more information:

10 Must Read Articles About ADHD in School

12 Things Teens with ADHD Would Like Their Teachers to Know

11 Things Teachers Need to Know About ADHD

Action Plan: Back to School Season with ADHD