Updated: Nov 3, 2021
This article was inspired by @ADHDoers post on the same topic. They, along with over 100 people on Facebook and Instagram, kindly provided the responses this article is based on. Thank you to everyone who took the time to respond.
Growing, I had no idea about ADHD. I knew I often felt different from other students and struggled to follow instructions teachers thought were easy, but I had nothing to attach that information to. I just got used to hearing "lol you're so weird" or "I never thought about it like that." It was only in my early 30's I was finally told I had ADHD. The diagnosis changed so much. It helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses and start figuring out how to live well in a neurotypical world. But it also made me think back to those early years in school where nothing made sense and what might have helped.
Over the past two weeks, I've connected with other ADHDers and asked what they wished teachers had known about their ADHD. Below I've outlined the seven most common responses from those stories. Hopefully, by reading this, you will find some connection to your own experiences and frustrations.
I also want to take a moment to recognise the amazing teachers out there who have provided support, guidance, and education, often with little time and few resources. As you'll see in this article, for some people, those experiences were a bright spot that they still remember to this day.
1. That We Had ADHD.
For the overwhelming majority of respondents, the most challenging part of school with ADHD was being undiagnosed. It made the experience all the more confusing, feeling like something was different but not being able to articulate why. People commented that their actions would be dismissed as "spacey" or "fidgety" when in fact, it was ADHD. For example, one person said, "I can remember vividly there being many comments on my grade cards about not listening, humming in class, and talking when I wasn't supposed to." This lack of diagnosis led some people to feel like their school years were underused, and had they been diagnosed, they could have done better academically.
2. That ADHD Can Look Different.
One of the reasons people felt they weren't diagnosed was the belief that ADHD was always expressed in the same way, often boys who couldn't sit still and kept disrupting the class. Those who didn't fit that gender or were more inattentive than hyperactive often felt missed. One person said that inattention meant they weren't considered for ADHD support, despite being told they were underperforming throughout their schooling.
3. That They Felt Isolated And Bullied.
For a lot of people with ADHD, thinking back to high school brought up painful memories. They told stories of being teased and bullied, both by teachers who labelled them "space cadets" and students who bullied them more than they felt comfortable sharing. One person said, "It was a nightmare to go to school pretty much every day..." and that they weren't able to get support when they spoke out about the bullying.
4. That We Learn Differently
Understanding and respecting different learning styles was something people felt would have helped in school. Just because something is normal did not make it easy or even possible for ADHD students. Several respondents discussed the importance of being allowed to doodle while listening to the teacher. Others described using headphones to block out noise or being given the option of bullet-pointed short instructions rather than long verbal instructions. In all these cases, allowing some neurodiverse learning strategies in the classroom was something people said helped them focus and be better students. Students who didn't have that option felt like it would have made a significant positive difference.
5. If You Support ADHD, It Makes A Big Difference
Experiences of schooling weren't solely negative. Some people described teachers who understood them and helped make their experience of being ADHD much easier. One person described a primary school teacher who used notes and comments from previous years to set up the classroom to support focus. They explain how this new setup helped so much they were top of the class in most subjects by the end of the year. Another person expressed their love for a teacher who, when they were 12, would let the students run in the field to start the day. They specifically remember this as something the teacher did to support their undiagnosed ADHD. So whether you're a teacher or still in training, small changes can be significant. Letting us doodle or giving us time to run around won't just make our day; we might remember you for the rest of our lives.
6. There Needs To Be Better ADHD Education.
Connected to many of these topics so far is an underlying frustration that there is so little education about ADHD. Specifically about what ADHD is, how to spot it in students, and how to support them. People identified this as a key reason why they struggled unnecessarily in school. Teachers didn't always understand what they needed to learn, and parents were similarly left unsure of how to help their child. One person describes her experiences in schools saying, "I was lectured by so many teachers because they felt like I wasn't applying myself. I needed structure and external motivations to do things." Another person describes how their parents "had no knowledge of what my needs were.... nor did they know how to find that information. I didn't understand it either. I had no access to educational resources, nor information about how to cope." Providing more teachers, parents, and students with that education could go a long way towards improving the ADHD school experience.
7. We Are Trying, Even If It Didn't Always Look That Way
Finally, people wished they could have communicated to their teachers how hard they tried in school. Despite the patchy grades and the "could do better's," people talked about how much work they put into tasks they couldn't get right. One person noted "I was always trying so hard to listen, not talk, not rock on my chair and not daydream. I was trying to mind my business and not notice the pencil tapping, whispering, the weather outside and the boys BO." They go on to say that although the "school wasn't set up to teach someone like me, I was doing my best to conform."
Overall, it seems like there could be a mismatch between a school system set up to support a typical learning environment and neurodiverse students' needs. This is especially the case if the students, teachers, or parents don't know how to spot ADHD or the tools to work with neurodiversity in the classroom. This mismatch was also connected to bullying and feelings of isolation, even as students tried to fit in and achieve. In contrast, teachers who recognised their students' needs and provided some support were not forgotten and appreciated for years to come.
Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding of how students experience ADHD and what they wish they could have communicated to their teachers. Providing ADHD education could make a big difference in education. If you struggled or struggle with ADHD in school, I hope this helps you feel connected to others who share your experiences.
Talk to you next week.
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