The Children Left Behind

Bottom line: Public schools don’t deal well with AD/HD students. So what’s a parent to do? The answer may be a long time coming.

by Maria Hess Published May 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Photograph by Tom Nutter,

Children like Braden Mooney, who have mild forms of AD/HD, are at risk of falling through the cracks of the public education system.

Every morning, Colleen Mooney has to force her eight-year-old son Braden to perform each mundane task of his weekday routine while his meds kick in: brush his teeth, eat his breakfast, get to Newark Charter School on time. Like 10 percent of today’s American school-age children, Braden suffers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a neurobiological condition that results in inattentiveness or distractibility, impulsivity and hyperactivity. But Braden’s case is different. His AD/HD is not severe, so he’s part of the “inclusion” revolution. In education, inclusion means kids with mild special needs learn in traditional classrooms with “regular-education” students. Braden understands spoken and written language, so he’s not considered learning disabled. Academically, he’s on par with classmates-a grade above in reading-but in terms of maturity, he’s two years behind. He loses his train of thought, roams the room during class and suffers unpredictable mood swings. His erratic behavior is social poison. “We don’t have play dates, and we’re not invited to birthday parties,” says Colleen Mooney. “Yet Braden is the most sensitive and loving kid in the world. He’ll say things like, ‘I don’t know why I do those things,’ or, ‘I can’t control myself.’ Sometimes he tears up and says he wishes he wasn’t born like this.”

Braden was diagnosed early. His parents work hard to ensure his success in life. Other kids aren’t as lucky. Their parents either hoped the phase would pass or waited for teachers to alert them to the disorder. But most teachers are not qualified, nor are they permitted, to diagnose AD/HD. Even if they could, the Delaware Department of Education does not offer special programs for kids like Braden.

The future is unremarkable for such kids, and what becomes of them has a serious impact on society. According to AD/HD expert Dr. Russell Barkley, a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, one in five kids will develop substance abuse problems or engage in illegal behavior. A quarter of adult prison inmates in the United States have AD/HD. “Parents have to be involved earlier, and teachers have to be given a greater awareness,” says Mooney. “If not, these kids will be passed on year to year to year.” The National Institutes of Health and the Surgeon General of the United States agree that AD/HD is a valid disorder with severe lifelong consequences. But if diagnosed early and treated, whether that involves medication or not, all children with AD/HD are capable of learning. Most can contribute productively to society. Elementary school teachers in Delaware are not, however, trained to mesh kids with milder forms of AD/HD with so-called normal kids, though that is what they’re required to do.

J. Douglas DiRaddo “Medical doctors will write prescriptions, and parents will bring those scripts to school and give them to me,” says J. Douglas DiRaddo, 2008 school psychologist of the year. “It’s a sticking point.” “I won’t tell you that there is a specific something you’re going to do for an AD/HD kid that you’re not going to do with another kid that exhibits the same types of behavior,” says Dr. Martha Brooks, an associate secretary of education for the Delaware Department of Education. “A child with mild forms of AD/HD, unless there’s a complicating learning disability-which sometimes there is-is not going to present a great deal of problems to a well-trained classroom teacher.”

That may be, says Harold Robert Meyer, founder of The A.D.D. Resource Center in New York, “but that doesn’t mean the child will get to live up to their potential without special help. They’ll just be able to coast under the discipline-performance red light radar.” Though the DOE offers professional development for teachers, none target specific disabilities. “We focus on the behaviors the child manifests, i.e.: learning styles,” Brooks says. “The teacher who is saying, ‘I don’t know what to do with a child with AD/HD’ needs to be talking to their special education diagnostician and school psychologist.”

Many teachers do, with few results. That’s because school psychologists are not permitted to diagnose AD/HD either. They can merely suggest that parents seek outside medical evaluations. “Medical doctors will write prescriptions, and parents will bring those scripts to school and give them to me,” says J. Douglas DiRaddo, psychologist at Maple Lane and Mount Pleasant elementary schools in the Red Clay School District and Delaware’s 2008 school psychologist of the year. “The script will say, ‘Please complete an AD/HD evaluation on Johnny,'” DiRaddo says. “Many in our field don’t think that medical doctors have to do that. It’s a sticking point.”

The irony is that AD/HD is diagnosed by observing behavior, not by blood tests. School psychologists are the ones who regularly observe behavior, yet, says DiRaddo, “We’re pulled out of the pack.” Pediatricians and medical doctors do request data from schools and parents, but the AD/HD controversy is really about drugs. “The doctor’s role is to determine whether or not medications are going to have an impact, and no school psychologist can prescribe medication,” Brooks says. “That’s the tug of war.” And it’s a war that might be won if parents are armed for battle sooner. Districts such as Brandywine and Christina have active special needs PTAs. Other parents think their kids are going through a phase. “Some literally don’t answer the door when we knock,” says DiRaddo. “Is it hard to tell a parent that we suspect something is wrong with her child? Yes. Is it important to face this in the earliest years? Absolutely. Do some parents ignore our advice? Yes.”

Harold Robert Meyer “As a society, we manage to take kids with every potential in the world and knock that potential right out of them,” Meyer says. Help is found in the tiny text of thorny district manuals. Here’s a cheat sheet: A child that qualifies for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can get a full assessment of his weaknesses, plus a set of goals, as long as there is medical documentation of his condition. Kids with severe disabilities such as cerebral palsy receive special services and are coded “Other Health Impairment 602.” Kids with severe AD/HD are lumped into the “Other Health Impairment 601” file.

In short, kids with severe disabilities get special education. Kids with milder issues don’t. “We’ve had to fight every step of the way,” Mooney says. “Getting our child’s needs met educationally, medically, emotionally-every day, I mean every minute, is a struggle.” What she learned was that Braden qualified for services under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees equal opportunity for all Americans with disabilities. Such kids might be assigned 15 math problems instead of 30, get extra time to complete tests, or be placed into small groups. It’s a great help to many, but there’s a downside. Kids with AD/HD have a disadvantage coming out of the gate, yet they still have to cross the same finish line. For some, that’s not always possible.

“Hit them over the head enough like that and they’re sure to give up,” Meyer says. “As a society, we manage to take kids with every potential in the world and knock that potential right out of them.” It’s hard to tell how many high school kids with AD/HD drop out, since the DOE’s statistics are vague. Of the 37,258 Delaware students enrolled during the 2006-2007 school year, 2,026 dropped out. Of those, 14 percent had been special-ed students. But since students are categorized special-ed or regular-ed, kids like Braden get lost in the math. That makes it nearly impossible to determine dropout numbers as they relate to AD/HD.

Some families seek private schooling or tutoring. Tuition for Cedars Academy, an acclaimed residential school in Bridgeville serving middle school and high school students with AD/HD, is $5,875 per month. Other programs, such as Back to Basics Learning Dynamics in Wilmington, offer students ages 4 through adult one-on-one tutoring at $49 per hour.

Jean Buzzard of Newark couldn’t afford tutoring, but won anyway. “I believe the public school system is the only place that will help our kids,” she says. When Buzzard’s son, Joshua, was diagnosed with AD/HD at age 5, she volunteered at his school, networked with parents and partnered with teachers and school psychologists. “You have to be the squeaky wheel and you have to be nice about it, but speaking out is our legal right.”

Joshua, now 15, is an honor student at Pencader Business & Finance Charter High School in New Castle. DiRaddo imagines a program to help kids with all degrees of AD/HD that combines four components: parent, teacher, community and child. Schools would provide parents with training and education. Teachers would learn practical strategies. The community would alert the public to counseling services, physicians and child agencies. And kids would be taught about AD/HD in language they understood. They’d feel no shame.

“Many of these areas are already available in the schools and community services to various degrees,” DiRaddo says. “The ideal program would bring all four together for the good of the child.” Special-ed funds will never reach parity with that of, say, cash for athletics programs. But after visiting public schools along the East Coast, Meyer concluded that special-ed funds were “looked at as an expense rather than an investment in kids.” When a group of teachers, business leaders, and government and community officials created the educational reform program Vision 2015, they wanted to fix the whole school system in Delaware, which ranks eighth in educational spending but 27th in performance. The Vision 2015 committee’s goal is “to develop the best public education system in the world for all Delaware students, one that respects the uniqueness of every child and enables all students to succeed.” That includes those with AD/HD. Yet Vision 2015 makes no mention of plans to serve kids with disabilities.

“Vision 2015 doesn’t get into the granularity or how interventions will play out in a particular school,” says Paul Herndon, president of The Rodel Foundation of Delaware, the nonprofit that co-funded Vision 2015’s development plan. “But we are moving toward a more customized system where parents have a better idea of individual needs of their children earlier and teachers have better training so they can respond to those individual needs in a much more proactive way than we have today.”

DiRaddo wants to take action now. So do parents like Colleen Mooney. “If we don’t help these kids soon, the worst thing will happen,” she says. “School will become a very sad place.”

This article appears in the June 2008 issue of Delaware Today

Reprinted with permission from ADDItude Magazine. For more articles like this one, visit ADDitude’s ADHD adult channel:

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