Does Having ADHD Mean Doing Poorly in School?

Psychiatry and Psychology CategoryI almost laughed when I saw the title of the Evidence-Based Mental Health journal article, “Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is associated with poorer academic performance.” Not a “ha, ha, that’s funny” type of laugh. More of a, “well yes, of course,” type laugh.

Now I’m not implying that this is actually any laughing matter. School is a huge part of most children’s life and having problems there means that these problems are now a huge part of their life. And it’s important to do this research along these lines. But as a former teacher and someone who has worked with children who have ADHD, I can tell you that this isn’t a surprise.

StudentThis study followed 370 adolescents who have ADHD as well as 740 controls. (There were two controls for each adolescent with ADHD.) The study examined reading achievement, grade retention, dropout rates , and attendance. And the conclusions were that ADHD students are absent more, have lower standardized reading scores, dropout of school at higher levels, and are held back more often.

I wish I had the answer to this problem because there is nothing good about watching a child struggle to sit still or frantically ruffle through their backpack looking for a 3-day-old homework assignment. And it’s not fun to watch an 8 year old get frustrated trying to do something that is easy for children who don’t have ADHD.

But I believe that in general, children with ADHD will continue to struggle until their care givers, teachers, and doctors realize just how much assistance they need. Although the schools are “supposed” to meet the needs of all children, they don’t; they can’t. This is as impossible as saying that the schools will make sure that “no child (is) left behind.” When a child has any sort of special needs, whether this need is due to a learning disability or being “gifted,” the schools can try to meet the needs of the child but it will take some major work and input from parents as well. And even more than this, it will take collaboration between the schools, parents, and doctors.

Raising a child is not easy, for anyone. But when your child has something like ADHD it becomes a little more difficult. Your child probably needs to learn some specific skills that you may not have experience teaching. Their motivation patterns may not be familiar to you. You may not understand how to help them. And if they have a teacher who doesn’t have a good understanding of ADHD, it’s that much harder.

I recall a conversation I had with a parent of a child with ADHD. They just didn’t understand why their child couldn’t clean their room. It took them many years before they realized that their child didn’t “see” the steps needed to clean their room like someone without ADHD would. So of course, it was hard for them to help their child.

In the end I think that this research points out something that many educators, doctors, and parents of ADHD/ADD children already know: we need to collaborate to find definitive strategies that will help these children be successful in school. These strategies need to be wide-spread, taught to teachers and parents alike. Because we know there’s a problem; we need to focus on finding a solution. Until then, parents of children who have ADHD and ADD will have to exhaust local resources and will need to research the subject extensively so they can even out the playing field for their child.


Sayal, K. (2008). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is associated with poorer academic performance. Evidence-Based Mental Health, 11(2), 41-41. DOI: 10.1136/ebmh.11.2.41

  • I believe that ADHD can do well in school, but schools are best suited for only one type of learning style and doesn’t allow much for variations, nor are teachers taught much about special needs. With the right supports, the proper enviornment and training for teachers, I believe they can be successful. But, sadly the school system in California fails to meet those with developmental disabilities and parents and social workers have to fight hard to obtain what by law they are entitled to. How much harder for a parent with a child who has ADHD and no social worker.

  • mary

    I am a school speech-language pathologist and parent of an ADHD child, and a bit that way myself. I see many kids who I know will have a bad time in school but will find a niche once they have served their time. Conformity is important is schools. For one thing, how else can one teacher manage 25 or more kids, much less teach them anything? And it is the schools’ role, like it or not, to socialize children into what society considers acceptable behavior and attitudes; ADHD is not in the ballpark of accepatable, in school. So as we help students get through their days as successfully as possible, we should help them know that school is not the ‘real world’, but that learning certain things (math and reading, and critical thinking) are important things you can accomplish in school; and that they have qualities which do not look like advantages in a school setting but may look much better when they find their niche.
    In the meantime, teachers who preach the gospel of diversity, as in different wintertime holidays, should consider other kinds of diversity in each group of children and the richness it brings.

  • I think ADHD is real. I also think it is a reality that some children are simply bored rigid by schooling. In this case the problem isn’t them but the schools.

  • Gary Kelly

    I think it depends. I’m gifted as well as AD/HD. I did about average (and sometimes below) in high school, but in college, I graduated as a member of an honor society (with a bachelor degree). I think it depends upon the stimulation level. In high school the subjects just weren’t that interesting, albeit necessary. In colledge I found classes that were either interesting or had a high degree of intellectual stimulation. Often time, on college tests, I would make the highest score in the class. Stimulation was the key. So, in terms of education, I think the academic performance is relative to the level of stimulation.

  • Thanks for your comment to this post on my blog:

    Not having a child in school (we homeschool), I luckily have not had to deal with these types of school issues. I do know that my homeschool friends whose ADHD kids used to be in school have found that ADHD is much less an issue once they start homeschooling because they have more control over the environment and content and can customize it to work with the child rather than against the child.

    As I said in my post, I believe that ADHD is more of a problem with the schools than with the child. Schools do not value the strengths that ADHD kids have and instead identify and focus only on their weaknesses. Most ADHD kids are also right-brained learners and have a different completely normal-for-them timetable for learning things. For example, it is perfectly normal for right-brained learners to not start reading until somewhere between 8 and 10 years old and they often do NOT learn to read using phonics. If allowed to start reading on their own timetable in a way that makes sense for them (often relying primarily on sight words), they do NOT struggle to learn to read and easily become strong readers (albeit later than “normal”).

    You might also be interested in these posts which touch on this subject:

  • Sondra Sheckler

    This was very interesting to hear and I agree with so much that has already been written, i.e., ADHD children learn differently, they need different stimulation, they are often “gifted” and have their own timetable of learning because it “just makes sense” to them. Example: Potty training. I have four children, one is ADHD and his potty training was a real challenge for us and I know we often frustrated him and sadly this was before he was diagnosed. Anyway, he walked in one day and my husband and I were sitting in the living room chatting and he walked right by us and said “I have to go potty” and it was just like that every day after that and yes, was later than what has been termed as “normal”. What is MOST frustrating for me is the stereotypes that goes along with ADHD and the differential treatment that these children receive, it is so unfair and can have crushing effects on the spirit of a child. I feel that since statistics show that at least every classroom has ONE or more ADHD child(ren) that teachers/educators should be required to receive more than the “normal” training associated with their degrees and teacher licensure because it just makes sense that they understand all aspects of ADHD. How a child with ADHD learns, how they were diagnosed, what it means, approaches to teaching etc., etc. etc., Knox county school teachers receive 1/2 day training and that’s it. An ADHD child does not have to be the disruption in the classroom just because he/she doesn’t conform to the “traditional” rules of school that were established hundreds of years ago. Folks with or without ADHD think differently, react different and learn differently and children that are ADHD have every right to expect to be in a normal/traditional classroom and treated with as much respect as a child that is not ADHD and I will ensure that my son receives this respect. I am going to move on and read some of the other noted articles and will note this one in our school matters @:

    Thank you for sharing!

  • Sondra Sheckler

    I would like to add that having involved, supportive and proactive parents can make or break a child in this. Early diagnosis is the key (I feel) because early intervention can save someone a life of heartache and that is my goal for my son. He is only 6 and had a very negative first year of school, atlhough the second part of the year was much better, his self esteem has already been effected by a teacher that is less than understanding and more focused on the “normal” methods of teaching and that children should behave a certain way, period. I will be proactive this year in not only helping to select his 1st grade teacher, but also in classroom activities and meetings with the teacher and principal because while he is ADHD, he is bright, sweet, good natured and most importantly, WANTS to learn. He won’t learn all the things he needs to learn in the “traditional” and much expected “mold” of learning that was created hundreds of years ago, but he will learn on his own timetable with loving guidance and understanding from us (his parents) and educating his teachers on his diagnosis and expecting them to work within the parameters of teaching an ADHD, I won’t accept anything less from his educators. I truly feel for those students/children that do not have supportive parents or parents that are not educated about ADHD. So many children are labeled defiant and treated as such, when the reality is that they are ADHD and need help. They literally cannot help themselves and need loving, kind, compassionate assistance in helping themselvs until they are at an age that they can understand it and work with it.

  • What I find interesting is that a study was required to try to establish this clearly obvious link. It points to one of the primary difficulties in developing educational programs in learning. The wide variety of learning behaviors, the cross currents of IQ, home environment, etc. make it hard to establish any real truths in education.

    We are providers of Fast ForWord software, and there is an enormous body of data supporting this program now but as in all education related issues, there are dissenters who are able to draw even on some of the same data to make a different conclusion!

    Here’s what I mean:

J. R. White

J. R. White is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She has over five years of experience in education and pedagogy.

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