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Finding the right school for a child with ADHD

Laurie Fraser didn't expect she'd still be reading to her 16-year-old son every night. Yet that, along with sitting at his side, is what it takes to get through what she calls "the nightly homework battle."

Diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in Grade 2, Brett was a "whirling bundle that buzzes, dashes, jumps up and can't sit still. Even now, at his age, when I read to him, he's rolling around on the floor, but I know he is listening."

Listening in the often unique manner of a child with ADHD, a developmental disorder characterized by a wide array of symptoms: inattentive behaviour, impulsivity and hyperactivity. If undiagnosed, it can be mistaken for laziness or defiance.

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The challenge ADHD presents for students is bringing a new focus to private schools as they embrace research into individualized learning – and the new markets represented by children and adolescents with special needs.

"Every country on earth is reforming education," says Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of the Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS).

"Independent schools have a deep respect for children and their education, for building self-esteem, helping kids find what they are good at. They have always been committed to individual kids and their challenges. This, together with all the new research and teaching strategies, benefits kids in general and those with ADHD in particular," Ms. Kee says.

For kids with ADHD, the challenges start early and continue throughout life. Classified as a mental health disorder, "ADHD is not a learning disability, although it impacts how children learn," says Heidi Bernhard, executive director of the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada and a former psychiatric nurse.

"It's lifelong, it doesn't go away and it's very complex and highly individualistic with a wide variation in how it is manifest in a particular child."

Diagnosis itself is complex, say the experts, but it is generally thought that 5 per cent of the population have ADHD, a figure Ms. Bernhard characterizes as "conservative."

Psychologist Michael Leatch, head of student services at Toronto's Crescent School for boys, says that functional magnetic imaging shows brain abnormalities in the pre-frontal cortex in people with ADHD. He also notes that the disorder is three times more prevalent in boys.

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"The implications are seen in what we call the executive functions of the brain," Dr. Leatch says. "It affects such things as organizational and planning functions, and concepts of time."

The latter is significant. For someone with ADHD, it's not enough to have a calendar organizer showing what time to get up, leave for school, get from class to class. "If you don't know what 30 minutes is, the calendar won't do much good," says Ms. Bernhard. "It's like teaching someone who needs a wheelchair what walking is, yet they still won't walk because they can't."

ADHD falls into two main groups: inattentive behaviours or hyperactive/impulsive behaviours. For a diagnosis of ADHD, a child or adolescent must have displayed a number of symptoms in either category and the symptoms must be seen in all areas of a child's life, not just in school.

Behaviours common in ADHD, but different in each child or adolescent, include problems staying focused, difficulty following a sequence of instructions, getting distracted easily and often losing or forgetting things.

Laurie Fraser says her son's timetable for the new school year was lost within a half-hour, and its replacement then went missing three more times in as many days.

Impulsivity can include behaviours like discomfort waiting for a turn, regular outbursts including shouting and interrupting or intruding on others' conversations or games.

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The social implications of ADHD make it difficult for kids to form and keep friendships.

Dr. Leatch says that as far as he knows, he's the only full-time psychologist on staff at a private school in Canada, although many private schools are expanding student services departments, including special education resources. It's consistent with new research that shows when it comes to learning styles "one size doesn't fit all," says Dr. Leatch.

"Our approach at Crescent is to build relationships, and address problems and frustrations immediately so they don't become explosive. The key is knowing the individual, connecting frequently with the child, family and other teachers, and having a great deal of consistency and communication."

At Blyth Academy, a co-ed school with five campuses in the Toronto area, small class sizes are the cornerstone of personalized education, says Nili Isaacs, director of guidance.

"In addition, we split the term into two 10 ½ week sessions with two courses per term. And we do a lot of work with our students on organizational skills," he says.

Breaking up the course load fits with the experts' advice to break work down into smaller units ("chunk" it) to help students with ADHD.

When parents are looking for a school to suit a child with ADHD, the right fit is crucial. "Parents need to realize it's a long journey, and there will be good years and bad ones," advises Elaine Danson, former head of special education at Montcrest School and now a consultant for schools and families.

She says that when looking for a school, parents themselves should be well informed about ADHD, then ask lots of questions and visit the school. Look for a calm atmosphere, engaged teachers, lots of arts and a good outdoor space.

"The strength of private school," Ms. Danson says, "is their continuity and consistency from year to year. There are more eyes on the child."

Special to The Globe and Mail


What works for ADHD

Experts say there are many strategies for helping students with ADHD, but note that not every one will work with every child. Accommodations may include:

•Chunking work into smaller pieces

•Check up on assignments frequently

•Minimizing the number of steps in an instruction

•Using prompts to keep the student focused and on track

•Consistent but flexible structure

•Calm environment with few distractions

•Single-grade classes work best

•Curriculum rich in arts and physical education

•Teaching style that is entertaining and engaging

•Use of special equipment such as headphones, study carrel, dim lighting

•Concrete, hands-on learning

•Reduced homework, course load, lots of help with time management

•A dose of humour helps

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