Learning Challenges

When Schools Resist Evaluating & Addressing Learning Disabilities

The repercussions of a missed diagnosis can last a lifetime. So why do some schools fail to identify learning differences in students with ADHD, causing them to fall behind?

Almost two-thirds of children with ADHD have at least one other condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 45 percent are affected by learning disorders, 32 percent by anxiety, 17 percent by a mood disorder, and 14 percent by autism spectrum disorder. Yet despite the prevalence of co-occurring conditions, experts in the field — advocates, learning specialists, and psychologists — report that many students with ADHD do not receive assessments for common comorbidities, at least initially.

Jackson’s Story: Learning Differences Dismissed

Third grade was not going well for Jackson* of Brooklyn, New York. Diagnosed with ADHD at age 5, Jackson was in an integrated co-teaching class with an IEP in place, but his school aversion intensified with each passing day. “He would have these giant anxiety fits about going to school, saying, ‘I hate it! It’s boring!’” remembers his mother, Sarah.*

Before a parent-teacher conference, Sarah saw the other students’ writings hanging on the classroom walls and began to understand Jackson’s fears. “The other kids were writing full paragraphs and punctuating and spacing their words,” she says. “My jaw dropped. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is going on? He is so far behind his classmates. How did I not know this?’”

When Sarah raised her concerns at Jackson’s IEP meeting and asked for a learning disorder evaluation, she got pushback. “They were convinced that he couldn’t spell or write [because of] hard-headedness,” she explains. “The school was acting as though it was a behavior issue.”

Eventually, Jackson received a school evaluation as well as private neuropsychological testing. It revealed that, in addition to ADHD, Jackson had dysgraphia and was cognitively gifted. Now in sixth grade, he is thriving, thanks to an understanding of his learning needs and appropriate technologies and supports. But getting that game-changing set of diagnoses was an exhausting six-year process.

[Download: The Best Learning Tools for Students with ADHD and LD]

“There was so much drama,” says Sarah. “The teachers were frustrated, and it was a miserable thing for my son to be constantly told to do something he was not in a position to do.”

When ADHD is Blamed

Jackson’s story, or some version of it, is familiar to most special education advocates. The repercussions of a missed diagnosis can be enormous to a child. Without the proper supports in place, kids will struggle and fall behind in school, losing invaluable opportunities for remediation during critical windows of growth. And this will have dramatic ripple effects emotionally, socially, and behaviorally, says Cheryl Chase, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and founder of ChasingYourPotential.com.

The problem begins with a lack of testing, says Susan Yellin, a lawyer and director of advocacy and transition services at the Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education in New York City. “A good evaluation has to be the starting place,” she says.

“If you don’t know what you’re dealing with, how can you fix it?” says Matt Cohen, a lawyer and past president of CHADD. “There are so many different areas where ADHD may overlap with, or may mask, other problems that a more in-depth evaluation is good practice. I would even argue it’s legally mandated… and a proactive responsibility.”

[Read: How to Request a Special Education Evaluation]

Under a mandate covered in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) called Child Find, public schools are required to “identify and evaluate all students who are reasonably suspected of having a disability.” This includes vision and hearing, social and emotional status, academic performance, and everything in between. In many cases, however, schools are not pursuing additional testing for kids with ADHD, despite requests from parents. The reasons for this include:

  • Symptoms of co-occurring conditions are often mistakenly attributed to ADHD or are conflated with behavioral issues
  • School budget constraints limit testing and support services that might be required

“When I see kids who are diagnosed with learning disabilities in sixth or seventh grade, they’ve had years of a script in their head that they’re stupid and not good enough,” says Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Kids deal with that differently: Some get anxious, some get depressed, and some become the class clown.”

When LD Red Flags Go Unnoticed

The threads of multiple diagnoses can be difficult to untangle in a child with ADHD. “Co-existing conditions are often missed because the focal point, especially with hyperactive or impulsive kids, is on behavior that is perceived to be disruptive or problematic,” Cohen says. “And that’s as far as the initial investigation goes.”

This was the case for Bradley April of Milton, Washington. He was diagnosed with ADHD at age 4. It took five years, and several evaluations paid for by his family, before he was diagnosed with dyslexia. His mother, Kim April, recalls that Bradley’s explosive behavior began in first grade and steadily intensified until, by third grade, he was being removed from the classroom almost daily. “He was incredibly frustrated, and it was often expressed as avoidance, ripping up papers, flipping desks, and running from the classroom when he could not meet the expectations.”

April says it was obvious to her that reading “had not clicked” for Bradley, but no one suggested additional testing, despite the red flags and discrepancies. “I feel that the school saw his struggles as related to ADHD, and they didn’t look any further due to a lack of training, resources, or both,” says April.

Chase adds that the executive function challenges posed by ADHD make uncovering learning disabilities especially challenging. If a child is inattentive or impulsive, how does an educator, therapist, parent, or even diagnostician know if the learning challenge stems from their executive functioning or another underlying issue? “You might not know,” Chase says. “But if you’ve got at least a couple of data points, including teacher and parent reports that he’s not reading well or that writing is a painful experience, for example, we can’t ignore that.” The next step, she says, should be further testing.

Cutting Corners on LD Evaluations

If experts agree that the best way to identify and address challenges is to evaluate a child fully and comprehensively, then why would schools ever resist additional assessments? “Unfortunately, sometimes, administrators are cutting corners on evaluations,” says Beverley Holden Johns, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois. “If you don’t do an evaluation that can determine a disability, you don’t have to provide additional services. It’s a way to save money.”

There’s an additional challenge, adds Olivardia: The evaluations that schools are equipped to offer may not be extensive enough to catch all co-occurring conditions. While a full neuropsychological evaluation isn’t usually necessary to diagnose ADHD, he says, it is the standard for assessing learning disabilities. And schools simply aren’t equipped to conduct these highly specialized, and expensive, evaluations.

Making education accessible for a child with ADHD tends to require accommodations — preferential seating, reminders, building in breaks — that largely can be offered in a general education classroom at little additional cost to schools. But for other conditions, particularly learning disabilities, far more expensive interventions are necessary, including instruction by specialists.

Even so, Yellin reminds parents that every child is entitled to an appropriate, free education that meets their needs. “This is not a present from the school,” she says. “This is a right under federal law.”

Taking a Closer Look

Each of the comorbid conditions commonly found in kids with ADHD has a different set of red flags. That said, the following signs should compel further investigation, according to Kathy Kuhl, a Virginia-based education consultant and founder of LearnDifferently.com.

Take additional steps if your child…

  • Continues to feel frustrated even though his ADHD is being managed
  • Avoids specific subjects at school
  • Refuses to go to school
  • Seems angry much of the time
  • Talks negatively about himself

If you suspect a learning difference. . .

  • Request an evaluation from the school in writing, Yellin says. A simple email stating, “I suspect my child has a disability and I am requesting an evaluation” will do. Under the IDEA, schools must investigate and evaluate all areas of suspected disability.
  • If the school refuses to evaluate: You have two choices, Cohen explains:
    • Seek a due process hearing to request that the school evaluate the child
    • Get your child evaluated privately if you can afford it or if you can find low or no-cost options. The school district is obligated to consider those findings, but it is not bound by them.

How SEPTA can help

A Special Education PTA, or SEPTA, is a parent-teacher organization in which parents of children with special needs, often from different schools within one district, come together to share resources, build community, plan workshops on topics of interest, and serve as a united voice to advocate for special needs students.

If SEPTA is not in your district, you can form one. Reach out to your state’s PTA office and ask about how to get started. Members can include parents, guardians, teachers, aides, school therapists and administrators—anyone who wants to help support students with special needs.

*Jackson and Sarah’s names have been changed at their request.

Diagnosing Learning Disabilities: Next Steps

Nicole Kear is the author of the memoir Now I See You (#CommissionsEarned) and numerous books for children. A native of New York, she has received a Bachelor’s degree from Yale and a Master’s degree from Columbia University.

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