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Questions to Ask About Educational Settings for Girls with ADHD

Parents and caregivers of girls with ADHD have some important things to consider when thinking about their daughters’ educational needs. For some families, this may include choosing between different school options if they are available.

It’s important to note, says Julia Schechter, PhD, co-director of the Duke Center for Girls & Women with ADHD, the right school for one child with ADHD might not be the right one for another child with ADHD.

“While we know that most children with ADHD do best with structure, some may do better with a more flexible school environment,” Dr. Schechter says. “Families will want to think about their own daughter’s needs and strengths when making decisions about schools.”

Questions we recommend that parents ask include:

Question: Do the administrators and teachers understand how ADHD presents in girls and have experience recognizing its symptoms?
ADHD in girls and young women usually looks quite different than it does in boys and young men. In general, girls with ADHD tend to be more inattentive, quiet and distracted, while many males with the condition are rambunctious, impulsive and disruptive. Because teachers and administrators may be unaware of these important differences, girls showing these signs of ADHD can be misunderstood and may not receive the help they need.

“Inattention doesn’t typically disrupt a classroom or get students sent to the principal’s office,” says Dr. Schechter. “Inattentive girls may slide under their teachers’ radar – particularly if the teachers are unfamiliar with how ADHD typically looks in females.”

Importantly, she says, girls also can display hyperactive and impulsive behavior separate from or in addition to inattention. Girls with the hyperactive/impulsive or combined inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive presentations can experience significant interpersonal challenges since this behavior is not typically expected for girls.

When seeking a supportive educational environment for your daughter with ADHD, you may want to ask if teachers at the school have received any type of training in identifying and educating girls with ADHD. Families can also ask about whether teachers have access to mental health professionals or learning specialists with whom teachers can consult if they have questions about ADHD in girls.

In addition, parents may consider sharing information with teachers and administrators from reliable sources including the National Institute of Mental Health, Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) and the Duke Center for Girls & Women with ADHD.

Question: What types of resources and support services does the school have available for eligible students with ADHD?
Parents should ask school personnel whether there are available support services – either formal or informal – for students with ADHD and if so, how to access those services.

“Every school – whether it’s public or private – has its own process and requirements for obtaining these types of services,” says Naomi O. Davis, PhD, clinical psychologist at the Duke ADHD Program. “And it’s important to remember that not all students with ADHD will benefit from the same types of school services. Each child and situation is unique.”

Support should be tailored to individual students and their specific ADHD-related challenges. Some often-helpful supports include:

  • Using a Daily Behavior Report Card to monitor and reward desired classroom behaviors, such as completing work in the allotted time and bringing materials needed for class
  • Allowing students to take tests and quizzes in settings with fewer distractions
  • Giving students extra time to complete timed assessments
  • Providing visual aids to help with following routines and completing assignments
  • Allowing movement breaks, fidgets or adaptive seating that support students while minimizing distraction to the classroom

Parents and caregivers should also ask about the types of specialists – such as school psychologists, occupational therapists and school counselors – available to students at the school and whether those specialists have been trained in working with female students with ADHD.

Since girls with ADHD—compared to girls without ADHD and boys with the condition—are at higher risk for co-occurring mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, families may want to ask about opportunities for school-based counseling sessions. These types of sessions can help girls to develop coping skills and address any mental health concerns that affect them in the education setting.

Question: What’s the best way to communicate with the school about my daughter’s needs, her progress and helpful ADHD-management strategies and insights we’ve learned in outside treatment that may be applied in the educational setting?
Regular communication between schools and families is especially important when a child has ADHD. This is particularly true with girls, who may be less likely to have disruptive behaviors that result in frequent calls or office referrals. Inattentive, off-task behaviors that girls with ADHD often display may be more subtle than the typical behaviors seen in boys with ADHD.

Family-teacher check-ins can help to identify trouble areas – such as incomplete classwork – and to monitor medication effects during school hours.

“Families may want to ask if there are any specific processes in place for noticing and documenting when a child is having difficulties in the classroom,” says Dr. Schechter. “This can include less disruptive behaviors – such as trouble staying on task, making careless errors or keeping track of their belongings – or more overt behaviors, such as getting up from their seats, talking a lot with their friends, calling out or seeming overly worried or bothered by the words and actions of classmates.”

If there aren’t existing tracking processes like these, Dr. Schechter says, parents may want to partner with their daughter’s teacher and appropriate school personnel to come up with a way for monitoring these behaviors. An ongoing dialogue helps both parents and schools intervene early when students show signs of difficulty and also helps them track the girls’ responses to interventions.

Parents and caregivers may be able to include schedules for regular communication with school personnel as components of their daughters’ informal or formal school plans, such as Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or Section 504 Plans.

Question: Can we attend a school open house or schedule a tour of the school?
It’s always a good idea to visit schools in person – with your daughter, when possible – either by scheduling a tour or attending a school open house. Meeting teachers and administrators, observing teaching styles and seeing the classrooms will help you get a feel for how your daughter might do there. See ADDitude magazine’s article about this topic for more helpful suggestions.