How ADHD forced my son out of school
Exclusion from school is something every parent dreads. Hearing the words, “We would like you to remove your son at the end of this term”, was certainly one of the worst moments of my life.
Dan was starting his second year at an exclusive independent boys’ school and had behavioural problems. In fact, he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) although this had not been formally diagnosed at the time. We knew all along that there was more to his behaviour than simply being “bad”. The school chose to ignore this. They were, in my opinion, prepared to let him destroy himself simply to protect their position in the league tables.
With the independent schools’ open-day season now under way, I would advise the parents of prospective pupils who fall into the same category as my son, or who have already been diagnosed with ADHD, to choose carefully. As we were to discover, the consequences of not doing so can be damaging for both the child and their family.
ADHD is a recognised medical condition affecting up to 5 per cent of all school-age children, with more boys affected than girls. Scientists believe that it is caused by an imbalance in brain neurotransmitters – chemicals that allow the cells of the central nervous system to communicate – and those afflicted find it hard to concentrate, stay still for long, or restrain their impulses. Recent research showing, for the first time, direct evidence of a genetic link, is helping to disprove assumptions that this condition is merely “naughtiness”.
Dan had sailed through his entrance exam and the interview, and arrived at the school in September 2007. We were proud and excited, thinking a big sporty school perfect for him. There had been some behavioural problems at his state-funded primary school – he could be over-boisterous and sometimes aggressive in the playground – but there was no question about his intellectual ability. He was also an exceptional athlete, and soon in the rugby first team at his new school.
His half-term reports were worrying, however. While some teachers clearly enjoyed teaching Dan, others complained about his behaviour. He would call out impulsively during lessons and fidget in class. His homework was often incomplete and messy. In spite of this, he did well in tests and had a wide group of friends.
He was difficult at home, too: he couldn’t settle to homework and had trouble getting to sleep. Yet there was no deliberate mischief in Dan’s activities; he often apologised for letting us down.
A few weeks into the start of Dan’s second year, we were called to a meeting with the deputy head, shortly after our son had been given a one-day suspension for fighting with another boy. I said that my husband and I were convinced that there were underlying reasons for his behaviour, and the deputy head promised to recommend an educational psychologist who could see Dan.
By now, we were wondering if ADHD could be causing Dan’s problems. I wrote a letter to the deputy head the following day, asking for details of the psychologist. A reply never came. When I tried to follow this up, the head of year suggested Dan should visit the school’s counsellor. We agreed to this, though he had tried this previously at the school’s request but it had not helped. We trusted the school, believed it wanted to help our son, and felt we should co-operate.
From this point, things spiralled quickly downward. Dan’s meetings with the school counsellor had no impact. He had twice been suspended for fighting, which officially meant that he was on his last chance. Over the next few weeks, there were increasingly frequent small incidents: detentions for missed homework and minor complaints about his behaviour. Dan himself withdrew and appeared frightened. We could not get through to him.
Looking back, I feel this large, highly regarded school was surely well equipped to tell the difference between children who maliciously disrupt school life, and those, like Dan, who cannot help themselves. But the school was not prepared to recognise ADHD, even though it qualifies for Special Educational Needs (SEN), which its terms and conditions promise to provide for. Instead, the school let Dan down – badly: a talented, exuberant child on arrival in school, had become an unhappy, failing student.
We were invited to another meeting in early December 2008. “It’s nothing to worry about,” the head of year reassured me over the phone. Two days later, as we sat in his office, the deputy head asked us to remove Dan at the end of term. “If he does one more thing, I will expel him,” he threatened.
We took him out two days later, not daring to leave him there a moment longer. On his last day, he played in a rugby match, scored a try and the team won. It was expulsion, by another name. The boys in his year group launched a “Save Dan” campaign on Facebook; Dan himself kept apologising to us.
As soon as he left, we sought medical help. Within weeks, Dan was formally diagnosed with ADHD by a consultant paediatrician at our local hospital, and examined by a neurologist.
Contrary to recent media opinion, a child does not easily qualify for this diagnosis. Dan’s personal and medical history was meticulously investigated, and detailed questionnaires on all aspects of his behaviour completed by us and three teachers from the school. He ranked high on the scale, with eight out of nine behaviours classic in ADHD. He was assigned a specialist ADHD nurse and prescribed the drug, Ritalin, to help his concentration and control impulsivity. He has also had a course of therapy with a psychologist from our local authority’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.
The school dismissed our appeal against Dan’s removal in January 2009, even though, by that stage, we had a preliminary diagnosis. We tried local state schools for Dan, but the good ones were full. Private specialist schools, mostly for boarders, were too expensive.
For a long time, Dan’s self-esteem was low, his bubbling confidence gone. It was distressing to see a child you love in such despair; by now, he had lost months at school, as well as more than a stone-and-a-half in weight. He looked gaunt and sad: it broke my heart. Finally, in September 2009, Dan obtained a place at a private school, with smaller classes and an SEN department with full-time staff. The school was well aware of his condition.
Nearly two years after being excluded, Dan’s behaviour is not perfect but it has greatly improved. He gets on well with the staff, and has learnt to trust them. His teachers take simple steps to help him, checking his notes taken in class and keeping in touch with us by email. I feel Dan is finally getting the education he deserves.
Many parents choosing a private school are reluctant to burden their child with a diagnosis of ADHD because of the stigma attached, but if the condition is identified and treated early, a child can be helped to achieve his or her potential. In the state sector, ADHD is recognised although getting the right help can be a slow process. Private schools, however, which deny its existence do untold damage to vulnerable youngsters.
All names have been changed