Attention deficit disorder diagnosis often too quick

Q: Late last spring our son’s Grade 2 teacher asked for a parent-teacher meeting between herself and my husband and I. The principal of the school was also there.

According to our son’s teacher, our son has a hard time staying on task. He is easily distracted and often presents a disturbance to the other students in the classroom. The teacher believes that our son has an attention deficit disorder. She asked us to take our boy to a family doctor in town, who she says knows all there is to know about attention deficit disorder and who in turn will prescribe medication to our boy that will help him settle more in the classroom.

This has all been overwhelming for us. My husband is mad. He is a successful contractor who is well known for the work that he and his company do. But he had teachers on his case when he was a young boy as well and he is inclined to let the whole thing go by and let our son mature in his own way, much as he did.

I am not sure what to do. Can you give me some direction on this?

A: Irrespective of whatever were your husband’s experiences when he was a young boy growing up, I think that you owe it to your son to follow up on his teacher’s concerns.

Let’s just be clear about what his teacher’s concerns are. She has said that he is easily distracted in the classroom and that his behaviour is getting in the way both of his own educational development and his classmates’ learning opportunities. Those are important concerns.

However, that is where the teacher’s concerns have to stop.

Children can be distracted and sometimes disruptive for any number of reasons. Some children struggle with attention deficit disorder, as she is suggesting for your son. Other children are victims to high orders of personal tensions and are too anxious to be able to stay on task. Some struggling children are working through high-level autism. Children who have been either physically or sexually abused often have a difficult time settling into classroom routines, as do children who have severe but undiagnosed medical problems.

Children coming from dysfunctional families have a hard time in the classroom. Children who have been bullied by their classmates often do not pay attention to their teachers. Neither do those children who are shy. The list goes on.

The point is that there is not necessarily a one-to-one correlation between classroom distractions and attention deficit disorders. Your son’s teacher should not be trying to offer what is in fact a medical diagnosis when she has neither the training nor the authorization to do so. Her job and your job is to refer your son for consultations to someone who can explore his challenges a little more thoroughly. In this case that would likely mean talking to your family doctor about a referral to either a neurologist or a psychiatrist.

The problem with attention deficit disorder is that it has become the default explanation for children struggling in the classroom. About five percent of children have it, and it is by comparison somewhat easy to resolve. Children with ADHD often do well with some academic guidance and appropriate prescriptions from their physicians. But if a child is misdiagnosed, the treatment and guidance is not only not helpful, it can be harmful.

It is important that you and your husband work to help your son resolve his tendency to get distracted and it is even more important that you better understand the root causes for the distractions.

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