Parents won’t explore ADHD diagnosis. Is teacher right to push it?


Q: I’ve been a 6th-grade English teacher and team leader for two decades and know a kid with a learning challenge when I see one. Parents are typically open to exploring the idea and will initiate the special education process with my guidance. But I have one new student this year who clearly has ADHD and is bouncing off the walls, is completely impulsive and socially inept, disrupts his classmates, can’t remember his homework or even a pen to save his life, and clearly needs an IEP and probably some medication. And yet his parents are ticked off that I keep pressing the issue, even when I tell him I’ve seen so many students who present like he does. They keep insisting he’s just energetic and needs more recess or that he’s bored. I’m not a special educator or psychologist, but I have sat in on literally hundreds of IEP meetings and I know what I’m talking about. My colleagues are advising me to pick my battles, but this feels neglectful and unprofessional to me. His struggles will only get worse as the academic challenges increase, and I can’t imagine how he’ll manage high school. Should I force the issue?  


A: If you’re approaching the parents with this level of certainty, you can’t possibly be honoring and respecting their role in their own child’s life. It’s barely October, which means you’ve known him for all of six weeks max. His parents have known him for 11 years. He’s also adjusting to middle school. His anxiety about the transition could be impacting his ability to pay attention. Anxiety also could be contributing to his social awkwardness. His efforts to fit in with new classmates could be falling flat because he’s trying too hard. It’s not easy to make the leap from elementary to middle school, and his parents are probably right that he’s struggling without recess. I also wouldn’t discount fully the possibility that he’s bored. 

I’m not saying you’re wrong, but this isn’t as black and white as you make it out to be. Consider taking a different approach. Get to know this boy and his family. Log your observations and any strategies that work. If you have experience with kids with ADHD, you already know how to help him, from building in movement breaks to checking his planner and having him sit away from distractions. Many strategies are best practices for all kids. Implement several informal accommodations and see which ones help. You wouldn’t skip this step even if you were initiating the special education process. 

Bring up his case at one of your team meetings, too. What are your colleagues seeing? Solicit their thoughts. They may be advising you to pick your battles because they’ve noticed that you tend to be quick to rush to judgment. Consider, too, that your student is picking up on your frustration. It would be interesting to see if he’s struggling less in other classes. You may have mismatched temperamentsor he might find English particularly taxing. Whatever the case, focus on building a positive, accepting relationship. Set him up for success to demonstrate that you care about him and want to see him do well. 

Build trust with the boy’s parents, too. Send them regular updates and ask for their help. What are they seeing at home? What do they do to help him stay focused and organized? Inquire about his social history. Has he struggled to make friends in the past, or is this a new issue? ADHD only is diagnosed when symptoms appear in more than one setting, so it’s significant if his parents aren’t seeing these same patterns at home. 

Keep in mind that while an ADHD diagnosis seems run-of-the-mill to you, it could feel daunting or stigmatizing to his parents. They may need time to adjust to the idea before they’re willing to pursue testing or fill out checklists. And instead of telling them that their son looks like just like all of your other gazillion students with ADHD, tell them what you’re specifically noticing with him. Forget about high school for now. Your student is in 6th grade and has time on his side. Plus, if you force the issue, you’ll create an unnecessarily adversarial relationship with his family and could end up identifying the wrong underlying problem. Revisit the issue in a few months once the boy has had a chance to adjust and you’ve had a chance to collect more information. 

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PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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