I see and read about it every day, parents asking each other, “What consequences or punishment should I give my child with ADHD so that they will…” Parents and teachers are excellent at coming up with punishments. Everything from writing sentences to missing recess or other “rewards” that they think will suddenly inspire a kid to no longer have ADHD, as if it’s a choice by the child. These kids are consistently punished for their mental health issues. Some people are under the impression that if they find just the right punishment their child will no longer struggle. They fail to see that their child is lagging behind developmentally with one or many social/emotional skills. I assure you that kids with ADHD and other mental health challenges are punished far more than their peers. Just do a quick search for kids with IEPs being punished more than typical peers, you will find many stories and statistics, just like this story. These kids do not need more punishments.
What if I told you that there was a child in a public school that used a wheelchair and was told every day that they should walk on their own without the wheelchair because everyone else is the class is capable of walking, what’s wrong with them? If they just tried harder they could walk. Maybe they should write sentences every day during recess until they decide that they are going to walk. Until they decide to walk they will have to sit at a separate table at lunch or eat in the principal’s office. What if there was going to be a special assembly, but to go, you have to walk. Sorry, kid, you don’t get to go, maybe you should work harder to walk. The class is going on a field trip, but only kids that walk get to go. Several times a week the teacher emails the parents and lets them know their child is still refusing to walk. As parents, they need to work on this at home because it’s disruptive to others. Many times a day the child hears things like, “How many times have I told you to walk?” “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you just be like the other kids?” “Why do you like to cause trouble?” “I know you could do it if you really tried”
You might and should be appalled that someone would say those things to a child that uses a wheelchair. These same things are told to and done to children with ADHD EVERYDAY!! Just because their struggles are not visible it does not mean that they are less real. Your thoughts and feelings are just as real as theirs. They often lack the same skills that their same age peers develop with little to no extra help. These kids often do not understand that their minds are working differently so they cannot understand why they struggle and other kids do not. They do not understand why they are punished so much and so severely just for trying to do the right things. They definitely do not learn anything from these punishments because they are not intentionally trying to do the wrong thing. I know it often looks like they are not trying their best or they are trying to be disruptive. This is not the case. If (when calm and feeling safe) you were to ask any child if they want to make good choices and be “the good kid” that has friends, gets good behavior awards, gets invited to parties, etc, they, of course, would say YES!! They just do not always have the skills to make that happen.
Just like we all make accommodations for people using wheelchairs, crutches, those that are blind or deaf, we need to make accommodations for those with mental health issues. Sometimes these are easy to implement and sometimes it makes it very hard to figure out what is going to be helpful. Simple things like alternative seat choices, being able to stand and walk around more, extra time for assignments or thing to fidget with or chew on can go along way with some kids. I have heard some teachers express concern that if they make allowances for a few kids then all kids many ask for the same allowances. For most kids, if you explain that we all have different needs and abilities, strengths struggles and school is the place for each child to feel safe and understand how to use their gifts in the unique ways that they were meant to use them. Some kids need to move more, some kids need a bit more time to complete a task. By allowing each child to have their need met you as a teacher are teaching them compassion and that it’s not a big deal to have different needs. Most kids will want to try out the alternative seating, but the novelty will wear off and each kid will know that it’s there if they need it. As far as allowing extra time for assignments, you can ask the child requesting it if they truly need it. Most of the time the other kids won’t even know another child is getting more time, but you can explain that each person’s needs are met in your class and if they feel their needs are not being met they can meet with you to discuss their ongoing concerns. Younger kids are probably going to be satisfied with being told that you are taking care it and everyone’s needs are being met.
One of my favorite resources for understanding how to help struggling kids is http://www.livesinthebalance.org On this site there are video clips, links to podcasts, downloadable forms, etc.. This information helps you to change the way you think about kids that have “behavior problems” and helps you figure out how to help them and reduce the stress levels of all of those involved. Please stop thinking that punishment is the answer. It will never teach the skills anyone lacks.