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ADHD and School - A Guest Blog

We are very grateful for the following guest blog from Headteacher, John Cosgrove.


With a career spanning 38 years, John Cosgrove has taught all ages in schools from Cornwall to Lancashire. He retired this summer from his most recent post as head of Christ the King Catholic Primary School, Reading.

After I read the following passage written by Mr Cosgrove tears actually welled up in my eyes as an adult who went 43 years with undiagnosed ADHD. I was a female version of Alfie. I said to him when I finished reading "I think that sometimes people don’t want to let go of their core beliefs about ADHD - it’s like if they do that somehow everything they know to be true might also unravel too".

ADHD and School - John Cosgrove, Headteacher

Alice has cerebral palsy. Swimming was on the curriculum the year I taught her, but there was a problem. She could not get in or out of the pool unaided, and the pool had no hoist. We had to buy one and have it installed. This was twenty years ago, but funding is always tight, and there were many meetings, discussions and negotiations about where the money might come from. What I do not recall at any stage is anyone suggesting that Alice (which is not her real name, of course) should simply sit in the gallery in her wheelchair and watch her classmates swim. Nor did we consider the option of cancelling swimming for everyone; and no-one advanced the thought that allowing Alice to be hoisted in and out of the pool was unfair on the other children, on the lines of: “if we let her get away with that, they’ll all want to do it.”

Alfie, by contrast, has ADHD, an invisible condition. Alfie is not his real name, either, and he was never in my class, though his behaviour frequently saw him sent to my office. When it was his class’s turn to swim, Alfie’s impulsivity made even the walk to the pool a challenge. Swimming is an inherently risky activity, and Alfie needed supervision while changing and at all times when in or near the water. Because Alfie’s condition manifests itself in behaviours, there was far less sympathy for him than for Alice. I am sure you can imagine: “If you can’t behave, sit on the side and watch;” or, “I can’t trust you, so you can’t come.”

The first, and the biggest, hurdle for children with ADHD is that their condition is not visible. And in 2019 there are still plenty of education professionals who do not really believe the condition exists: or perhaps more accurately, who might intellectually accept that a child can have a diagnosis of a real condition but without acknowledging the implications. In fact, around 3.6% of boys and 0.9% of girls aged 5 – 15 in the UK have a diagnosis of ADHD. (In the US the figure is 5% or 11% of all children, depending on whether you accept the American Psychiatric Association or the Center for Disease Control figure.) ADHD is real and there is likely to be one child with the condition in every class. At least one. So do not take that inappropriate behaviour personally. Far too many teachers still treat the tendency to call out in class, or the inability to concentrate on the task in hand, as deliberate choices: “I know he’s got ADHD, but…”

To work effectively with children who have ADHD, means acknowledging that it is a genuine condition and that punishment alone is no more likely to encourage Alfie to behave appropriately than it would be to persuade Alice to walk. Alfie needs to know that calling out in class (for example) is not acceptable, but telling him to stop and punishing him when he doesn’t, will not work. He needs to be given strategies to help. Every child is an individual, so thought has to be put into devising the programme and adapting techniques that will support him. Sometimes this will mean changing the way the whole class is taught: for example building in more frequent movement breaks. Or the interventions may be targeted: tokens building up to rewards, perhaps. There may also be one-to-one intervention, just as Alice was taken out of class for physiotherapy, Alfie might benefit from individual or small group work on behaviour.

At the end of the day, a member of staff to walk down the road with Alfie to the swimming pool, to stay with him while he gets changed and to even get into the water with him, every week of the year, was a lot less expensive than buying a hoist for Alice.

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