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Ask the Experts

Is It ADHD? The Teacher and Doctor Disagree

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist


My son's teacher and the principal say that my child has ADHD, but my doctor says he doesn't. What can I do?


First, find out the exact nature of the teacher's and principal's concerns. It is not unusual for school personnel to quickly label a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder if the child exhibits occasional hyperactivity, inattention or impulsivity in the classroom. These behaviors, though disruptive, may not be consistent or severe enough to qualify as true ADHD.

If you have not already done so, ask for a conference so they can share their thoughts and give you more specific information about your son's behavior. Discuss successful and unsuccessful interventions that have been attempted in the classroom. Ask the teacher to fill out a behavior checklist, such as the Conners Rating Scales or the Child Behavior Checklist, which you can get from the school counselor or your pediatrician. Data from these checklists can be presented to the physician to assist in his/her assessment.

Second, keep in mind that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is actually a complex neurological disorder. Diagnosis and treatment of ADHD requires specialized knowledge and training. As such, consider having your child evaluated by a child psychiatrist or a pediatric neurologist - comprehensive assessment by a specialist would be worth your peace of mind and might reassure school personnel that you have taken their concerns seriously.

Finally, what do you think? As his parent, you know your son better than anyone, and have seen him at his best and at his worst. If you are confident in your doctor's opinion that your son does not have ADHD, ask the teacher what the next step is to help your son succeed in the classroom. Collaborate with your son's educators and support their efforts. Being a strong advocate in your child's school is an important part of parenting.

Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"I'm in the same boat where my 7-year-old teacher has only negative things to say about my son and I'm about to have a 2nd appointment with a child psychologist to do further analysis since his pediatrician disagreed that my son has ADHD. I have complied with all his teacher's demands to 'make him successful' and I'm waiting to see the result from those checklist that were completed by me, his teacher, and his day care. I am optimistic about the result; and because of that, I do not feel cooperating with his teacher's meaningless demand will help my son succeed. By saying succeed, I meant to behave the way she wants him to; and frankly telling me that you're trying to help my son to succeed is saying he is a failure. That in my mind is the failure of the teacher. I see my son as this sweet little boy who is a people pleaser. He is the kind of kid that needs to be occupied continuously to feel normal, and he is impulsive some times. I truly believe his teacher is incapable of dealing with a bunch of 7-yr old and somehow she has to find a way to excuse her failure."
"'Second, keep in mind that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is actually a complex neurological disorder.' There is absolutely NO unbiased research that demonstrates this. All reliable, well grounded research points to ADHD being a learned behavior that is maladaptive to our modern society. Whenever you hear someone claiming it is 'neurological,' or any variant of the word, run away fast. These people are making it up as they go."
"I think it is important to remember that ADHD is a medical condition that cannot be diagnosed by a teacher. I am a teacher, and every year I have students enter my classroom who have been labeled ADHD by a former teacher. I know there is a difference between an active child and a child with ADHD. We are a sedentary nation and we view a child's natural active nature as abnormal. The current national standards do not allow for much activity during the day. Let's face it, kids need to move! I have equipped my classroom desks with bunjee cords so that the busy students can bounce and listen at the same time. I also allow healthy snacks to be eaten in class. This is particularly useful for students who are easily distracted. A fed body = a fed brain. Teachers need to remember that it is completely unnatural for a child to sit for hours on end. If that is the expectation, then of course kids will appear hyperactive. "
"Hi, my son is 10 years old.He was diagnosed with ADHD by a neurologist 3 years ago.Dr did not want to give him medication since he's not hiperactive at all,he's very quiet but he can not retain, focus,or process information as other kids.He was promoted to fifth grade but he has mayor dificulties in reading comprehension. I need to find the way of helping him, and i really appreciate your advise. Thanks so much for your time. MAIDELYN "
"Have people checked out Irlen Syndrome? The more I learn and contiinue to learn about it- most ADHD/learning situations can be directed to the things found inherent to Irlen Syndrome."
"My child have been diagnosed with ADHD back in 2007 by an school Psychologyst,i took her to a very good Neurologist and he agreed with this diagnosis,now she is under treatment,unfortunately we moved out of Tampa to Riverview and the medication does not seem to work according to the Kindergarten instructor,today the Neurologist changed the medication again,and I really don't know what else to do,my daughter seem very quiet while under the medication ,but quite after this is out of the system she becomes very anxious,even i had been discover that she talks by herself and the intructor call this HALLUCINATIONS,she even told me once that my daughter have a high risk for AUTISM which is not true,could you please help me and let me know wich direction to turn.Thank you A desperate mom."
"My grandson has ADHD and he has been going to the Dr. for several years, but his teachers will not admit that he has it, so he is always getting into trouble for doing things without thinking how they will come out. What should I do?"
"what if the psychologist finds the child to have ADHD inattentive type and endocrine disorder with language base disability the school will not recognize it and will not provide any help? I have provided the school with the psychologist test results and doctors results and they refuse to provide any extra help? What can a parent do? There are obvious delays in reading comprehension of 3-4 years and they still will not provide any help to overcome these developmental delays. Can you provide any suggestions? Thanks. "
"Correct - I took my daughter when she was 6 yrs, and had her tested she was actually diagnosed w/ADHD/ODD, she is on medication any does well in school both educationally, and behavior wise - she 's like a different kid from last year."
"I think teachers look for ways to make our children stay STILL and stay QUIET. They are only kids and some are more active than others. We were told this same thing in kindergarten and overcame it. We did take him to the Dr. and the Dr. said he was just an active young boy. That's all. No meds here."
"Browsing through this site brought tears to my eyes. I am a single parent to a recently turned 7 year old in the 1st grade who is having so many challenges. Last year (Jan 07) I took my son to get a psy education, speech, and psy evalution assesment after we was kicked out of his 3rd school. He was diagnose with having ADHD Inattentive with Anxiety Disorders due to Change, Occupational Therapy and requires Speech Therapy. My son has been through 4 schools since the age 2.7 - 6. He attended 3 private pre-schools, the last pre-school had 5 children in his Kindergarden class. Even with a small class size setting he was extremely disruptive, had many violent tantrum out breaks which the teachers was in fear of other kids, themself, and even my son. My son lasted 1 month in this school they had no tolerance for his behavior. I was advised to place him in public school because, he will be able to get the services he needs. Well, he started public school kindergarden in Feb and for the first 3 weeks it was smooth sailing but, afterwards I received constant calls of him running out of the class, under tables, throwing stuff, etc. I submitted his evalation to the Board of Special Education (June 07)and they assigned him an IEP (Oct 07). He intial evaluation state that he need to be placed in a 12:1 ratio, OCT, Speech Therapy, and Counceling. It was also suggested that he be placed in the Front Right o! f the class due to him having an optic lens in his right eye. The only challenge to this was his school did not offer a 12:1 class settng for the 1st grade. They only offered it to Kindergarden and 2nd - 5th Grade. Therefore, it was recommended to place him in a school in his district with a 12:1 setting. My challenge was the anxiety due to change and knowing that he has not been in a school for at least a year. This was his fourth school and he only was there from Feb-June and just started the month of September and he attends the school afterschool program. I was in fear of again another school and having him start all over again. I presented my concerns to the parent coordinator, the principal and the school base support team. They were willing to have him re-evaluated and offered to work with the IEP and offer him all the required service but with a Para. Currenlty, he have Team and Personal Counceling and the assistance with the Para effective 11/16/07. However, he is not getting Speech, OCT nor is he placed in the right front row. Dued to his disruptive behavior he is placed all the way in the back of the class with the para. I also failed to mention that since the school year started my son was placed with a teacher who lasted 2 weeks due to pregnancy, when she returned she was out 1 every week and then was placed on Jury Duty for 4 weeks. My son has had multiply sub-teachers. My son recenly attacted his para and his teacher when she returned from being out sick for 2 days. Both teachers are out, and the Principal is concerned that he is now attacking his teachers and with the slaming of the school property and running out of the class she fears his saftey. When I talk to my son about his actions he knows he has done something wrong but he can not express what lead to the action. He has mentioned to me that he just want to be in a class where the teacher can be nice to him and the kids can stop making fun of him. This bought tears to my eyes as a parent because, my son sounds frustrated. I had a meeting with the Principal, Vice Principal, 3 Councelors, Parent Coordinator and the school psy and I felt like they were just giving up on Justin dued to the most recent incident with the teachers. They suggested to have him re-evaluated. I mentioned the purpose for the re-evaluation is to recommend survices that you will not be able to accomodate and he will need to be placed in another setting (which I wanted to avoid). I asked how can you re-evalate him if he is not receiving all required services and he has only been in the SET program for less than 2 months? I was so exhausted, confused, hurt, and disappointed with this meeting because, as educators, I feel they were giving up on my child. I reached out to his doctor and told him of the incident and asked him if my son needed medication, I also, placed an emergency call to my company EAP to getting therapy for me and my son, and also made an appointment with the pys who initially made the recommentations for his follow-up. In addition to the 2 attacts with the teachers this week week in the afterschool program, I was told that he was doing art work and was calm and all of a sudden he started screaming and yelling at the top of his lungs and started running and hiding under tables and slamming door and destroying school took them 20 min for the parent coordinator (who happen to be there) to calm him down. I gave him a mental day on Friday which is his 2nd day absent from school. I did not mentioned that in addition to him Mon-Friday School. I had my son attend classes at a local college on Saturdays. Last Sememster Spring 07 he took swimming, and spanish which he enjoyed. This summer, he attended an all day camp which he was bused to and from the camp complaints. Fall 07 Sememster he was enrolled in the Saturday computer, reading and math improvement, and martial arts classes which he never had any outbreaks and enjoyed...he received certificates in all these classes. I don't know what else to do...medication was the last option I wanted but, maybe he needs to on it....please help."
"My son who is now 8 years old had what seemed like behavioral and attention promblems at a young age. I took him to my doctor and they did tell me that it adhd and also wanted to give him some medication. I chose not to give him the meds and work with his discipline patterns instead. We later found out that my sons inattention in class was due to boredum. The teacher was very helpful in giving him multiple tasks within the lesson that kept him better focused. He has now grown into a talented and gifted young man with the zeal to learn to his full capacity. It sometime takes special educators to find a way and an answer instead of rushing to a clinical diagonisis that could effect your baby for the rest of their lives!! "
"If you think that your child might possibly have add/adhd it is very inportant that you take your child for a compleate evaluation with a psycologist or a psychiatrist that specializes in children. Boath NYU and LIJ have excelent professionals as well as excelent reputations. I am a parent of a special needs child whom was evaluated most recently at LIJ I was suprised when I was told that my son's add/adhd was secondary to his depression. My son is 15. He is doing fabulously. He has been on meds since Oct.06. Because he finally got the help he neaded, he made the school honor role."
"My son has ADHD we did not know till he was 4th grade. his teacher has a son who was ADD and at the end of 4th grade she asked if he could be tested for ADD and he had ADHD. She had an idea he was ,but she waited all year to say anything.He used to cut holes in his jeans and poke kids in line,crawl under things at school. At home he would not go to sleep until after 12:00 midnight ever night. He was up cleaning and doing things in his room because he couldn't sleep. We had him tested and got him on meds that made him better. He got his work done in class and left the other kids alone. Was able to settle down at home too. Now he is living on his own and is doing very well."
"8/30/2007 Dear Dr. Bunning; Your response to a parent's question “My second-grader's teacher and principal say he has ADHD, but the doctor says he doesn't. What should I do?' did not include advice to uncover medical conditions that mimic ADHD behavior. In our case, the teachers in the 'Blue Ribbon School of Excellence' wrote that our ten year old had 'behavior that impaired his learning'. The third grade teacher urged us to make an appointment with the school psychologist, after having rejected the 'no attention deficit issues' findings of an independent psychologist ( our pediatrician had referred us to the independent psychologist). The teachers/school principal stated that our son had 'overimpulsivity'. They said we were 'not looking out for his best interest' and they said he “must visit the school psychologist.” We observed our son's specific problems and carefully thought about what could be amiss. We suspected he had a vision problem, since I first wore eyeglasses for nearsightedness (myopia) in third grade. At a loss of what to do, we went to and when we typed in the words 'vision' and 'Always omits writing words while writing sentences' , which was the third grade teacher's chief complaint, and up popped a website called Parents Active for Vision Education'. Within 72 hours of seeing that site, we visited a specialist optometrist and she diagnosed our son with perfect 20/20 eyesight BUT she also diagnosed him with oculomotor dysfunction, a correctable vision disorder. His left eye actually quivered when he focused on the tip of a pencil waved in the air in a figure eight. With the specialized laboratory equipment, the specialist doctor measured the extent of how the eyes were not working in unison when following a moving object. Our son devoted three months to daily vision therapy that summer. By the end of three months, he corrected his vision disorder. He still omitted words intermittently during the next academic year but it was very sporadic. The vision therapy was the only possible way to correct his problem. What's more, clinical research demonstrates the efficacy of vision therapy. By the way, our son achieved very high scores (top 95 percentile in the state)on all standardized tests in third grade, the same year that the teacher was convinced that his 'behavior impaired his learning.' (the third grade standardized tests did not include a section on writing.) We worried about our son’s fidgety behavior. When our son said that his “roof of his mouth itched”, we went to and discovered that it was a symptom of allergies. Shortly thereafter, a pediatric specialist in immunology and respiratory diseases diagnosed him with allergies to the dog dander (probably found on the clothing of his peers and teachers) and with allergies to tree pollen. The doctor treated him for these allergies as well as for exercise-induced asthma. Our son is now in eighth grade now and he has been taking honors courses since seventh grade. We recently transferred to a distant state (no spring tree pollen!) and all is well. In this state, he is bonding quite well with the kids in this private college prep school. It seems he is developing leadership skills. Please note that in the previous state, while in elementary school, our son seemed to be a victim of grade retribution. The teachers did not like it when we rejected the ADHD label and they made it tough for our son to earn good grades and to get in honors courses. Throughout the years, we had rejected the teachers' and special ed staff members assertions that our son had ADHD. In grades 4-5, a few times some bullies targeted our son and actually caused him physical harm, while in school. Regrettably, at the time the teachers punished the bullies but also blamed our son, saying he had “social issues”. Please also note that two of the kids who bullied our son were later expelled, and it was rumored that one of the bullies had punched a female student in the face. In conclusion, please address the possibility that a student with academic struggles may actually have undetected medical issues. Given our anecdote, please encourage parents to visit and to seek an appointment with a specialist optometrist prior to exploring psychiatric solutions. Thank you for allowing us to respond to your post on this web site. Respectfully yours, A Parent of a formerly struggling student who discovered undetected medical conditions that mimic ADHD."
"Poor diet habits and lack of guidance / discipline are one of the main causes of ADHD. VERY IMPORTANT - Try cutting off the chocolates and sodas and other 'artificial' foods or foods with preservatives and go natural. Also proper bed time and limited video games will help. Also if there are any 'parent' issues, they can have a negative impact so limit interactions in front of the kids. Finally make sure there are no issues in school that can cause the kid to act up. This worked for us. Try for a couple of weeks and then let us know your experience. The drugs have too many problems so try to avoid them unless the above do not help and the DOCTOR, not the SCHOOL confirms the problem really exists. Even then, get a second opinion."
"I know that ADHD drugs are controversial, and probably over-prescribed, but they can also be the difference between success and failure. My older son struggled for 2 years while we tried dietary changes, a private tutor, extra help in the classroom, and various other accommodations. Nothing made an appreciable difference. In his case, there was no hyperactivity. He was a well behaved little boy who just couldn't concentrate. Finally, when he was in danger of failing 3rd grade, he was started on a low dose of Adderall. The difference was dramatic and immediate. A few days after starting the medication, he came to me, crying. I asked what was wrong, and he said 'I didn't know how much I was missing.' He finished out the year splendidly. In the years since we've had to change and adjust his medicine, but I'm sure that without it he never would have made it as far as he has. My other son also has ADHD, emphasis on the hyperactivity. His medication has made it possible for him t! o slow down long enough to learn. These medicines have not turned either of them into 'zombies'. Far from it. I know it's not right for everyone, but if your child is struggling in school, don't automatically rule out the use of medication. "
"There are so many variables in regard to children and whether or not they 'have' ADDHD. Teachers and principals literally have no right, ethically or professionally, to label any child with a medical diagonosis. Psychologists, therapists and doctors are themselves,are hard pressed to discern this condition. It isn't balack and white, much gray area when it comes to kids needing drugs or not. Many parents find mind altering drugs an easy and convenient way not to deal with the real underlying issues. Teachers welcome the complacent behavior in the classroom, but it is really what's best for the child? Behavior modification and a deep understanding work much better and longer than drugs. ADD/HD 'medications' are a chemical lobotomy for many kids, it's so sad. Yes they 'work,' but in a most cases they mask and subdue the child's 'symptoms,' not the causes. Try the approach taken from the book 'Raising Your Spirited Child.'(by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka) Drugs are used TOO OFTEN! Sometimes they are needed, but I assure you, in the maority of cases they are just a convenience for parents and school teachers. I have found that with patience and understanding, a child's behavior can be modified without drugs. Energy can be harnessed and used in a positive way. It takes effort and patience, but I feel every child is worth the effort."
" My son was also the subject of the ADHD dispute. After 2 years of different tests and evaluations by the school, psychologists, his PCP, and pedi-neurologist, the result was...'He might be.' His behavior problems at school mostly occurred when he was interacting in large groups. At home, he had a lot of one-on-one quiet time. When the teachers were asked to fill out the same survey I was, the outcome was very different. I was suprised that the child they were describing was my son. I never saw that side of him...until I got to observe for myself. I learned it was very important to listen to everybody. Equally important was keeping the lines of communication between his doctors and the school open. The son will now be advancing to the 3rd grade and with the help of the above forementioned, he has had a successful year and looking forward to more to come."
"check for adnoid issues. Adnoid problems can create behavior that mimics add & Adhd in children. Once removed behavior completely changes. I know this first hand from my son who was seeing a child Physcologist and was at risk of being kicked out of school in 1st grade. The admin cannot believe what a difference it has made. Consult an ear nose and throat specialist. It is amazing."