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Let’s lose the ADHD label and find the child

For children and adults alike, an ‘ADHD label’ can serve to conceal who someone really is, says Victoria Williamson...

  • Let’s lose the ADHD label and find the child

When I trained as a primary school teacher 15 years ago, these were some of the words used to describe children with ADHD: ‘Difficult.’ ‘Challenging.’ ‘Disruptive.’

There were others, whispered by harassed-looking teachers in the staffroom or concerned parents at the school gates, but none seemed to be positive. When I got my first ‘real’ class to teach, and saw that some of the children came with the dreaded ‘ADHD’ label attached, I approached the new term with butterflies the size of dragons in my stomach.

But here’s what it took me a few more years to learn…

Michael wasn’t ‘difficult’

He struggled with impulsiveness, often shouting out in class, talking over other children and getting into arguments during games when he found it hard to wait his turn. But when it came to science, he had all the patience in the world. He could sit for hours watching the colour changes in a chromatography experiment, or waiting for crystals to form from a cooling liquid.

Chloe wasn’t ‘challenging’

When she became defiant – refusing to carry out a task or start on class work – a quick check was often all that was needed to discover she’d been distracted when the instructions were issued and didn’t understand what she had to do. Her lack of focus led to mislaid books, incomplete homework and a tidal wave of mess that seemed to follow in her wake everywhere she went. She wore an almost permanent scowl, formed through years of telling-offs from teachers and bullying by peers, but her frown would vanish during music lessons. Chloe wasn’t exactly Sarah Brightman, but the joy and enthusiasm on her face when she sang more than made up for any false notes.

Saleem wasn’t ‘disruptive’

His fidgeting and muttering during quiet work time was his way of trying to stay focused on the task, but his habit of constantly leaving his seat and wandering the class in search of a chat, a sharpener to borrow or a new pencil case to explore often drove the other children to distraction. His restless energy was forgiven when it came to PE, though. Classmates who’d been complaining about him only minutes before now demanded to have him in their team, knowing that his fast legs and endless reserves of energy would carry them to victory, regardless of the game being played.

Change perceptions

Three very different children, with very different personalities and passions, but all with two things in common – their ‘ADHD’ labels and lack of self-esteem. Desperate for answers, support and the increasingly rare additional funding that an official diagnosis will bring, parents and teachers can often push hard for a label. Yet we often forget that these children will have been repeatedly told that their behaviour is problematic. Just like those parents and teachers I met during my training, the children themselves will often associate an ADHD label with words like ‘difficult’, ‘challenging’ and ‘disruptive’.

Teachers can, however, influence how that label is perceived by focusing attention on the child’s strengths. One way of doing this in the classroom is to write every child’s name on a piece of paper and hand them out to the class. Ask everyone to think of the nicest thing they can say about the person on their paper and have them write a compliment – something they’re good at, an admirable personality trait or anything praiseworthy that they’ve done. Everyone then passes their paper on and writes a compliment for the next name they’re given, continuing until everyone’s written one nice thing about each child in the class.

Collect the papers in, type the comments up and then present every child with their own personal list of positive labels. What if, instead of ‘ADHD’ or ‘difficult’, Michael had been able to wear the labels ‘clever’ or ‘good at science’? If Chloe had instead been able to wear the title ‘keen singer’ as a badge of pride? What if Saleem had seen himself as ‘sporty’ rather than ‘disruptive’?

An ADHD label needn’t be negative. If parents and teachers can help children find their passions and focus on their strengths – such as the potential for boundless energy and creative thinking that ADHD can bring – then children with ADHD will be able to see themselves in a positive light. Labels matter, so let’s help children lose those that describe behaviours often outside their control and find ones that describe who they really are.


Victoria Williamson is a primary school teacher with a Master’s degree in special needs education; her second novel, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind is available now, published by Floris Books

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