Navigating ADHD: in and out of the classroom

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Navigating ADHD: in and out of the classroom

Ruthie Yankwitt

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Earlier this week, I received an email from my calculus teacher. The subject line was “YOUR GRADE – SEATING ARRANGEMENT,” instantly I felt my heartbeat quicken and my phone slip in my hands as my palms became sweaty. I wasn’t nervous about my grade; I was nervous about the prospect of another conversation where I pleaded my teacher to change my assigned seat.
Every year, on the first day of each class, I make sure to pick a seat either at the front of the room or close to the teacher if it’s a round-table-classroom. As my doctor explained to me many years ago, my ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) medication only does so much. I have to put in the work to stay focused, and it’s significantly easier for me to do that from the front of the classroom. I hate having to approach a teacher after class to ask to be moved back to the front of the room. I’ve been accused of wanting to sit next to my friends or being unwilling to work with new people, but most frequently I’m told “to just give it a try” only to be told a week later that the teacher doesn’t feel comfortable changing the entire seating arrangement.
When I opened the email, I instantly breathed a sigh of relief. Instead of having to ask my teacher to change the seating arrangement, my teacher had asked me if there was anything he should know when creating the new seating chart. My teacher had sent this email to the entire class, I was not singled out, and I could not have been more grateful. My teacher’s effort is what it means to actually be accommodating and understanding to students with learning differences.
Unfortunately, instances where I feel this comfortable with my learning differences are very rare. I have seen the efforts made by the Office of Identity Culture and Institutional Equity and the Office for Counseling and Guidance to have more open dialogues about learning differences, but that is very different from these ideals actually being integrated into everyday life at HM.
Another way I’ve experienced difficulty is with my medicine. I am supposed to take two pills a day for my ADHD: one when I first wake up in the morning, and one around the start of G period. Unfortunately, taking pills during the course of the day is neither practical nor possible. Laws regulate that students can’t carry controlled substances around themselves, so they would have to go to the nurse’s office to receive their medication. The nurse understandably can’t be in her office at all times, catering to the demands of students who are looking for medication during a short window of time. That leads to anxious and frustrated students and can even have academic consequences. For example, I’ve had to take tests without my medicine, and this meant that I had an incredibly difficult time focusing and was at a disadvantage.
The responsibility is not just on the teachers and administration to make our school open to students who learn differently; students have to actively participate in this process. Conversations that I have with students about learning differences often follow the same pattern: they make some joke about it being unfair that I take ADHD medicine, I try to explain myself, they become defensive, I become defensive, and we both walk away feeling annoyed and attacked. These conversations are in no way productive. The problem is that it does seem unfair: why should I be able to take medicine that helps me focus? My doctor explained it to me in this way: if every student has a number that is “the best” they can do, a student with ADD isn’t able to reach that “best” without help from the medicine; I can’t control the way that ADHD affects my brain, so I do need help from my medicine to do my best.
Even though the school administration is open to helping students with ADHD and other learning issues, the mechanisms are not in place to make this a reality. I don’t know how to solve the problem entirely, but a couple simple things could make the school-environment significantly better for students with learning disabilities.
Teachers shouldn’t assume that everyone in the classroom learns the same way (they should probably assume the complete opposite). For example, I learn best when I am hearing information rather than seeing it. I have often had difficulty in science classes where there are diagrams that make sense for other students, but have no meaning for me. Last year my physics teacher explained all diagrams that he showed us by diligently labelling everything drawn and explaining each piece of the picture. This was incredibly helpful, especially in a subject where I already lacked confidence. If teachers can normalize these practices, it would help students with learning disabilities feel more included in the classroom and lift a burden off of our shoulders. I understand that teachers work incredibly hard to teach us material, and often don’t consistently have time to incorporate multiple different teaching techniques into every single lesson.
Teachers and students alike need to be open to having difficult conversations about this topic. That’s easier said than done. While I am happy to see how far we have come, I have had bad experiences too. I know that I am quick to become defensive, and I think that this is something the our community can work on as a whole. In all conversations, if everyone were open-minded and focused on hearing what another person had to say, it would lead to more productive conversations not just about learning disabilities, but about all experiences of students at our school. A conversation is not going to magically solve all of the problems, but it’s a great place to start.