ADHD Can Change the Student-Teacher Relationship

When Michael Phelps was a child, his teacher told his mother that he would “never be able to focus on anything.”

Michael Phelps may be the only person with ADHD who has 23 Olympic gold medals to prove his teacher wrong, but his story of being doubted by a teacher will ring familiar for many with ADHD.

Newly published research in the Journal of School Psychology suggests that the relationships students with ADHD have with their teachers tend to differ from those their neurotypical peers have.

The authors of the study, researchers at the University of Ottawa and at Carleton University in Canada, chose to investigate this topic partly because of the impact that the student-teacher relationship can potentially have on a student’s learning trajectory, as well as social and emotional development.

To better understand how ADHD symptoms can influence the student-teacher relationship, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis, combining evidence from previous studies on the topic.

They found that among students with ADHD, student-teacher relationships were less close overall. While closer student-teacher relationships are characterized by positive interactions and open communication, students with ADHD may have less opportunity to benefit from this type of support in their learning.

The researchers further found that student-teacher relationships for students with ADHD had higher levels of conflict. This pattern was especially strong for students with hyperactive symptoms of ADHD in particular — suggesting that impulsive or “disruptive” behaviors, a need for stimulation, or other hyperactive symptoms could be a source of conflict in student-teacher relationships.

As the authors of the new paper point out, previous studies done in 2006 and 2011 have found that when teachers do not receive adequate training about ADHD, they tend to develop negative views of students with ADHD.

For example, teachers could misinterpret inattentive or hyperactive behaviors as intentionally disruptive, or as a sign of not wanting to learn. If educators don’t have sufficient knowledge of ADHD to understand the root cause of students’ symptoms, it could undermine their ability to support these students and develop a positive student-teacher connection.

For this reason, a key recommendation that comes from the paper is to prioritize training that develops teachers’ skills in working with students who have ADHD symptoms.

Unlike educators, schools, and policymakers, students with ADHD and their parents are not in a position to systematically improve the training that teachers receive related to ADHD — they have to do their best with the education system as it currently stands.

For students with ADHD and their parents, though, these findings are a good reminder to keep the lines of communication open with teachers. The student-teacher relationship can play a central role in the learning process, and the difference between a student who feels inspired versus discouraged by their teacher is self-evident.

But the findings also highlight that the student-teacher relationship, like any interpersonal relationship, is necessarily subjective and complex. As Michael Phelps can tell you, a teacher’s negative perception is not necessarily the whole story!

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