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The author is a teacher. Joe Baron is a pseudonym.

It’s official! According to a recent study, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) cannot possibly concentrate unless they are sufficiently interested. Indeed, it is contended that a biological explanation exists for impetuous and restless behaviour among sufferers. Moreover, it goes on to proffer a simple remedy: the more interested they become in a particular activity, the less susceptible they’ll be to the condition’s effects; either that or they’ll have to take a potent, mind-altering drug commonly known as Ritalin.

Two deeply concerning implications arise for the teaching profession as a result of these findings. Firstly, bad behaviour among sufferers is not their fault. It is a symptom of a mental condition. As a consequence, it would be hard-hearted to discipline them for transgressions that they have no control over. Secondly, it is incumbent upon each sufferer’s teacher to provide interesting activities – whatever they may be – in an effort to stop the symptoms developing. If teachers fail in this endeavour, the child’s behaviour is entirely their fault, and, by implication, so is the child’s subsequent reliance on drugs. The study implicitly suggests that if teachers did their jobs properly, the need for Ritalin would be a thing of the past and impulsive behaviour non-existent.

But even without this study, the belief that ADHD sufferers are not responsible for their actions is widespread; behavioural responsibility has been entirely divested from students and perversely invested in teachers; a child’s behaviour is solely the responsibility of the pedagogue. Alas, the study’s findings contrive to further justify this highly regrettable, destructive trend.

In the school in which I teach, I am often, shall we say, politely corrected by a member of our pastoral team for attempting to discipline students with ADHD. ‘I’m not saying it’s an excuse for his behaviour, but little Jimmy wouldn’t have thrown the chair if he didn’t suffer with ADHD.’ I, somewhat confused, briefly ruminate on why my colleague mentioned his condition if she didn’t intend to make excuses for him. She continues, ‘I realise he’s misbehaved but he just won’t be able to do an after school detention, he just couldn’t cope with sitting for that long. Can’t we think of another sanction, less severe, and, together, perhaps employ some smarter strategies in the classroom?’

Resigned to the depressing fact that, even though my colleague is several management points below me, in this case, her sentiments are more closely allied with those of the Senior Management Team, I begrudgingly accept her suggestion and agree to a meeting with the student in question instead. This will be an occasion where we can both air our grievances and come to an amicable agreement on how to move forward. There will be no punishment, even though an extreme behavioural incident has taken place. Furthermore, I will be encouraged to reflect on my professional shortcomings and implement a new strategy to prevent the incident recurring.

Jimmy now knows that he is untouchable. As has been the case here, in the future, his extreme behaviours will go unpunished, and, even better, the teacher he hates will be made to feel inadequate whenever he wishes to throw another  strop.

It doesn’t take a behavioural psychologist to see that this course of action – or, what would be more appropriately termed, non-action – is doing a gross disservice to poor Jimmy. He has been abandoned by the very people who should be teaching him the difference between right and wrong. Inculcating moral values is surely a school’s first and most important function. Neglecting this function is tantamount to child cruelty.

Every time Jimmy misbehaves he protests, ‘I’ve got ADHD!’ as an excuse. He goes on, as he has been taught, to point the finger of blame,: ‘Your lessons are boring!’ Of course, it may get him out of trouble at school, but when he enters the workplace an employer will not be so forgiving. Even if a child is diagnosed with ADHD – and, according to official statistics, 1 in 50 children are affected – he will still have to make his way in the world, be subject to the same rules, injustices and setbacks as everyone else. Is it therefore fair to treat him differently, leaving him unprepared for the real world? I fear that this latest study will further justify our current, grotesquely inadequate, response.

A strange paradox exists here: it could be argued that we, the teaching profession as a whole, are indeed responsible for many of the behaviours elicited by ADHD sufferers, but not for the reasons outlined in the study. In reality, we are responsible because we have been hoodwinked into believing that extreme behaviours are our fault. We callously lead sufferers into believing that they are not responsible for their actions, which, in turn, leads to bad behaviour being repeated time and time again, behaviours that could have been addressed if only we were willing to accept that children, even children with ADHD, need to take responsibility for their actions. If they don’t, success in later life will be hard to come by.

52 comments for: Joe Baron: When ADHD sufferers misbehave whose fault is it?

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