Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Special Education

When your child receives a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it may help to explain some of the behaviors and actions of the child. As you probably already know, symptoms related to ADHD can make certain aspects of the child’s life more challenging, school being one of them. 

The inattentiveness and impulsive behavior associated with ADHD can create issues during class time. These behaviors can leave the child struggling to complete work and remain on task. 

To help the child have more success in the classroom, school administrators and teachers may recommend that your child participate in special education classes. There, teachers can adjust the techniques they use to introduce lessons and concepts to help the child have a better chance at success. However, not every child with ADHD qualifies for special education classes. We will break down possible treatment options and tips for success at school.

Understanding How ADHD and Special Education Work Together

Through my time working in special education, I learned a lot about ADHD students. I was able to watch as some of them began attending special education classes and making progress. 

Certainly, special education classroom work won’t fit the needs of every student with ADHD. But it does provide some interesting options that may give the child the help he or she truly needs. 

I believe strongly in parents investigating the special education options for their children with ADHD and discussing the matter with school officials. Sometimes, you have to serve as an advocate for your child, because no one knows your child like you do. When you work closely with special education professionals and school officials to determine the best way forward for your child with ADHD, your child will have the best chance at success.

  • What Is ADHD?
  • What Is IDEA?
  • How an IEP Fits Within IDEA
  • How ADHD Fits Within the Special Education Classroom
  • How Special Education Instructors Help With ADHD
  • What to Do If a School Denies an IEP Request for Your Child With ADHD

Before we discuss how ADHD and special education opportunities go together in the school setting, I want to provide some background information. As a parent or guardian, you are sure to hear numerous acronyms and unfamiliar terms as you go through this process. Having this background information can help you better understand the overall process and your important role in it.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a mental disorder that can affect both children and adults, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Some of the most common symptoms of ADHD that may show up inside the classroom include:

  • High activity levels
  • Inability to sit still for long periods of time
  • Struggles to remain focused
  • Struggles to listen to and follow instructions
  • Inability to organize tasks
  • Failure to complete assignments or remember tasks
  • Fidgeting with hands
  • Unable to play quietly
  • Constantly interrupts others
  • Struggles to wait in a line or for others to take a turn

It’s important to understand that many children suffer from at least a few of these symptoms, even those without ADHD. For a child to receive an ADHD diagnosis, the child would need to have several symptoms like this, and the symptoms would need to occur at a greatly heightened level versus an average child. These symptoms would need to cause the child to have difficulty performing functions in school and at home for medical professionals to consider a diagnosis of ADHD.

Diagnosing ADHD

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), diagnosing ADHD can be a challenging process. No test exists for diagnosing ADHD. Medical professionals will observe the child and speak with parents and educators to determine whether several symptoms of ADHD exist. A primary care physician, pediatrician, psychiatrist, or psychologist could perform the diagnosis.

While observing the child, the medical professional will pay attention to the symptoms that could indicate the child has ADHD. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition, often shortened to DSM-5, offers guidelines that give the medical professional guidance on determining whether a diagnosis of ADHD is appropriate for the child.

What Is IDEA?

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that ensures all children with disabilities are eligible to receive a free public education that is appropriate for them. The type of educational opportunity these children receive may need to have special allowances and techniques in use to meet the needs of the children.

Special education techniques fall under the guidance of IDEA. Local public schools must follow the IDEA guidelines in creating special education opportunities for children who qualify to receive them. The IDEA guidelines also will determine which children qualify to receive them.

How an IEP Fits Within IDEA

When a child qualifies for IDEA, school officials need to create an Individual Educational Program (IEP) for the student. The IEP lays out the plan for how the school will accommodate the special education student’s needs, both for special education instruction and general education instruction. Each student’s individual needs and requirements must be part of the IEP. This cannot be a one-size-fits-all program.

A team of advocates for the student will put together the IEP. These team members can include special education teachers, school administrators, parents or guardians, and the child (in certain circumstances). 

It is important for you as the parent or guardian to take advantage of this ability to participate in the development of the IEP. You certainly can rely on the expertise of the educators, but you also have valuable information to add to the IEP, as no one knows your child’s needs as well as you do.

How ADHD Fits Within the Special Education Classroom

After you receive a diagnosis of ADHD for your child from a medical professional, the next step likely will involve exploring whether your child qualifies for special education services in the local school. IDEA specifically lists ADHD as a reason for a child to potentially begin receiving special education services. 

However, this does not mean that every child who has an ADHD diagnosis automatically qualifies to receive special education classroom instruction. This can be a confusing aspect of IDEA for parents and guardians, which is understandable. 

Determining the Severity of ADHD Symptoms

Ultimately, the child with an ADHD diagnosis only will qualify for special education services when it is clear that his or her educational performance suffers because of the ADHD symptoms. Because ADHD has varying levels of severity, simply having a diagnosis of ADHD is not enough to qualify for special education services. Under DSM-5, medical professionals should include a designation of the severity of the ADHD condition at the same time they make a diagnosis of ADHD.

  • Mild: A mild level of ADHD will involve close to the minimum number of symptoms required to receive an ADHD diagnosis. These symptoms tend to rarely affect the child’s ability to function in school and at home.
  • Moderate: A moderate ADHD diagnosis may involve a few more symptoms than the minimum required for ADHD. These symptoms may leave the child with severe impairment occasionally during the day. If the student experiences severe impairment frequently, the moderate ADHD diagnosis means the student has the ability to self-control and self-manage the situation in a positive manner at least part of the time.
  • Severe: A severe ADHD diagnosis involves several symptoms over the minimum required for the ADHD diagnosis. When a child has a severe ADHD diagnosis, he or she has debilitating problems related to ADHD. This means the child needs significant intervention several times per day from the special education instructor. The child rarely can self-regulate when he or she has a severe ADHD diagnosis.

As part of determining the severity of the child’s ADHD diagnosis, medical professionals will take into account any treatments occurring that seem to help the child deal with the ADHD symptoms. For example, if medication helps to reduce the level of severity of the child’s symptoms, a medical professional may give the child a mild or moderate ADHD diagnosis.

If the child receives a severe diagnosis, this will increase the chance of the child receiving a recommendation from school officials to participate in special education classes. The child’s inability to deal with his or her ADHD symptoms may result in struggles in the general classroom. The instructors in the special education classroom will have a better capability of delivering one-on-one techniques that can help the child reduce these ADHD-related struggles.

Other Factors Play a Role in Special Education Recommendations

As part of the diagnosis, school officials will consider whether the student’s symptoms cause a significant disruption for the child in the general classroom. School officials also will consider whether the student has any other disabilities in addition to ADHD. If so, even a student with a lower-level ADHD diagnosis could receive a recommendation for special education services.

For example, if a student has another diagnosed learning disability, the addition of a mild ADHD diagnosis may be enough for school officials to recommend that the child should begin participating in special education classes. 

If the child with ADHD also has a developmental delay, this can play a role in moving toward acceptance in a school’s special education program. Children with ADHD often will seem to lag behind peers in areas like socialization, managing emotions, and communication. If children  significantly lag behind peers in these areas, spending some time in special education classes may be able to help them deal with these issues far more successfully than participating full time in the general education classroom.

How Special Education Instructors Help With ADHD

Teachers in the special education classroom have a number of techniques and strategies they will employ to try to help the child with ADHD have more success in the classroom. Because special education instructors have particular training in these areas and because they can spend more individual time with each special education student versus the general classroom teacher, they often can generate desirable results.

Managing Behaviors

For a child with ADHD who struggles to behave in school, special education instructors have a wide range of techniques they will try. Behavioral issues are a common problem for a child with ADHD in the general classroom. 

When the student struggles to sit still in the general education classroom or to sit quietly without talking, for example, it can cause disruptions for other students. This negative behavior can make it difficult for the child with ADHD to have success in the general education classroom.

The special education teachers may help the student with behavioral problems by implementing a reward system or by generating a daily report card based completely on meeting behavioral goals. Using positive reinforcement can generate better results for the child with ADHD in areas involving behavior.

Teaching Organizational Skills

Because children with ADHD often struggle to stay organized when it comes to daily tasks or doing homework assignments on time, the special education teachers can deploy techniques to help.

For example, the teacher may use strategies that help the student minimize distractions that lead to failing to complete tasks on time. This may work especially well for children with ADHD who struggle to focus on the task at hand. Another option is to create a homework folder or binder where the child can store all of his or her notes and assignments. The child may have better results staying on task when only needing to track one item.

Special education instructors will have specialized training in this area, which often includes using positive reinforcement to help the student have a better chance at success.

Providing Time for Movement

When the child with ADHD struggles to remain seated without moving around in the classroom, the special education instructor may be able to set aside time that allows for movement. In a general education classroom, time for exercising in the middle of class is not practical.

If the special education student receives time to move around, this may allow the student to have more success when it’s time to sit down and pay attention later. Special education instructors can measure the success of these techniques, adjusting the frequency of allowing the child with ADHD to move around and adjusting the length of time for the movement period to give the student the greatest level of potential success.

Keeping Instructions to the Point

Because the child with ADHD struggles to pay attention for long periods of time, the special education instructor may choose to introduce assignments with a minimal number of instructions. This may give the student a better chance of being able to pay attention to the instructions long enough to understand the assignment.

Additionally, special education instructors will attempt to create assignments that only require a short amount of time to complete for the child with ADHD. The instructor may break up a longer assignment into smaller pieces, so the child can stay on task from start to finish. This is a technique that’s far more difficult to accomplish in the general education classroom because of the large number of students doing the assignment.

What to Do If a School Denies an IEP Request for Your Child With ADHD

As a parent or guardian, you may strongly believe that your child with ADHD would benefit from special education services in the school. However, despite your hopes, you may receive notification from the school that it denied your request for special education services.

Although this can be difficult to hear, you do have a few options for having school officials take another look.

Start by requesting an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) for the child, which is a second opinion on the evaluation of your child’s needs. This doesn’t guarantee that the school will change its recommendation, but it is a starting point. 

If you want to continue to press the issue, you could request a due process hearing or even a formal court hearing. 

Section 504 Recommendation

If the school does not recommend that your child with ADHD needs to participate in special education services, it may recommend special accommodations under something called Section 504. This is a federal law that helps students with disabilities by giving them special accommodations within the general education classroom.

For some students with mild or moderate ADHD, Section 504 may give them the perfect level of support. Maybe special education services are not necessary for these children. 

Should you agree to have your child remain in the general education classroom under Section 504, you and school officials should closely monitor your child’s progress. You may discover that your child does not have success in the Section 504 environment, meaning that school officials may agree to migrate the child to special education services in the future.


Because a child with ADHD does not automatically qualify for special education classroom work, parents sometimes have to press the issue with school officials. Do not feel like you are overstepping your role in a situation like this! You, as the parent or guardian, always should have a say in developing your child’s path forward when it comes to special education.

If you believe special education classes will deliver the best results for your child with ADHD, be ready to present information to school officials that shows why you feel this way. Then take the time to listen to school officials. A calm, reasoned give and take of information and opinions will go a long way toward coming up with the best solution for special education classes for your child with ADHD.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak with parents and educators about special education topics, especially those involving ADHD. If you would like to share your experiences with this topic, or if you have questions, please reach out by email or in the comments section here!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments