Everything you need to know

Is ADHD a Learning Disability?

Posted on January 6, 2016

What is ADHD?


Have you noticed that your child has difficulty focusing? Perhaps he seems impulsive or never able to sit still.  You may be concerned that your child has ADHD.


The American Psychological Association defines Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as, “a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.” ADHD is a type “neurodevelopmental disorder,” meaning that the brain works a little differently in people with ADHD.


To be defined as ADHD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed., 2013), symptoms must meet these criteria:


  • Six or more of the symptoms have persisted for at least six months to a degree that is inconsistent with developmental level and that negatively impacts directly on social and academic/occupational activities. Please note: The symptoms are not solely a manifestation of oppositional behavior, defiance, hostility, or failure to understand tasks or instructions. For older adolescents and adults (age 17 and older), five or more symptoms are required.


  • Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present prior to age 12 years


  • Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms are present in two or more settings (e.g. at home, school, or work; with friends or relatives; in other activities)


  • There is clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, academic or occupational functioning


  • The symptoms do not occur exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder and are not better explained by another mental disorder (e.g. mood disorder, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, personality disorder, substance intoxication or withdrawal)


In layman’s terms, this means that the symptoms you might be seeing are not new, are not better explained by another diagnosis (e.g., anxiety), are present both at home and at school, and interfere with the person’s ability to function. This diagnostic guide is used in the United States and Canada, among other countries.


People with ADHD can have one of three presentations: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, or combined (showing both inattentive and hyperactive symptoms). In the past, the inattentive presentation was referred to as “Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)” and the hyperactive/impulsive presentation was referred to as “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).” Now, scientists realize that one person can have both inattentive and hyperactive traits, or one pattern may predominate. They have also learned that a person’s presentation may change throughout his or her life. All of these presentations now fall under the umbrella of ADHD.



Inattention in children


is adhd a learning disabilityOften, people with symptoms of inattention are easily distracted, forgetful, and may appear careless in their work. Here are some of the symptoms of inattention that are often seen in ADHD (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

  • Failure to give close attention to detail and making careless mistakes
  • Difficulty in following instructions and failing to complete tasks
  • Difficulty sustaining attention during activities and easily distracted
  • Often distracted by extraneous stimuli
  • Forgetfulness in daily activities
  • Avoidance of activities that demand sustained mental effort
  • Often does not listen when spoken to directly
  • Difficulty in organizing tasks and activities
  • Often loses things necessary for daily activities


Hyperactivity in children


Children who have symptoms of hyperactivity will move around excessively. This can take the form of fidgeting, talking, getting up at inappropriate times, or feeling restless. These are the typical symptoms of hyperactivity (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

  • Often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat
  • Often runs about or climbs excessively in situations in which it is inappropriate
  • Is often “on the go” or acts as if “driven by a motor”
  • Often has difficulty playing or engaging in leisure activities quietly
  • Often talks excessively
  • Often leaves seat in classroom or in other situations in which remaining seated is expected


Impulsivity in Children


Impulsive tendencies often look like impatience, interrupting others, or recklessness. It is important to remember that children with ADHD have differences in their brain development that make these skills more difficult, and impulsive behavior is not intended to be rude or impolite. The symptoms of impulsivity are (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

  • Often blurts out answers before questions have been completed
  • Often interrupts or intrudes on others
  • Often has difficulty waiting for a turn


Diagnosis with ADHD


If your child is showing some symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity, it is important to take a few things into account. First, how old is your child? Much of this behavior is typical in young children. Children younger than five will typically display all of the above characteristics to some degree or another. Beyond the “preschool years” and into early elementary grades, consider what is being asked of your child. Unfortunately, many young children are expected to learn in classroom environments that are too demanding for their developmental level. For instance, kindergarteners are not developmentally ready to sit at desks listening attentively for a full school day. Consider if your child’s behavior might be better explained by developmentally inappropriate expectations.

If this is not the case, then think about what traits of ADHD you are seeing in multiple settings (that is, at home and at school) and with multiple people (that is, with the teacher, with you, with other relatives, babysitters, and so on). You may see some traits and not others. This is common. ADHD can be mild, moderate, or severe. If you are seeing a lot of symptoms, it might be time to talk to your pediatrician about an evaluation.


Is ADHD a Learning Disability?


Technically, ADD and ADHD are not learning disabilities, but they can impact learning. In fact, 30 per cent of those diagnosed with learning disabilities also have attention disorders such as ADHD. At Eaton Arrowsmith, we believe the real issue stems from executive functioning issues or from extensive cognitive load on the brain. Difficulty with attention and focus can make many traditional classroom activities more challenging.


What can help a child with ADHD?


There are many ways to try and accommodate the environment either at home, at school, or in the community to meet the needs of children with ADHD (or traits of inattention, impulsivity, or hyperactivity). However, the Arrowsmith Program, through Eaton Arrowsmith, helps students work towards strengthening weaknesses in the prefrontal cortex that make executive functions challenging.


  • MedicationMedication is often prescribed to people who are diagnosed with ADHD. Follow your pediatrician’s advice, discuss any concerns with him or her, and remember that prescribed medications should be given as directed without “breaks” on weekends or holidays. Additional supports, such as the ones described below, can be used in conjunction with medication.


  • ExerciseAll children should have 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Children with ADHD, however, often need additional time for physical activity throughout the day. In addition, research shows that exercise stimulates the brain in a way that allows people with ADHD to focus more successfully.


Try adding exercise into the morning routine for your child. This could take the form of walking or biking to school, or a classroom could implement a morning exercise routine as a group. Exercise breaks that allow children to get up and move around are also beneficial throughout the day. Classrooms could try standing desks, stress balls to squeeze during seated time, lap desks to allow movement during work, or short breaks every 30 minutes to do an activity of interest to the child (e.g., throwing a ball into a hoop for 5 minutes).


Team sports are also beneficial for children to have an energetic outlet while learning the rules of social interactions. This can be a great confidence boost for children with ADHD!


  • Accommodations for School and Home:


  • Seating – For children who are easily distracted, seating them closer to the front of the classroom or with slightly more distance between seats can minimize distractions. This can also apply at home at the dinner table or during community events (e.g., faith services).


Second, minimize stimuli. That is, what is really necessary for the child to focus on? What sounds and sights might be distracting? For instance, is the television on in the background while you are helping your child with homework? Is music playing when you are trying to give your child directions? Try making the environment quiet, both visually and auditorily when you want to help your child focus.


  • Breaking down a task into smaller parts – Children who have difficulty with inattention often have trouble focusing on long tasks. In the classroom and at home, try breaking a task into smaller steps. Instead of saying, “Clean your room,” try a giving your child a smaller task, such as, “Pick your clothes up off the floor and put them in your hamper.” This can even be supplemented by a visual schedule, printed or on an application such as “Visual Schedule Planner”.


  • Break time – Incorporate breaks throughout the day and during longer tasks.


  • Organizational help – Children with ADHD or traits of ADHD often need help with organization and memory. These are often called “executive function” tasks. Depending on your child’s age, your child might benefit from organizational strategies such as folders with dividers, writing down assignments (with the teacher signing off each day), and providing duplicates of materials (a school set and a home set) to reduce the need for the child to keep track of supplies.


  • Provide reinforcement for positive behaviors – If your child struggles with impulsive or socially inappropriate behaviors, it is helpful to give specific positive reinforcement for the behaviors they are doing well. For instance, if they often blurt out answers, praise them for raising their hand. In this way, they gain attention only for the positive behaviors.


For more information on executive functioning and how it impacts ADHD, click here.


Resource: American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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