Choosing a school for a child with ADHD
Exploring an ADHD child's school fit
Kids vary widely in their learning and developmental strengths and weaknesses. Don’t underestimate the importance of this on school choice: it can profoundly affect the kind of learning environment, and hence school, that’s right for them.
Kids with ADHD have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. This is a condition with symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Below, we identify key points you should reflect on when considering 10 different school types for students with ADHD. Note: our aim isn’t to tell you whether a school type is right or wrong for you, but to highlight some critical factors you should consider when making your decision.
To learn about how to choose the right school in general, read the Our Kids’ step-by-step advice guide and our expert tips. To get school-choice advice customized to your child's unique traits, create a child profile through your user account and read our seven ways to choose a school based on your child's needs (i.e., overall fit, more academic challenge, social struggles, academic struggles, intensive learning interests, university preparation, and special needs.).
How students with ADHD fit in 10 school types
On this page:
Small school (150 students or less)
Smaller schools with small classes normally provide lots of individualized learning, structure, and one-on-one support, which students with ADHD tend to require. Some also offer learning environments (and special education staff) that directly support ADHD, such as segregated classes, part-time withdrawal classes, and breakout groups.
“Students with ADHD often thrive in smaller school settings,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. “These students may feel a sense of comfort and ease in knowing that all of the staff know them and understand their challenges. They can be supported in a trusting environment, and they won’t have to navigate as many social relationships with their peers and adults.”
However, keep in mind that some small schools don’t have the resources to accommodate kids with ADHD, especially if it’s severe. Ask what kind of support is available, both in class and out, and how it will be delivered. For instance, “do you have an in-house psychologist to work with my child on their focus and organization?”
Big school (151+ students)
Since kids with ADHD require special care, ensure any prospective school has smaller classes (ideally 15 students or less) with plenty of structure and one-on-one support to help them stay focused on their studies. Also, ask exactly what kinds of support a school provides both in class and out. For instance, “do you have an in-house psychologist who can help my child with their impulse control?”
“Big schools can sometimes be challenging for students with ADHD,” says Una Malcolm, director of Bright Light Learners. “Navigating a large student population and lots of relationships can sometimes be a distraction which interferes with the ability to focus in class. And in a big school with bigger classes, it’s sometimes more difficult for teachers to monitor students’ well-being.”
The upside is most big schools offer a range of support for children with ADHD (and other special needs), such as educational assistants, resource teachers, psychologists, social workers, and support groups. They also tend to offer many supplemental activities to give your child physical, cognitive, and creative outlets, and to enable them to hyperfocus on areas of interest (which many ADHD kids enjoy).
A coed school will require your child to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. Since this can be especially challenging for kids with ADHD, ask about a school’s social dynamic.
Also, ensure a school has the right learning environment, support systems, and out-of-class resources for your child. For instance, if your child struggles mostly with their focus, they’ll likely need a small class with a lot of one-on-one support. Or, if hyperactivity or impulsivity is their main issue, they may require regular visits with an in-house psychologist.
Of course, in a coed school, kids with ADHD will have opportunities to work with and learn from the experiences of both boys and girls. This can widen their perspectives and prepare them for life outside of school.
Make sure any girls’ school provides the right learning environment for your daughter, whether this is a dedicated special needs class, an integrated class, or a regular class offering one-on-one support and personalized learning. “Most of these schools, however, look for girls who are independent and don’t require intensive support to function in the classroom,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. If your daughter has severe ADHD, some girls’ schools likely won’t be able to accommodate her.
Of course, in an all-girls’ school, your daughter won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions, which can help her stay focused on her studies. Also, in an environment often less shaped by gender stereotypes and false narratives, such as “boys are better at math and science than girls,” your daughter may feel freer to pursue her learning interests and shine in unchartered waters.
Make sure a boys’ school provides a learning environment that directly addresses your son’s ADHD, such as a segregated or integrated class, or a regular class with individualized learning and lots of one-on-one support. Keep in mind, however, that “Generally, these schools look for boys who can function independently in the classroom,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. If your son has severe ADHD requiring intensive support, some boys’ schools likely won’t have the resources to accommodate him.
Of course, in an all-boys school, your son won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions, which can help him focus on his work free from potential distractions. Also, in an environment often less influenced by gender stereotypes and false narratives, such as “girls are more suited to the arts than boys,” he may feel freer to pursue his learning interests and take academic risks.
Many kids with ADHD will find the calm and quiet learning environment of the typical Montessori classroom soothing. Its close-knit, supportive setting can be empowering and reassuring for kids with ADHD. “The self-directed learning approach may also work well for kids with ADHD, who may be able to hyperfocus on tasks they find engaging and challenging,” says Stacey Jacobs, director of Clear Path Educational Consulting.
However, “The self-directed nature of a Montessori classroom can sometimes allow students with ADHD to fly under the radar,” says Una Malcolm, director of Bright Light Learners. “A child with weak executive functioning skills may not have the independent work skills necessary to be successful in a Montessori environment. Additionally, parents should ask about assessment and progress monitoring. In some Montessori schools, the focus on qualitative observation for assessment can make it challenging for parents to judge how their child is doing and to monitor their progress.”
Reggio Emilia school
“Being an active participant, rather than a passive recipient, in learning, as emphasized by Reggio Emilia programs, tends to benefit kids with ADHD,” says Stacey Jacobs, director of Clear Path Educational Consulting. “Engaging in hands-on learning and being encouraged to explore and develop creative thinking is another plus.”
Just make sure Reggio Emilia schools’ emphasis on group learning is the right fit for your child. Also, some kids with ADHD, especially if it’s severe, may require more structure and one-on-one support than some of these schools provide. Speak to school directors and staff to get a sense of whether your child’s needs are likely to be met.
International Baccalaureate school
Due to their standardized curriculum and focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the individualized learning and one-on-one support many kids with ADHD need. Also, the highly academic environment of the IB can add extra pressure, which can be daunting for some kids with ADHD.
Thus, “It’s important that a child in an IB school stay organized and engaged with the content, especially with independent work and homework,” says Una Malcolm, director of Bright Light Learners. “With both the depth and breadth of IB-level coursework, it’s important that students have developed the self-regulation and self-monitoring skills necessary to focus in class to avoid falling behind.”
On the upside: “Many IB schools, especially at the primary and middle school level, offer a fair amount of experiential, inquiry-based learning, where students develop creative and critical thinking skills through real-life, hands-on experiences,” says Stacey Jacobs, director of Clear Path Educational Consulting. “This type of learning can sometimes be a great way to engage kids with ADHD.”
Language immersion school
Students with ADHD sometimes find it challenging to stay on track in a language immersion program. For example, students with severe inattention issues may struggle to learn all or most of their subjects in a second language. If a school doesn't offer targeted intervention or support for this issue, which most immersion schools won’t, this can lead to ongoing academic (e.g., literacy) problems, and potentially exacerbate some of your child’s challenges.
That said, kids with milder ADHD who enjoy and are good at the language arts often enjoy the cognitive challenge of learning in a different language. If they’re hard workers who are strong academically, a language immersion school can be a nice fit.
Make sure any boarding school has small enough classes to provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one guidance kids with ADHD need. Also, since your child will be living away from home, ensure support systems are in place to keep them on the right track, and that they’re willing and prepared to take advantage of them. Your child will often need to advocate for themselves at a boarding school, and they’ll need the confidence and perseverance to do so.
Finally, “Evenings can be challenging for kids with ADHD,” says Stacey Jacobs, director of Clear Path Educational Consulting. “If your child is on medication, it may sometimes wear off at night, which can make completing homework and falling asleep challenging. Ensure boarding supervisors and dons are well-equipped with strategies to support kids with ADHD.”
Students with ADHD’s school fit: key take-homes
- Since kids with ADHD require special care, ensure any prospective school, big or small, has smaller classes (ideally 15 students or less) with plenty of structure and one-on-one support to help your child stay focused on their studies.
- A coed school will require your child to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. Since this can be especially challenging for kids with ADHD, ask about a school’s social dynamic.
- Some boys’ and girls’ schools look for kids who can function independently in the classroom. Speak to school directors and staff to gauge whether your child is likely to be a good fit.
- Many kids with ADHD will find the calm and quiet learning environment of the typical Montessori classroom soothing.
- “Being an active participant, rather than a passive recipient, in learning, as emphasized by Reggio Emilia programs, tends to benefit kids with ADHD,” says Stacey Jacobs, director of Clear Path Educational Consulting.
- Due to their standardized curriculum and focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the individualized learning and one-on-one support many kids with ADHD need.
- Students with ADHD sometimes find it challenging to stay on track in a language immersion program. For example, students with severe inattention issues may struggle to learn all or most of their subjects in a second language.
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