Girls & ADHD
That’s why teachers are so important. When it comes to learning disabilities, teachers are right there on the front line. We’re often the first to spot a child’s difficulties and to bring it to the attention of parents and specialists. It’s important that we know the different ways ADHD may manifest in our girl students and the reasons we may miss it.
Alarmingly, some studies estimate that as many as 50% to 75% of girls with ADHD are missed. Worse, girls with ADHD are diagnosed on average five years later than boys—boys at age 7, girls at age 12. Five crucial years girls could be getting help are lost.
“ADHD is not gender-linked,” says Dr. Patricia Quinn, director of the Center for Gender Issues and ADHD and an expert on ADHD in girls. Recent data shows medication for ADHD is dispensed equally to men and women. It follows that if adults are experiencing the disorder in equal numbers, children might too.
“The diagnosis should be 50-50 between boys and girls,” says Quinn. So the big question is, why isn’t it?
One major reason is that girls’ symptoms manifest differently. “ADHD doesn’t show up in the same ways in girls,” says Kathleen Nadeau, a clinical psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, and coauthor of Understanding Girls with AD/HD. For instance, girls are much less likely to display hyperactive or impulsive symptoms. Instead, they may just appear “spacey,” unfocused, or inattentive. Or they may have trouble staying organized or remembering directions or homework.
But even when these symptoms are clearly present, ADHD may be missed. Nadeau puts it bluntly, “Girls are less likely to be referred because they cause fewer problems in the classroom.” Socialized to please their teachers and parents, girls can be very good at compensating for the disorder, making it much harder to spot. When teachers do see it, says Nadeau, “[girls’] behavior is often misunderstood as immaturity or lack of academic ability rather than as ADHD.”
As educators, we need to be informed and aware. School is the number one place where ADHD gets identified, says Mohab Hanna, child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of Making the Connection: A Parent’s Guide to Medication in ADHD. “This is the context where it gets magnified. Teachers interact with kids academically and see how they do socially. A lot of parents don’t know what’s normal.”
So, what are the signs of ADHD in girls? Here are some of the cues you can look for and some simple ways to help.
Sign #1: Nonstop Talking
What you can do: Try seating your student near the front of the class and away from other talkative students. Throughout your lesson, pause periodically and ask students to buddy-share—exchange ideas, compare strategies. This is beneficial to all, but will particularly help your student with ADHD by giving her an acceptable outlet for talk. You might also try giving her a task such as handing out papers to help refocus her energy.
Sign #2: Friendship Troubles
What you can do: Recognize that a girl with ADHD often needs help negotiating her relationships with peers. Be patient with her and—without making this student your focus—encourage your class to be patient and generous with other children’s differences. Teaching social conventions explicitly—how to join a group in play or how to give a compliment—can make a world of difference. Calmly explain social conventions to her and give her an opportunity to practice. Lastly, “make your classroom feel like a safe place to make mistakes,” suggests Nadeau. Understanding goes a long way.
Sign #3: Difficulty Paying Attention
What you can do: Try involving her in your lessons so those crayons aren’t so alluring. Ask her to pass you a manipulative, for example, or keep time during round robin reading. You might also lecture for five or ten minutes at a time rather than 20. Again, it’s important to model focused attention to the entire class, not just your ADHD students. Ask kids what someone who’s paying attention looks like (shoulders squared, eyes on speaker, hands folded on desk, quiet). Then practice the behavior as a class.
When an ADHD student does drift off, draw her back in without reproach. Quinn suggests having a signal, such as a secret word, that you say as a cue to tune in.
Sign #4: Exceptional Messiness
What you can do: A first step is to reduce the papers shuffling back and forth between school and home. An easy way to do this is to post your homework assignments and newsletters online (www.scholastic.com offers free homepages to teachers). Next, reconsider your assignments. Is your ecosystems poster project putting more emphasis on neat execution than on swamps and deserts? Offer students the opportunity to present what they’ve learned in different ways, whether it’s a typed report or a skit.
Sign #5: Unfinished Work
Sign #6: Emotionality
What you can do: Do what you can to help her feel like an important member of the class. Share with her some calming techniques that will help her regain control—e.g., breathing deeply, thinking positive thoughts, counting. Insist that all your students treat one another’s feelings respectfully (even when a child seems to have too many).