You're never on my side

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Imagine trying to learn when everything around you is distracting, when you're shouted at for impulses you can't avoid, and when your teachers consistently doubt you. Elaine Williams finds out what made a schoolboy write a book about his ADHD


Josh Jones can't sit still in class. He has to be on the move: rocking on his chair, flipping pencils, fiddling with objects. The slightest thing distracts him. If a pupil drops a rubber on the floor at the other side of the room he knows about it; he knows more about that than anything his teacher might be telling him. He can't hang on to instructions and he can't pay attention - not for long anyway.

He drives teachers mad. His disruption is the kind that gets right under their skin; has them clawing at the wall. But Josh doesn't mean to wind people up. In other respects he's an articulate 15-year-old who wants to teach music technology and he wants the world to know that just because he has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) he's not a write-off.

He believes that if teachers understood his difficulty, if they could put themselves in his shoes and those of children like him, if they could have some idea of what it feels like inside his head, then learning would be easier and life at school more tolerable - for everybody. Indeed, with this in mind, Josh has written a book Do You Know About ADHD Sir? which is being launched for the first ADHD Awareness Week starting on September 18, by ADDISS (the national attention deficit disorder information and support service).

The book, written when Josh was 11, records a conversation between him and his teacher in which the teacher's claim that he understands ADHD is challenged. The teacher says he has encountered a number of children with ADHD problems, that Josh is by no means the first and, on the whole, he has managed their difficulty. If that is the case, responds Josh, why do you shout at me when I fidget? Why do you believe other pupils' accounts rather than mine whenever there is trouble? Why do you get angry when I can't follow instructions or concentrate? Why can't I be given them one at a time or on a printed sheet? Why do you not believe I have worked hard because I write less than other pupils when I find it so difficult to write quickly?

Josh knows his behaviour must be annoying, but it would also help if teachers understood that he does silly things on impulse because he has no thought for the consequences of his actions. He wants to be successful like other pupils, he doesn't want to be singled out for bad behaviour, but the ADHD gets in the way. If teachers really understood those things, says Josh, then schooling would prove a better experience all-round.

Josh Jones, from Liverpool, was diagnosed with ADHD when he was seven and prescribed Ritalin (methylphenidate) which stimulates those parts of the brain which control behaviour, allowing a child to calm down. His mother, Rita, was called in to administer the drug daily as his primary school would not take responsibility for a class B drug, which meant she was unable to work. She believed Josh's wellbeing was worth the sacrifice, but his experience in primary continued to be harrowing. "I used to dread going in," he says. "I was always in trouble, in trouble every day. The school said it understood my condition, but the teachers didn't show it. If I did manage not to fidget at any time it was never acknowledged that I was working to overcome ADHD, it was assumed I didn't have it in the first place. They made me feel so small. I was always embarrassed."

Secondary school has been an improvement. Josh felt he could make a new start and has found some teachers willing to give support. When he is distracted they move him to a place where there will be less disturbance.

He has been invited to talk about his ADHD during PSHE (personal, social and health education) lessons; now he is 15 he feels he understands his condition more and is undertaking a second book, this time about having ADHD at secondary school.

One per cent of children in the UK are severe ADHD sufferers, according to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, with 5 per cent thought to have the condition to some degree. Research shows that most teachers are likely to have at least one child in their class displaying symptoms of hyperactivity, inattentiveness or both, severe enough to impede learning.

It is the degree and persistence of the behaviour which indicates the condition. Small-scale studies show that half of children classed as having emotional and behavioural difficulties, and up to 70 per cent of the prison population, may have ADHD.

Although diagnosis continues to provoke controversy, with some detractors arguing that it is an excuse for naughty behaviour and that administering drugs to children amounts to social engineering when all they need is a run around the park and firm discipline, it has become increasingly accepted and growing numbers of schools are adopting ADHD-friendly policies.

Dr Ruwan De Soysa, a community paediatrician at Alder Hey children's hospital, Liverpool, and Josh's consultant, has a special interest in ADHD.

"The earlier the intervention the better," she says. "Children at a young age can be helped to recognise and manage their ADHD, because once they've arrived at senior school it's almost too late. By that time they are living up to their bad name and are starting to develop conduct disorders."

She believes that Josh's "dialogue with teachers about what it feels like to be an ADHD child" is an important step in changing attitudes. "I think it will make a big difference."

Josh was encouraged to write about his feelings by his mother, a founder of the ADHD Foundation Liverpool which supports and offers training to ADHD children and their parents as well as schools. It is one of few such services in the country and was started by Mrs Jones in 2001. "There was no one to help at that time and I had to start from scratch. It was terrible walking into Josh's school and seeing him sitting outside the head's office yet again. Most of the time he had no idea why he was there. When I asked him what he was doing he would say 'colouring in' and when I asked him why he was there he wouldn't have a clue."

Marie Edgerton-Jones is headteacher of Leamington community primary, north Liverpool, which serves a large local authority housing estate. She has worked closely with the ADHD Foundation and believes in a "tight"

parentschool partnership. She believes all teachers and support staff should be trained in the condition. "If teachers are trained in what is likely to trigger an ADHD-type confrontation they can learn to side-step it. We make sure our environment is ADHD-friendly, so that children with the condition have something to fidget with, for example. We have designed our curriculum around themes to allow a lot of interactive learning which works well for ADHD children, as well as boys in general. We have to remember that all children have a short concentration span and all children want to succeed."

Do You know About ADHD Sir? is published on September 19, pound;6.99.

Available from ADDISS, 10 Station Road, Mill Hill, London NW7 2JU.

ADHD-friendly teaching

* Seat a child in class in a place relatively free from distraction (away from doors and windows) where it's easy to detect if he or she is not paying attention and where you can intervene without embarrassing the child or interrupting the lesson

* Have a designated quiet place

* Break tasks down into small steps

* Give pupils a clear and simple timetable

* Give academic, work-related targets rather than behaviour targets

* Give specific and frequent feedback on work performance

* Get pupils to work in pairs rather than groups

* Create opportunities for a pupil to move around

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