Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a brain-based condition that can cause people to have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviours, and being overly physically and/or mentally active. The disorder has long been viewed as a child’s condition that will be grown out of, but we now know that ADHD persists into adulthood, and adult-onset ADHD is now also a medically recognised condition. People with ADHD have difficulty staying focused and organised, which can make it hard to succeed in school or work. Emotional regulation and impulse control can also be affected, leading to difficulties with social cues and relationships and possibly poor or disruptive behaviours. However, numerous treatments are available, including medication, therapy, ADHD coaching and tutoring, and lifestyle strategies that can help manage the symptoms of ADHD over time.
ADHD is a neurobehavioral condition. It affects an individual’s ability to stay focused, pay attention, control impulsive behaviour, and regulate emotions. It’s characterised by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, but these symptoms can vary widely from person to person.
ADHD usually first appears in childhood; however, it may not be diagnosed until adulthood when challenging new environments (e.g., university) or roles (e.g., jobs or parenthood) can reveal difficulties and symptoms previously well-managed. Some children grow out of their ADHD, though this is rare. Many people with ADHD have no idea they have the condition until they get older, as it often goes undiagnosed in childhood due to a lack of awareness about ADHD among parents or teachers.
Girls are in particular danger of underdiagnosis due in part to a lack of understanding of the many different ways ADHD can present. Girls with ADHD often exhibit symptoms that differ from the classic "hyperactive" type of ADHD, more commonly seen in boys. Instead of displaying hyperactivity, they may show symptoms like inattention, daydreaming, disorganisation, or forgetfulness. These symptoms are often less outwardly disruptive and more subtle, which can lead to girls being overlooked or misdiagnosed with another disorder such as anxiety or depression. Additionally, there is still a pervasive stereotype that ADHD is primarily a boy's disorder. This stereotype can lead to gender bias in diagnosis, where teachers, parents, and even healthcare professionals may not consider ADHD a possibility in girls.
Untreated ADHD can pose a severe risk to health and well-being. The negative impacts of undiagnosed/untreated ADHD include a dramatic increase in school drop-out, expulsion, and exclusion rates, higher likelihood of being dismissed from or impulsively quitting multiple jobs, increased tendency towards addiction and impulsive behaviours such as gambling, and a high risk of developing comorbid conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Though ADHD is most often associated with negative symptoms, it offers a lot of strengths, too, such as high levels of creativity and out-of-the-box problem solving [link to Turning Challenges into Strengths: Innovative ADHD Help blog post]. As Drs. Ned Hallowell and John Ratey put it in their book ADHD 2.0:
“it helps to think of ADHD as a complex set of contradictory or paradoxical tendencies: a lack of focus combined with an ability to superfocus; a lack of direction combined with highly directed entrepreneurialism; a tendency to procrastinate combined with a knack for getting a week’s worth of work done in two hours; impulsive, wrongheaded decision making combined with inventive, out-of-the-blue problem solving; interpersonal cluelessness combined with uncanny intuition and empathy; the list goes on.”
When each individual’s ADHD is known and well-managed, it’s possible to use these gifts to great effect.
At Sunbeam Education, our ADHD tutors and coaches [link to tutor page] help students with ADHD to discover and utilise their unique strengths, enlisting these to manage the more challenging aspects of ADHD, allowing them to flourish at school, university, and beyond.
The exact cause of ADHD is not known. Still, research suggests that genetic predisposition and environmental factors play a role in the development of the condition.
ADHD has a high heritability of around 70-80%, meaning that if you have ADHD, on average, 70-80% of the ADHD traits will be passed on to your child. A high hereditability indicates that genetics play a significant role in ADHD. However, having a genetic predisposition towards developing ADHD does not necessarily mean that ADHD will develop.
The brain develops during pregnancy and throughout childhood, and the effects of some substances (e.g., alcohol or lead) can be passed from mother to child through the placenta or breast milk. For example, drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases your child’s risk for developing ADHD later in life because it interferes with proper brain development during critical stages when neurons form connections.
As with any medical condition, several factors can affect and exacerbate the symptoms of ADHD. The following are some of the most common:
Overexposure to ‘quick dopamine’ significantly impacts people with ADHD. Too much sugar, shopping, gaming, or screen time seriously increases the chances of overstimulation, leading to anxiety, depression, or burnout.
To be diagnosed with ADHD, symptoms must be noticeable enough to cause impairment in several aspects of life. Examples include school or university work difficulties, poor social skills, memory problems, frequent zoning out of conversations, and unpredictable emotional outbursts. If you notice a pattern of ADHD-like symptoms in yourself or your child that are causing difficulties, it’s important to speak with a medical professional.
The first step in seeking a diagnosis is usually via a GP, who may then offer a referral to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist will ask questions about behaviour, family history, and other conditions that could be causing ADHD-like symptoms. It can be a great idea to collate relevant ADHD information ahead of these appointments. For adults, this ADHD Self Report Scale can be a beneficial document, and parent and teacher questionnaires are available to complete on behalf of children.
Psychiatrists often use standardised tests, rating scales, and checklists to help them determine if a person has ADHD or another mental health condition; ADHD can look similar to anxiety and stress, and often there is a significant overlap.
When diagnosing children, rating scales can include questions about how often they are distracted by things around them - such as noises - or forget things like homework assignments or appointments. The psychiatrist might also ask questions about how well the child functions at home and school and their relationships with friends and family.
To make classrooms more inclusive for students with ADHD, teachers should work to identify the students in their classes with the condition. Teachers can ask parents whether their child has been tested for ADHD or question about how they behave at home or in other settings, and observe how they interact with others during class. Students with ADHD must be provided with accommodations to help them succeed academically.
To accommodate students with ADHD, teachers should utilise engaging, multisensory teaching methods, teaching through games and hands-on activities rather than lectures only - although this is good advice for teachers in general. Students with ADHD require a high level of engagement to grab their interest, and they will be enthusiastic and responsive learners when you have their attention!
In addition, teachers should allow extra time for tests and assignments because those tasks may take longer for someone who struggles to gather their thoughts and finds their mind wandering off task. We recommend giving students an extended deadline or allowing them to take tests multiple times until they get them right! This way, no one feels embarrassed about not being able to complete something on time; instead, everyone has numerous opportunities or opportunities to learn from past attempts and improve at a pace that suits them.
As a parent, taking over the tasks your child finds challenging can be tempting. However, it would be best to let them do their work. Too much support from a parent can leave your child unprepared for life when they leave home. It’s important to let your child find ways of doing things that work for them.
Their way may seem unorthodox, but children with ADHD can often come up with creative and efficient strategies for success, and this type of out-of-the-box problem-solving is a skill to be celebrated. If children struggle with procrastination, an excellent way to encourage them to do their work is to sit with them during the task, which provides some gentle pressure to complete it.
We hope this post has helped you understand what ADHD is, how it affects students, and what can be done to help. As we mentioned earlier, learning more about ADHD and how to manage its symptoms will improve your relationship with anyone affected by the disorder. In addition to this, an appreciation of the positive traits of ADHD will significantly boost the self-confidence of those struggling to manage its challenges. Understanding and knowledge of ADHD, along with a supportive environment, will make it easier to for them to live with ADHD and achieve their goals in life!