When students with ADHD struggle in school, the problem is with the student, right? After all, if they didn’t have ADHD, they wouldn’t be struggling.

It’s true that ADHD symptoms like inattention, motivation deficits and disorganization interfere with students’ academic performance and that treating these can help students succeed in the classroom.

But we’re missing something when we talk about ADHD as an issue we address only by changing the student. While treating symptoms and helping students develop better coping strategies is important, there are solutions that go beyond the individual student.

SchoolPart of the problem is with how schools are structured. The way education currently takes place is an exceptionally poor fit for the ADHD brain. If you wanted to design an environment that systematically caused problems for children and young adults with ADHD, you probably couldn’t do much better than the typical school in today’s society.

What this means is that while ADHD symptoms can interfere with students’ ability to learn in any environment, the particular way schools work makes the problem worse.

Here’s the basic model for how you learn in an average school. There are two stages. In the first stage, you sit and absorb information by listening to teachers talk for an extended period of time. In the second stage, you’re graded on your ability to consistently apply the information you absorbed in a detail-oriented manner.

Both of these phases of the traditional education process pose serious problems for people with ADHD.

The first phase is the lecture, where teachers transfer their knowledge to students. Here’s the thing: the ADHD brain is built to recoil from understimulating situations. It’s always in search of things that are stimulating and rewarding, and it has an especially hard time focusing on things that aren’t stimulating and rewarding.

Now, can you think of anything less stimulating and rewarding than listening to someone talk for an hour? Since students with ADHD can’t force themselves to focus on unstimulating things, they naturally spend a lot of time not paying attention during lectures, whether they want to or not. Which means that a lot of that information they’re supposed to be absorbing simply doesn’t get absorbed.

The second phase is exams and homework, where students are graded on their ability to consistently apply the information they’ve absorbed. Obviously, there are going to be problems if they haven’t actually absorbed that information in the first place. But there’s a deeper issue here.

I’m intentionally saying that students are judged on their “ability to consistently apply the information they’ve absorbed.” The key idea here is consistency. Grades are a measure of students’ ability to be consistent and to consistently perform the tasks they’re told to perform.

What makes this tricky is that students with ADHD are by nature less consistent than students without ADHD. Because they have an impaired ability to self-regulate their attention and motivation, they tend to do well in the areas they’re naturally interested in and not do well in the areas they aren’t. They tend to have a larger gap between the areas they do well in and the areas they don’t do well in.

But the all-important GPA is about your ability to consistently perform all the tasks you’re asked to perform in school, whether they’re related to areas you find interesting or not. A student with ADHD might be passionate about one subject in particular, and might even have the potential to excel in that area later on in their education when they have the ability to focus on that area (for example, by choosing it as a major in college). But since they lack the ability to consistently execute tasks in all areas they’re asked to execute tasks in, their GPA will still suffer.

One more point to keep in mind is that grades measure students’ ability to perform detail-oriented tasks, not their conceptual understanding of the material. Once again, this works against students with ADHD because they tend to have a bigger gap between what they know and what they do. For example, a student with ADHD might understand perfectly well how to solve an algebra problem, but on their final exam they might write down an incorrect number due to careless mistakes or run out of time due to inattention.

The point here is that while ADHD symptoms can interfere with learning in general, part of the problem is that the structure of school clashes with the way the ADHD brain works.

Certainly, students have a lot to gain by using tools that help them manage their symptoms on an individual level. But as a society, I think we should be a little more ambitious than putting the entire burden on the individual student: we should look at how we can make the education system work better for students with ADHD and other learning disabilities.

Right away, there are two possible solutions that jump out from the points I raised above.

The first is that there’s a lot of room for using more active teaching techniques rather than having students passively listen to extended lectures. This is important for students with ADHD, and I have a sneaking suspicion it could be helpful for a lot of students without learning disabilities as well.

Second, we need to take stock of what we’re actually trying to accomplish with grades. This means considering what gets graded, what grading standards we set, what grades get reported, and how grades are used to set barriers of entry into institutions like colleges. Once again, students with ADHD have a lot at stake here, but it’s worth considering the possibility that the whole grading thing has gotten out of hand for all students.

More generally, we need to make schools more flexible to accept the fact that different people learn differently. Different students have different optimal environments, depending partly on whether they have conditions like ADHD or dyslexia, and partly just on what their individual strengths and weaknesses are.

The solution to this last problem is a little more complex. One possibility I see is that technology will make it possible for students to have more personalized learning processes in the future. But I think the first step is simply to acknowledge that this is a problem, and that the responsibility for helping students with ADHD thrive in school isn’t only on the student themselves.

Image: Flickr/Manveet Singh