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Why School Is Often the First Place ADHD Symptoms Show Up

In my last post, I talked about how one of of the defining characteristics of ADHD is that symptoms show up in multiple environments – school, work, home, social settings and so on.

Yet school is often the first place that ADHD symptoms make themselves known. If ADHD symptoms show up in all aspects of people’s lives, why is it in the classroom that they so frequently become apparent?

ForClassroom one thing, school tends to be the first environment where children, teenagers and young adults have rigorous demands placed on their organizational skills, their self-control, and their overall ability to manage their lives. People with ADHD struggle with self-regulating, and school is one of the first big tests people face of their ability to self-regulate.

School is also packed with activities that hit the weaknesses of people with ADHD. Things like being able to focus on long – often dry – lectures and demonstrate attention to detail.

Beyond these factors, though, I think there’s another reason school often lays ADHD symptoms out in the open: the inherent inflexibility of classrooms.

In most other settings, people have some room to structure their lives in a way that works for them – namely, a way that makes it easier to cope with their ADHD symptoms. You can choose a job that plays to your strengths, you can build relationships with people who are understanding of ADHD, and you can organize your home life in your own style. Having room to adapt your environments to your brain doesn’t make your ADHD symptoms go away, but it can make them less of a problem, or at least easier to manage.

School, on the other hand, has very little of this flexibility. At most schools, the basic structure of how you spend your time is the same. The way information is taught is similar, as is the definition of what being a student entails. Keeping good grades requires consistently managing your time well and being attentive to details, not just in the subjects you’re enthusiastic about but in those that bore you.

As a student, there’s only so much you can do to modify your environment to fit your brain. The younger you are, the truer this is. Thus, it makes sense that school is a place where it’s harder for ADHD to hide. When you don’t have room to adapt your environment in a way that softens the impact of your symptoms, those symptoms are going to be more difficult to ignore.

If the picture I’m painting of what it means to be a student with ADHD is a little discouraging, I don’t intend for that to be the case. At least to some extent, treatment and coping skills can make a difference in school, as in other environments. Just as important, though, there’s an upside to recognizing that school is a uniquely inflexible environment: your experience in school doesn’t necessarily predict how your experience will be in other aspects of life, such as work. Fortunately, most environments have more flexibility and more room for accommodating ADHD symptoms than the classroom does.

Image: Flickr/steve loya

Why School Is Often the First Place ADHD Symptoms Show Up

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2018). Why School Is Often the First Place ADHD Symptoms Show Up. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 13 Sep 2018
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