Given a typical US school day of six or seven hours, I could do the math to figure out how much of their lives a typical child spends in school, but I’d rather not. The number would probably turn out to be truly frightening for those of us who never enjoyed school very much.
But there’s no doubt that kids spend a lot of time at school, which potentially gives teachers a unique perspective on those kids’ behavior. Teachers often know things about their students that parents don’t, by virtue of seeing their students every day in an environment that’s different from home.
I remember when one of my elementary school teachers called my parents to say I wouldn’t stay in my seat. To be fair, that phone call did not lead to an ADHD diagnosis, but I guess it could have. The more general point is that teachers can and sometimes do notice when ADHD symptoms show up in a classroom setting.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to take a teacher’s evaluation of ADHD symptoms with at least some amount of salt – half a granule, a pinch, or a fistful, depending on the specifics of the situation. Those reasons include:
- Teachers aren’t medical professionals
- Teachers have wildly varying degrees of knowledge about ADHD
- Teachers have different levels of insight into their students
- Teachers probably won’t pick up on symptoms that aren’t causing obvious educational difficulties
- Teachers might overestimate the seriousness of behaviors that are bothersome in a classroom setting but otherwise don’t interfere with children’s lives
So what, in general, is a teacher’s take on possible ADHD symptoms worth?
A new meta-analysis from researchers in the Netherlands tries to shed light on that question by combining the results of previous studies looking at how teacher ratings of ADHD symptoms compare to other measures of ADHD symptoms.
It turned out there was a substantial correlation between teacher ratings of ADHD symptoms and ratings from clinical interviews although that correlation was far from perfect. In other words, teachers’ impressions of possible ADHD symptoms do capture something, but they certainly aren’t the final word.
Interestingly, the correlation with clinical interviews was higher for hyperactive-impulsive symptoms than for inattentive symptoms. That fits with the idea that teachers are more likely to spot hyperactive symptoms, which have more potential to be disruptive to the external classroom environment.
By contrast, medical professionals conducting interviews and teachers reporting their observations had less agreement about students’ inattentive symptoms. One interpretation is that teachers might not pick up on inattentive symptoms, which fly under the radar more easily in a school setting. But the researchers suggest an alternative explanation as well: maybe teachers, due to their familiarity with students, are aware of inattentive symptoms that aren’t immediately obvious in clinical interviews.
Either way, the results of the analysis suggest that teachers’ observations are a useful datapoint to be incorporated into the wider diagnostic process.
When it comes to looking for possible signs of ADHD in people’s lives, more input that sheds light on people’s behavior in different settings is probably going to be better than less input, with the caveat that it should be a mental health professional with knowledge of ADHD who ultimately puzzles out how to put all that input in perspective!
Image: Flickr/Anant Nath Sharma