Is ADHD A Learning Disability? What Parents Need To Know

Is ADHD  a learning disability?

What Is ADHD?

ADHD stands for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, which is a term that describes an individual who has difficulties with attention, focus, hyperactivity, and/or short-term memory. ADHD is one of the most common childhood neurodevelopmental disorders with about 9% of American children between the ages of 3-17 years having the diagnosis. While ADHD is not considered a learning disability, it may have an effect on a child's academic achievement and abilities.

Unlike a learning disability, which is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs one's use of academic skills such as reading, writing or mathematics, ADHD is a disorder impacting attention, impulse control and hyperactivity.

  • ADHD is a disorder affecting focus, attention, behavior, and can make learning challenging.
  • ADHD is not considered a learning disability but can be determined as a disability under IDEA and may also qualify for accommodations under ADA/Section 504.
  • The main characteristics of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
  • Approximately 20-30% of children with ADHD also have a specific learning disability.
  • Other disorders that may accompany ADHD include Tourette Syndrome, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, anxiety and depression, and bipolar disorder.
  • ADHD is most commonly diagnosed in preschool and early school-aged children.

Children with ADHD may have trouble paying attention and may act without thinking about consequences, have trouble building coping skills, or be overly active. ADHD looks different in every individual and can present real challenges for families. ADHD characteristics greatly affect the way a child learns because of the way it impacts their mental and physical health.

ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders and can continue through adolescence and into adulthood. A child living with ADHD may have more energy than others, find it hard to pay attention, and get easily distracted. While children may exhibit some of these characteristics when they are young, someone with ADHD may feel like this most or all of the time.

Getting The Right Diagnosis

It's important to note that while ADHD is one of the most frequently diagnosed disorders in children, it is very poorly understood and often misdiagnosed. The misdiagnosis can go both ways. Someone can be diagnosed as bi-polar but it is ADHD, or they can be diagnosed with ADHD but it's actually symptoms of trauma. Though the number of children misdiagnosed with ADHD annually remains unclear, a 2010 study from the Michigan State University estimated the figure to be in excess of one million.

Given the statistics, the best way to find out whether or not your child has ADHD is to have your child evaluated by a pediatrician and a psychiatrist, psychologist, or neurologist familiar with ADHD. Once a diagnosis is made, regular follow-ups with your child's healthcare team are required.

How does ADHD affect learning?

ADHD is a developmental impairment of the brain's self-management system or executive functioning (planning, problem-solving, organization, and time management). We all have executive functioning strengths and deficits that affect our attention, learning, and relationships. But individuals with ADHD often have more profound challenges with executive functioning that can impact their overall well-being and hinder success at school, at home, and during extracurricular activities.

To understand how executive function impairments can affect daily activities, consider the example of a child who wants to play hockey. What might seem like straightforward steps and responsibilities can frustrate a child with ADHD.

For example:

  • Beyond the foundational physical skills needed to play hockey, the child must learn to play with others and be able to follow directions from their coach.
  • Joining a sport requires time management skills to juggle practice sessions and games.
  • The child has to keep track of their gear and make sure they have it for every game.
  • Some practices will be rescheduled, or the team will have multiple games in a day. This will require the child to adjust to a change in schedule, plan ahead for snacks, get homework done in advance, etc.
  • Playing an organized sport will require monitoring and regulating physical activity, which can be challenging for children with ADHD.

How can a parent help a child with ADHD?

Treatment plans and approach is unique for every child, but know that there are resources available.

1. Be an active participant

Follow the treatment plan and therapy services your child's provider recommends. Ask your providers specific questions to help you solve problems at home. If your child takes medication, follow the prescribed dosage and work with your health provider if you feel something is off.

2. Know your child's individual needs

Get to know which areas your child needs attention and how it affects their mood and ability to navigate challenges. It may be helpful to take notes after working on a task together and compare findings with your family members, teachers, and therapists to create strategies together. Once you have an idea of where the breakdowns occur, your team can help children with these specific areas. For example, they may benefit from redesigning the environment with visual schedules, timers, journals, apps.

3. Talk with your child about it

This can include talking through activities with your child and asking open-ended questions to gather more information about how they felt about the situation. Remind them that it's okay to take breaks and rest if needed. Model the strategies they are working on so they can see it in action. For example, if your child is working on positive self-talk, you can narrate your thoughts aloud as you practice that strategy yourself so they can see how it works (i.e. You could say: “wow, I was very patient even though that task was very challenging for me.”)

4. Foster intentional and loving relationships

Children with ADHD may be aware of their challenges and often feel like they're disappointing others or doing something ‘wrong.' Let your child know that everyone needs support through life's challenges. Protect your child's self-esteem by providing loving praise and being present and accepting. Point out the wonderful traits you notice about your child. Surround your child with positive role models and people who are patient and caring about your child's needs.

5. Connect with other families for support

You can join support organizations like CHADD or ADDitude to build awareness and keep up to date with new information. Talk with your therapists about local support groups or search on social media/online to see if there are groups that meet up in your community.

  • “Identifying and diagnosing children with ADHD early on can prevent struggle and hardship that interferes with learning and self-esteem. Children diagnosed with ADHD often get labeled as “lazy” or “disruptive” which can impact their identity and shape their relationship with learning for the rest of their lives. An early diagnosis and treatment can teach children compensatory strategies that allow them to accumulate pride in their academic accomplishments and also obtain school accommodations that assist in delivering knowledge in a way that best fits their unique needs. A diagnosis of ADHD does not have to be a limiting factor in a child's life and can help to reduce the image of the “problematic child” by helping everyone better understand the child's behaviors”. -Dr. Cari Whitlock, Lead of Psychology Department at Healthy Young Minds.

Your child may need occupational therapy, speech therapy, psychiatry/counseling to learn how to work around problem areas (inhibition, emotional regulation, time management, and planning) to be an active participant in their learning.

Written by Dr. Cari Whitlock

Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist at Healthy Young Minds

Explore HYM

About Us
All Blogs