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Children and young people with ADHD often face problems and complications in their early education, which is characterised by disruption and a cycle of negative school experiences, says a new study.

Published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, the research reveals that young people can be stuck in a ‘problematic provision loop’, where multiple school placements are unable to meet their needs.

The research, based on the views of young people with ADHD ‘who are often overlooked in the literature’, reveals that suspension and exclusion are common.

It also points to a lack of understanding of how children with ADHD may behave and experiences of punitive measures that further aggravated children’s condition/s. This lack of understanding can result in children being labelled ‘lazy’ or ‘naughty’ and parents being blamed for their behaviour.

However, researchers believe that with the right provision – whether in mainstream schools or otherwise – children and young people with ADHD can flourish.

Lead researcher Dr Abigail Russell, senior lecturer in child and adolescent mental health at the University of Exeter, says: “Good examples were the exception rather than the norm, but it was surprising to hear from young people how, if education is tailored to what matters to them, that they can thrive.”

Young people with ADHD often found themselves on a more positive trajectory where they were able to study topics that interest them and play to their strengths, the study states.

Dr Russell adds: “The pressures of the regulatory system mean mainstream schools are restricted in what they can offer, and positive experiences reported by young people with ADHD and their parents tended to come later in school life when students have more choice about the subjects they study.

“Alternative provision, including in specialist schools, was reported to be a more positive experience if young people are struggling as there is more flexibility here to focus on what children can and will engage with.”

Negative experiences in the problematic provision loop seemed to arise from the combination of adults’ lack of understanding of ADHD and the lack of appreciation of support and flexibility needed to alleviate a child’s difficulties, researchers say.

“It is well known that we do not train and support our teachers well to recognise and support neurodivergent pupils and teachers are often left to do their own research if they have a pupil with ADHD.” Dr Russell says. “This is something that must change.”

However, there is no ‘one size fits all’ provision that suits every child with ADHD, and pupils in schools that were flexible and had an inclusive culture reported positive experiences.

The study also highlights long waits for assessment and diagnosis of developmental disorders and a funding gap for schools supporting children awaiting a formal diagnosis, with several recommendations made to better support children with neurodevelopmental differences through their education.

The study entitled, ‘Educational experiences of young people with ADHD in the UK: secondary analysis of qualitative data from the CATCh-uS mixed-methods study’, is published in British Journal of Educational Psychology.