As a teacher or youth worker, you might be surprised by the question in this title. You’re probably already aware that ADHD is more than simply a behavioral disorder. Yet many parents are not aware that ADHD is actually classified as a mental illness.

When talking to parents, you can help them better understand ADHD and how it impacts their child. For example, they may not know that many children living with ADHD have difficulty focusing their attention on necessary tasks and using working memory effectively, making ADHD a cognitive disorder as well. ADHD is a developmental condition of inattention and distractibility, with or without hyperactivity.

Take, for instance, Thomas, a middle school student. Thomas has difficulty staying on task and completing his schoolwork. He also has problems keeping his backpack and papers organized and remembering what to bring home or take to school. He might read a chapter but not retain what he has read. He might know the material but be unable to write an answer or start a paper because he cannot organize his thoughts. He might be able to write out math equations, but makes careless errors along the way. His parents might report that he also has problems keeping track of his personal items and keeping his bedroom organized.

It is not that Thomas does not know what to do. No matter how hard he tries, he somehow does not get it done. This can be exasperating and bewildering for parents, teachers and other adults who interact with him.

When a child has ADHD, his or her brain is working overtime, all of the time. A key symptom is difficulty in calming down, because the brain is overcompensating for the complex processing that is taking place.

And ADHD is not just an American issue. Globally, four to seven percent of children suffer from it. And, 58 to 87 percent of children diagnosed with ADHD have a least one other disorder. Up to 20 percent may have three or more disorders, in addition to ADHD.

The most common conditions diagnosed along with ADHD are oppositional defiant disorder, a learning disability, anxiety disorder, mood disorder or substance abuse, all of which can have a dramatic impact on the child’s ability to succeed at school.

Children left untreated for ADHD are 10 times more likely to quit school. And, left untreated, adults with ADHD are twice as likely to have problems keeping friends, twice as likely to rarely or never use birth control and twice as likely to be involved in three or more automobile crashes (and more likely to be at fault).

While ADHD is prevalent in society, it is important to remember that only psychiatrists, pediatricians, and clinical psychologists can give a diagnosis of ADHD. Teachers and childcare workers, for example, are not licensed to do this, although as front line care providers they are often the ones who can spot symptoms. It is important to keep in mind, however, that children are children. It’s very common for young children to bounce around, have trouble staying focused for long periods of time, and need extra coaching on organization and staying on task.

So how can you help parents know when a child may have ADHD? Only testing can confirm a diagnosis, and must be initiated by the parents so they and their child’s medical care providers can begin discussing solutions best for the child.

Medication may be prescribed, natural supplements may be suggested, and behavioral training, both for the parent and the child, may be recommended.

For teachers and youth workers, here are a few helpful suggestions for helping children with ADHD:

  • Encourage them to sit close to the front of the classroom
  • If possible, place them in a classroom or group with a low adult-student ratio
  • Create stimulating and engaging assignments that capture their attention
  • Allow frequent breaks
  • Teach reminder cues, like a hand signal or gentle touch on the shoulder, to refocus attention when it wanders
  • Give the child a time limit for completing a small unit of work, and offer plenty of positive reinforcement when they do
  • Schedule more demanding tasks in the morning
  • Provide an area for them to work with few distractions
  • Offer suggestions to the parents to make getting ready for school easier, like getting up earlier, or laying out clothes and packing the backpack the night before

If you have a child with ADHD under your care, there are many effective strategies for handling ADHD in the classroom you can implement. You can also provide helpful information to the family, like this online pamphlet from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry or this five-part video series on how ADHD can affect children in the school or home.

Most importantly, let the parents know that help is available, and that you are committed to working with them to provide a more positive and successful school experience.