Selecting the best school for your child with ADHD

There are numerous articles offering advice on public school accommodations for students with ADHD. This article focuses on finding the best specialized private school or home school option for your child and making that option as affordable as possible.

1. Know your child: Equip yourself with a strong profile of your child. Their strengths, weaknesses, interests and sensitivities both academically and socially should be the driver behind the school search.
- Is he an active learner with a strong interest in sports, or an active learner who spends his free time illustrating cartoons?
- Does she easily participate in classroom discussions and advocates for herself by asking clarifying questions, or does she need more guidance and mentoring from teachers?
- Does he work best independently, or as part of a team?
- Has she experienced a widening learning gap? Each year in school, has she fallen farther and farther behind and now needs to catch up?

2. Next, list your child’s specific needs. If your child has received any professional evaluations, the last page will often contain a list of recommendations, i.e. smaller classrooms, preferential seating, frequent breaks and access to sensory-base playground equipment, etc. These should serve as a basis for a checklist as you visit each school.

3. Consider your child’s intellectual potential as well as their self-discipline and performance scores. All too often, exceptionally bright kids enter academically challenging programs, but fail because the programs lack structure and organization and the stress levels/anxiety become too high. Look at as many details now, so your child is set up to succeed from the first day at the new school (and so that you won’t have to go through this process again next year!)

4. Interview the Schools: Leo Tolstoy said, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same is true for great schools. This is particularly true for schools specializing in educating our children with ADHD. You want to see an understanding of ADHD woven into the fabric of the school. From class size, to teacher experience to room décor, if a school claims to have a focus on educating a child with ADHD, it should be obvious. There are specific types of educational approaches and methods that are a natural fit for learners with ADHD. They include the following: “Active Learning Environments, Hands-on Learning, Engaged Learning, Textbook-free classes, Project-Based Learning, Personalized Learning Plans, Universal Design for Learning.” These are often characteristics present in the 21st Century Education model – which tends to be more focused on the student, how they learn best and how to best prepare them for life in the 21st Century global marketplace.

21st Century Schools are characterized by the following:
• Critical Thinking and Problem Solving development
• Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
• Agility and Adaptability
• Fostering Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
• Developing Effective Oral and Written Communication skills
• Accessing and Analyzing Information
• Encouraging Curiosity and Imagination

5. During your search you'll read stacks of literature, watch countless school promotional tapes, and listen to everything administrators have to say. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. To understand what a school's really about, you'll need to conduct a little Q&A of your own.

- Interview principals, primary teachers, speech therapists, teacher's assistants, and other special-needs providers. And don't forget the parents of kids who are enrolled in the school. Here are a few important questions you should be asking:

- How big is the school? Obviously, you'll want to know how many grade levels a school has — and how many students are enrolled in each. But don't stop there. Ask about the physical size of the school as well as the layout of the building. If your child has spatial and memory challenges— as children with ADHD often do — you'll want to know that he can find his way around.

- How large are the classes? A class of 12 or fewer students is probably your best-case scenario. For younger children. Some specialized schools boast class sizes as small as 4 or 6 students per teacher.

- How long are the classes? Block scheduling of 1 ½ hour length classes would not be an immediate fit for ADHD children. I’ve seen more than my share of 90 minute classes with 45 minutes of teaching and 45 minutes of homework – all seated at a desk. And this isn’t just one class, but all classes in the day. Shorter class periods can be a plus, though block scheduling can work well as long as the teachers are engaged in keeping the learning active.

- What's the level of teacher training? "Be sure there's a fair share of experienced career teachers," says Colleen Berge, an educational consultant in New York City. While you'll find many fine entry-level teachers working throughout the school system, your child needs a school where he will be adequately mentored.

- How flexible is this school? Will it adapt to your child's learning style? Private schools are known for being more accommodating to students and their families, so requests like letting him use a tape recorder in class instead of taking notes or getting extra time for tests are typical. Don't settle for a simple "yes." Ask the school for specific examples.

- What role do parents play? Seek schools with realistic expectations about parent participation. You should be a welcome member of your child’s school day, just as the school wants to be a welcome member of the family’s educational experience. Either extreme (the school doesn’t provide opportunities for parent participation, or the school expects parents to assist in daily operations) should be avoided.

- How often will you monitor my child's progress in core subjects? "Every week is ideal—and not at all unrealistic in a school organized to meet individual needs," says Emily Ayscue Hassel, co-author of The Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child's School with Confidence (Armchair Press). A school should expect kids with ADHD to excel in core academics — because they can.

- Assessments – annual assessments of progress are extremely important. Skill acquisition as well as progress toward a decrease in the effects of ADHD on the child’s academic performance are essential measures. This is particularly important if a child is taking medication. Once medication is prescribed, the studies show that we will see optimal results of the medication for only about 14 months. Therefore, medication is not often a long term solution. In 2007, the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported that a 3-year follow-up of the National Institute of Mental Health Multimodal Treatment Study of Children with ADHD (MTA) concluded that we can expect medication to be effective for about 14 months. Medication alone is a solution only for a short period of time. Combining medication with specialized education and instruction is optimal.

Good schools let you observe classes in progress — not just a slide show in the auditorium. At an open house, a school is on its best behavior. If you feel uneasy about it then, chances are, the uneasiness will only get worse. As you roam the halls, step inside classrooms, and talk to teachers, keep an eye out for the following:

Class Change. How are kids behaving between classes? Do they move along easily on their own, or do teachers have to push them on to the next room? Are children interacting in a safe and friendly way? If children are rowdy and need corralling from teachers, it could be a sign of a lack of structure — hardly an ideal choice for a child who excels in a controlled environment.
Children are Engaged. Be it in a lesson, on the playground, or in a gym class, are kids safely engaged in learning and activities? Your red flag should go up if too many kids are goofing around, staring into space, or picking on other kids.
Tolerance. Many children with ADHD learn best through active participation, often relying on movement to keep themselves alert. Problems could arise if a teacher constantly reprimands a student who squirms, shifts in his seat, or gets up a lot. Experienced teachers know that ADHD students are still listening even though they may appear to be staring at the wall or the desk. And, in fact, often lose their concentration when we require that they look at the teacher. The children end up focused on the funny pattern on our shirt rather than the essential elements of the chemical equation.

Homeschooling may be a consideration if you live in an area without specialized schools or if you believe your child may need a break from a school environment for a period of time. This gives you, the parent, the opportunity to provide the schedule and accommodations customized to your child. Accredited online classes can provide the framework for your course selection and offer the reassurance that your high school student is working toward an accredited high school diploma and will be eligible for the Hope scholarship for college. For students of all ages, we are currently seeing an explosion of online options. Online free charter (public) schools and elite private schools offering their own curriculum or a nationally accredited curriculum that complies with the U.S. Core Curriculum standards are available options today. Some of the funding opportunities listed below can be applied toward homeschooling expenses. Again, don’t rule out the private options because of the perceived expense.

Funding your selection:
Tuition at Specialized schools can range from $7000.00 to $40,000.00 depending on the type of specialized services they offer. Many parents may not even consider the more high-priced option, but don’t let yourself be one of those parents. The benefits of having your child in a safe, nurturing and understanding environment where they can and will learn and advance academically make those schools worth exploring. Many of the more expensive options have financial aid available to students and the experienced staff who are available to guide you through the process of reducing the out of pocket tuition costs significantly. First, look for the best school for your child, then explore the funding options.

Here are five ways to make primary and secondary private education affordable for all families.

1) Tuition may be a Federal tax deduction. (Please check with your tax advisor.) IRS Publication 502 Medical and Dental Expenses for use in preparing 2011 Returns. Page 13 "What Medical Expenses are Includible" states that, with a Physician's recommendation, "…you can include in medical expenses the costs (tuition, meals and lodging) of attending a school that furnishes special education to help a child overcome learning disabilities."

2) Many states now offer a Special Needs Scholarship. In Georgia, the scholarship is called the SB10 Georgia Special Needs Scholarship. The average scholarship amount is approximately $6000.00. The GSNS is currently expected to expand to include military families and foster children. House Bill 181, passed the GA House of Representatives on March 16, 2012. The proposed changes allow a student to move from a public school into a private school without having to wait one school year (which was the previous requirement).

3) Tax Credits for Education. Twelve states now provide opportunities for taxpayers to re-direct their state taxes to private school education. This is a dollar for dollar tax credit, not a tax deduction. This movement is favored by private school and public school proponents because it provides options for families seeking specialized education while saving money in the state education budgets. Florida sets aside $160 million; Arizona $150 million and Georgia (and others) $50 million. In Georgia, this tax credit has been in place for 3 years and it is anticipated that the fund will be depleted by mid-summer, 2012. The redirected monies are usually administered by approved Student Scholarship Organizations in each of the states. You can find more information online at

4) Other corporate and community scholarships. Most of us think scholarships are only available to college students, gifted students or athletes. That is no longer true. There are numerous scholarships for specific learning challenges designed to support primary and secondary education. The Goizueta Foundation provides scholarships and grants to Primary and Secondary schools educating children with learning challenges. Other, community-based scholarships are available for students with diagnoses such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, Down Syndrome, and more.

5) Seek the assistance of a Funding Solutions Coordinator or a Financial Aid Specialist. Some schools, such as The Aurora Schools,, are committed to helping families make the decision to attend a specialized school a little easier. You do not have to be a student at one of The Aurora Schools to meet with the Funding Solutions Coordinator. Just call 404-377-8882 to schedule an appointment. The staff at Aurora will provide you with all the information on funding resources you need to help you help your child.

Author's Bio: 

Kellie Huff is a pioneer in brain-based education and accelerated learning, a highly successful educator, author, speaker & CEO of Aurora Strategies, Inc. In 2003, Kellie founded the Aurora Day School, specializing in the area of accelerated learning for children and adults. From her years of experience at Emory University Hospital’s neurology department, and in private practice, Kellie developed the Aurora Method for Accelerated Learning, which focuses on the use of neurocognitive technology and current neurophysiological research to strengthen and remap neural pathways to accelerate learning with remarkable, statistically significant successes for children and adults of all learning types, including those who are gifted or have learning challenges.

Kellie is a former President of the Georgia Speech and Hearing Association; Vice President of the American Association of Speech Pathology and Audiology and the recipient of numerous awards. Kellie and the Aurora Day School have been featured in two documentaries.