I Hate to Hear from My Child’s School

The telephone rings. Ms. Smith, the school principal, is on the other end of the line. Your heart misses a beat and, taking a deep breath, you answer, “Yes, Ms. Smith, how can I help you?” Ms. Smith is calling about Bobby, your eight-year-old child who has hit a child on the playground. He needed to be restrained and taken to the office and he will not calm down, so you are called to pick him up. Calls from school generally come, not to tell the parent of an affected child what a great day their child had, but to report an altercation with a teacher or child. Parents usually hate to hear from their child’s school.

Some Parents Avoid Answering the Phone

School is not always a good fit for a child with ADHD. Unfortunately, you may hear more bad news than good news from your child’s school. Your child may find many aspects of school challenging: sitting still, standing in line, following directions, completing schoolwork, and holding back angry feelings and words. Schools, often limited both by ideas and staff in dealing with affected children, look to you to help solve the problem. Somehow you are expected to provide some kind of consequence to help your child be less impulsive and/or more compliant in the classroom. Unfortunately, the solution is not that easy or quick.

Some parents avoid answering the phone or screen calls during school hours. They know this is wrong and potentially dangerous, but after an unending series of calls from their child’s school, they shout, “Enough! Enough!” Frankly, they run out of ideas on how to stop their child from being disruptive or aggressive, and simply stop answering the phone until they find the emotional strength to deal with the school.

When your child disrupts the education of other children, damages property, or hits other children purposely, the school will call you. Schools are responsible for the education and safety of children under their care. In most cases, the school is not out to get your child or take revenge on you because your child’s misbehaviors persist. Rather, they’re attempting to balance your child’s needs with the needs of other children under the school’s care. Sometimes the behaviors are so disruptive and aggressive that a child cannot stay at school; however, most of the time a disruptive child is disciplined at school. Sending your child home or calling you is the last resort used by most principals. Most teachers and principals will talk with the child, take away a recess, or try any number of other consequences before you are called. So when you get that phone call, try to understand that you were probably at the end of a long list of attempted interventions.

What Can You Do That Helps?

Communicate closely with your child’s school. Yes, even answer the phone when you don’t want to. Share with your child’s teacher and the school principal interventions that you are trying at home. If need be, ask your child’s doctor to write a short letter outlining medical interventions being used with your child. Let people know you are not ignoring his or her problems, but have taken an active role in trying to minimize some of the disruptive and aggressive behaviors. School personnel are often more accommodating and understanding if they see that the parent is not making excuses but is actively trying to help the school deal with their child. By presenting a helping role, rather than an adversarial one, you can often defuse and significantly change the dynamics between your child and the school. A teacher who was seen as rigid may begin to make subtle changes and become more accepting of accommodations to help your child.

Little change can take place that will benefit your child if you and the school are not talking. The school needs your support. The staff needs you to take your child home when his or her behavior is unacceptable. View your role as a team member in your child’s education. Sometimes part of your child’s education will be to learn that when they hit others or are disrespectful of a classmate’s right to learn, they will be held responsible for their behavior. Affected children do have more difficulty controlling their emotions and can be impulsive; however, they still need to be held responsible for their inappropriate behaviors. Antisocial behavior cannot be tolerated by a parent or ignored.

What is the Schools Role in Helping Your Child Be More Successful?

The school’s responsibility is to provide environmental changes that can minimize problematic behaviors. Schools have a legal obligation to make accommodations for affected children when their disability substantially limits learning. Your child has legal protections under federal legislation: IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and/or Section 504 (Rehabilitation Act of 1973). Sometimes state laws may provide even broader coverage of educational needs than federal laws require. For many years, the Rehabilitation Act’s main thrust had been in the area of employment; however, within the last several years, the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR), charged with enforcement of Section 504, has become proactive in the field of education for disabled individuals. However, not all children with ADHD qualify for Section 504. What’s important to emphasize here is that schools have a legal responsibility to make accommodations for your child if his disorder is substantially limiting his ability to learn in school. Unfortunately, some schools may resist providing needed services and accommodations for children with ADHD. This lack of effort by some schools may stem from lack of knowledgeable about federal and state guidelines related to children with ADHD. For some teachers and administrators they view Section 504, for example, as requiring additional staff support or time they don’t see themselves having. Some schools sadly equate Section 504 with more work and not a benefit to the child. Some parents report that they are many times the “only advocate” for their child and find themselves “fighting” for needed accommodations.

Classroom Accommodations Don’t Always Guarantee Success

Accommodations do not necessarily guarantee success. A school can have the best of intentions and plans, but for one reason or another, a child’s behavior still can be disruptive. Many factors determine and influence behavior; school is important, but it is just one of many influences in his life. Children can have anger and feelings of loss from a divorce or death in a family, or deal with any number of other stressors, which affect their behavior in class and at home. Some children can struggle with a mood or anxiety disorders. If your child continues to misbehave, don’t necessarily blame the school.

Closing Thoughts

Your child and his teacher need your support. Answer the phone when called by your child’s school. As painful as some of the calls from the school can be, they are not meant to hurt you or your child. Most classroom teachers are advocates for children, but when presented with a child with ADHD, they often have limited training and support. Your child is probably difficult to handle at home, so understand the school can find equal difficulty dealing with an active and sometimes noncompliant child at school.

Review and Tips

  • See your role as a team member in the education of your child. Your child needs your support but he or she needs to know that you will back them when they are treated unfairly, but that you will not accept aggressive or disruptive behavior at school.
  • Your child’s school needs your support. He needs you to be supportive, not enabling. Schools have an obligation to set up a fair and reasonable program to deal with your child’s inappropriate behaviors, but equally, you need to support the school when your child’s behavior is disruptive and endangers the safety of other children at school.
  • You will often hear from your child’s school more than parents of unaffected children. Affected children present behaviors that get them into trouble at school. Sadly, an affected child not only brings additional stresses to parents and families, but financial cost as well: doctor/therapist expenses and time off from work to deal with your child’s behaviors and academic struggles.
  • Teachers may overreact and lose their patience just like you do. Try not to hold grudges, and don’t keep score.


David Rosenthal, M.D. is a Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist specializing in psychopharmacology. He earned his medical degree at The University of Iowa School of Medicine in 1986, and completed his residency in Adult Psychiatry and Fellowship Training in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at The University of California, Davis, Medical Center. He practiced psychiatry in various settings in California for many years and has treated thousands of patients with ADHD. He currently has a private practice in Boulder, CO.

He has co-authored several articles and three books: ADHD: A Survival Guide for Parents and Teachers; Teaching Young Children with ADHD: Successful Strategies and Practical Interventions for PreK-3; and The School Counselor’s Guide to ADHD: What to Know and Do to Help Your Students.

He has served as Adjunct Faculty at The University of Denver Graduate Department of Social Work, teaching psychopharmacology.

Richard Lougy is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Credentialed School Psychologist. Before retiring in June of 2007, he oversaw mental health services for Head Start Programs in a large metropolitan school district in Sacramento, California. Richard currently is in private practice specializing in ADHD and related disorders. He is an outside mental health consultant for Early Head Start and SETA in Sacramento, California. He speaks nationally on ADHD and has been a guest radio speaker on ADHD for Sirius Radio.