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Australia: Australian school kids say ADHD is severely misunderstood and it’s affecting their education

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Sixteen-year-old Maria likes to imagine the human brain as a busy road network, full of traffic and intersections. For most of us, our thought-cars tend to adhere to the traffic lights and road signs that keep the traffic organised. But, Maria says, "ADHD brains" like hers don't have that.

"So, there are a lot more cars on all the main roads and the unnecessary information doesn't get filtered out," she said.

When she's at school, surrounded by noises, movement and other distractions, Maria says the traffic in her brain is total bedlam.

"It's just complete and utter traffic chaos because the footy's on or something, and there are heaps of cars everywhere, but the traffic lights have all gone all out," she said.

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"There are a lot of collisions and I completely lose focus and that's when it's very overwhelming."

Maria was diagnosed with inattentive type ADHD when she was in year 8.

"A huge wave of relief came over me. I wasn't crazy. There was nothing wrong with me. I wasn't broken," she said.

But communicating this with her teachers became a daily struggle.

"When I brought my diagnosis to the school, I received comments from teachers disagreeing with the professionals that diagnosed me," she said.

"I can't list the amount of times I've had comments like, 'you can't have ADHD, you're a girl,' or, 'you're not bouncy enough to have ADHD'."

Maria now carries a note with the signatures of her doctor and two school officials to prove her diagnosis to new teachers.

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More than half of teachers say they lack training

ADHD affects one in 20 Australian children, which means, statistically, there is a child with ADHD in every single classroom in the country.

A study conducted by ADHD Australia in September this year surveyed more than a thousand teachers across different states and territories.

Its findings showed 55 per cent of teachers currently employed in schools did not have adequate training on managing ADHD in the classroom.

The Victorian Department of Education was approached for a comment. It did not provide one.

Chair of ADHD Australia, Michael Kohn, said teachers had to have the initiative to educate themselves.

"They are aware that every classroom in Australia has students with ADHD and in their training today, they're not being given the tools to manage the independent learning support that children with ADHD need," Professor Kohn said.

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"Those teachers that are developing techniques have had to learn them on the job."

Australian Education Union federal president Correna Haythorpe agreed, saying it was "essential" new teachers ensured their initial teacher education provided them with skills to teach students with disabilities.

A survey conducted by the Australian Education Union last year revealed 91 per cent of public school principals said they did not have enough resources to cater for students with disability, and 87 per cent said they had to use funds from other budget areas to cover these shortfalls.

"This is a choice they should not have to make," Ms Haythorpe said.

"Teachers need more classroom assistance, specialist support and dedicated programs to cater to the specific needs of students with disability, including ADHD."

Punishing ADHD impulses is damaging

Sixteen-year-old Bill received his ADHD diagnosis at six years old.

His mum brought the diagnosis to his school, but a lack of understanding from his teachers meant he was often punished.

"I was always put with the misbehaving kids in detention and the 'naughty corner'," Bill said.

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"But I was not misbehaving. All that was happening was that my ADHD was being triggered by music and little things like that, which would set me off and make me impulsive.

"I got low marks because I was not getting the right help."

Bill moved schools a few years later, and his mum again reached out to his teachers to advocate for him.

This time, she was heard.

"When teachers knew about my ADHD, they taught me slower so that I could learn better," Bill said.

"It was hard to adapt to learning but with the help of medication, my teachers, my doctor, my mother and I trying hard, I made it through."

ADHD Australia ambassador Ceri Sandford is a former teacher who speaks with personal experience of ADHD. She received her diagnosis at 30.

She says what children with ADHD need most from their teachers is compassion.

"Rather than looking at a behaviour as not listening, we need teachers to be sitting down with that student and having a conversation," Ms Sandford said.

"Have that conversation and figure out, OK they might not be listening, but the reason they're not listening is because it's bloody loud in here and there is distracting stimuli in the classroom."

Maria said developing relationships with her teachers to increase their understanding of how she learns has vastly improved her experience at school.

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"Most teachers I've found, if they are trying their best to understand, they will come up with solutions to try to help you learn," Maria said.

"They might come up to you afterwards and explain things one-on-one if their teaching style that works for the whole entire class doesn't suit you personally. Or let you zone out a bit."

She finds that doodling in class, which can be a sign of inattention in students without ADHD, is one of the things that helps her focus best.

"I have a drawing book that I take to every class, and when I'm getting a bit side-tracked I need to do two things at once to focus and listen," she said.

"A lot of teachers presume I've zoned out and not paying attention. But the ones who I have spoken to and the ones who try to understand, they know that that is my way of learning and if I'm actually not doing that, I've already zoned out."

Professor Kohn says disciplining children with ADHD for acting out-of-step with the class can lead to deep issues with self-esteem.

"Fundamentally, it's a negative consequence for having ADHDness. The impact when you're managed in a disciplined way is that you can get negative self-esteem because of the negative reinforcement, and that's really what sticks," Professor Kohn said.

"The other consequences are that you're ironically further disengaged from education. So, you're out of the classroom, so you're out of being taught, you're out of doing your work, so what you're finding difficult you now find even harder."

Bill says feeling like an outcast in the classroom can lower self-esteem. He says it's up to parents and teachers of children with ADHD to build them up.

"Talk to them and make them aware that they're not dumb, they just have a different mindset," he said.

ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability to celebrate the contributions and achievements of the 4.4 million Australians with disability.

The ABC’s Takeover Melbourne program gives a voice to young people across Greater Melbourne. If you would like to find more stories or learn about the next Takeover Melbourne intake go to the Takeover website.

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