A Step by Step Way to Advocate for your Child with ADHD

Phillip Anderton

ADHD is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders[1], and we know that it runs in families. It is, they say, as inheritable as height[2] [3].  It stands to reason, therefore, that if a young person with ADHD struggles to communicate, then the parents have probably had a lifetime of similar struggles.

Learning to advocate for children in a succinct and effective manner is one the most common issues parents tell me they find challenging. To help parents learn to manage this aspect of communication, I’ve begun to teach a simple, step-by-step way to advocate.

Why is Simplicity so Important in Advocacy?

Globally, we are suffering the effects of a massive commercial recession.  Times are hard across the world. Public sector finances are constrained or cut completely, budgeted service provision that was common five years ago is now harder to find, and new services are slow to get off the ground, if they get off the ground at all.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the world that has responsibility for dealing with ADHD.  Clinical settings provide less contact time with patients, teachers are trying to deliver the same services to bigger classes under increasing performance scrutiny, and there are fewer police officers on our streets to deal with crime and disorder.  All of these scenarios are statistically observable, but one important fact remains hidden. In these more challenging times, it is harder than ever for the parents or guardians of people with ADHD to advocate. Why?

There isn’t time for professionals to listen to anything that isn’t succinct or well delivered. This is a hard truth that we must deal with directly.

Collaborating with Steve Brown in the UK, I’ve worked for many years to provide a toolkit for parents to help them shield their children from poor services and obtain better results and outcomes[4]. That toolkit now has a new addition.  We can’t take all the credit for it, though, as it is an adaptation of material from Peter Jensen which he gave us permission to change and use in 2012[5].

Identifying the REAL Challenges of ADHD

We all know that ADHD is a struggle with inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity[6] — three key words that mean describe the symptoms.  But, in my opinion, they actually do little to help the parent or guardian.  Rating scales based on these three words, used across many services, do not provide much more assistance.

What do these three words mean in the life of a child? What if you, as a parent or guardian, had words that really expressed the challenges your child is facing? What if it was easier to say what you needed to say? How more effective would your advocacy be then?

What are the Steps on Your Ladder?

Next time you prepare for a meeting with a teacher or clinician, stop struggling to find the words you need to make your point.  Do this, instead.

• Draw a ladder with five rungs on a piece of paper.  Limiting it to five rungs  will help you think clearly.  
• On each rung write down one problem that you and your child need help with. 
• Do it quickly, and keep it simple.

The last time I did this with a parent of a 12 year old ADHD girl, the rungs said: sexually active, no respect, sleep issues and rude all of the time.  These four simple statements say much more about life in that household than inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive ever could. They capture the parental fear for their child in a visual and impactful way.  And it took five minutes. Max. 

Not only does the ladder provide a clear focus on the challenges at hand, but the simple visual of a ladder makes it easy to communicate which is particularly helpful for parents who may struggle to advocate.  Done the night before, or even in the waiting room, this simple approach should be added to your toolkit.  Tell the teacher, doctor, paediatrician exactly what needs to change by showing them your ladder.

Imagine turning up at a your next school meeting with your ladder in your pocket.  You unfold it, place it in front of the professionals in the room, and surprise them. That’s novel, isn’t it? Usually teachers are the ones surprising you!  

Classroom/school issues on your ladder could be: your child’s feeling of failure, fear of late homework submissions, fear of always being the last one to finish class exercises, not having friends and feeling alone.  The list could be long, but choose four or five top ladder entries and put them in from of the teacher.  This will help you, your child AND the teacher, so there are no losers.

It’s likely to be more helpful to you than a rating scale improvement. And the best part? Ladders are freely available anywhere you can find a pen and pencil.



[1] Professor David A Baron, Chair, Department of Psychiatry, Temple University School of Medicine, 2007

[2] ADHD and Treatment MEGHAN MILLER, MA STEPHEN P. HINSHAW, PhD University of California, Berkeley, USA  (Published online February 2012)

[3] Faraone et al., Biological Psychiatry, 1998)

[5] Peter Jensen (2012)

[6] DSM IVand V

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