Experts in the Media

Sarah Blake –

Conflict Strategist & Mediator

‘Am I being irrational and a difficult parent?’: Mum’s ADHD struggle

Sarah Blake’s son was identified as a problem child. Then the school wanted to medicate him. She says Australian schools have an endemic problem.

My son is busy, curious and active. When he was very young his pediatric specialist said to my husband and I: “Don’t let them tell you this child has ADHD”.

That doctor was right to warn us. We faced pressure from various childcare services to get him diagnosed over the years, for the first time when he was in childcare.

When he got to kindy, at the insistence from his primary school, we got him assessed. We spent a small fortune on speech therapy, occupational therapy and paediatricians, all of whom shared a common response – that at that stage medication wasn’t the first response. Instead, they identified a range of environmental changes and interventions to support his needs.

By year one he had been identified as a problem child and at successive parent/teacher interviews, the focus was on his poor behaviour. When we asked questions about specific details, stories would change, and we would get mixed messages. The school’s story didn’t align with what we were hearing from him, and we knew how he behaved at home. There was a stark contrast.

What I know from the conflict management and mediation work that I do, is that context matters. So, I started asking the teachers for more information – what the circumstances were leading up to bad behaviour, what the triggers were.

Often, the behaviour was a direct consequence of something specific, like a relief teacher not following the agreed behaviour management policy, thereby creating confusion and inconsistency, or a specialist teacher framing activities in a way that created confusion and overwhelm. Sometimes it was another child behaving inappropriately thereby triggering the response in ours.

It is important to note, this is not an attack piece on teachers. I understand that teachers are under an unprecedented level of pressure in the workplace with increasing mental health, neurodiversity, and administrative demands from the system.

No, this is about our education system.

After 18 months, when my son was five years old, his teachers and others in the school ‘knew’ better than the specialist. They wanted him to be managed with medication.

I was concerned that ADHD medication was being used as a management tool to create compliant children in classrooms that are overcrowded. In my son’s class, based on what I knew, at least 15 per cent of kids were medicated.

I had real concerns that the school was not ensuring teachers were implementing recommended Occupational Therapy plans, learning tools, or executing consistently agreed learning plans and were increasingly reliant on iPads to keep the kids entertained. This wasn’t just about my child, but about all the kids. With more than 30 kids in a small room, how could anyone positively manage learning, emotions and rules?

I also felt enormous guilt and I continued to question myself – am I wrong? Am I being irrational and a difficult parent? Should I just get him medicated – then things will be easy? I know that for some kids, medication has transformed their lives, for some kids a label has helped them better understand what has been going on for them. In fact, it may be that medication will help our son down the track. But right now, we want to try all options and empower him with capacity before we resort to a lifetime of being medicated.

And then, at the age of six my son started to disengage from the joy of learning. He was viewing himself as a problem and would come home saying “my teacher just yells at me” and “they wouldn’t let me go to the toilet and I wet my pants”.

I knew then that I had to either complain to the department or move him to a different school. So, we moved him to our local catchment school.

His new school and teacher have been incredible. They let him be him, celebrate his diversity and worked with him to discover how he learns the best. Academically, he has worked so hard, and having started the year on a learning plan, we found out this month that it isn’t needed anymore.

He is happy, learning and engaging, thriving even with the challenges of rules and structure. He is pushing himself and showing kindness for everyone. He has been celebrated with his very first merit certificate and was so proud of himself. We are so proud of him and so grateful for his new teacher and new school.

There are so many families around Australia with similar experiences, familiar tales. What are we doing about the systemic issues in our schools?

These are difficult conversations to have. Teachers, parents, school leaders and even those high up in the education system can all launch into defensive mode immediately. But how can we support these kids in a consistent, fair, and safe way?

Medicating our kids as a behaviour management plan isn’t the answer. Instead, how can we build the educational foundations they need into our future together? Maybe it is time we started talking about some of these systemic issues in a real and meaningful way – not academic talk, or political talk, or even teacher bashing – rather let’s lean into the mess with curiosity.

We need a philosophical shift to a team approach to change the way our education system is working – how can we support each other to empower these diverse, wonderful, and sometimes challenging kids? What are the structures that will keep us all safe and how can we balance competing priorities of money, rules, and people?

Until we have a willingness to work together to find the answers to these questions, it is our kids who will suffer.

Sarah is a conflict strategist with over 25 years of experience working across a broad spectrum of conflict from the bush to the board room.