Ask An Expert / Behavior Problems

Should my son switch to a school that focuses on behavior challenges?

He may learn better in a less academic environment

Ruth Lee, MEd, ET/P

My child, now in the third grade, has ADHD combined type with comorbid anxiety. He's a very bright child, but has had a negative school environment due to problems with impulsivity and attentional issues. The school district is suggesting a placement that focuses less on academics and more on behavior. He is on both a stimulant and anti-anxiety medication. How do you assess what is the right learning environment for a child in this situation?

If you son is having trouble in his current school environment, switching schools might make sense. It’s a good idea to talk with the school administrators and anyone else who’s working with your son — his teacher, psychologists, learning specialists — to determine what he needs to learn and which environment could best provide that.

If kids are burdened by their anxiety or unable to focus, they won’t be able to learn as well, even in a school with strong and well-delivered academics. We know that anxiety interferes with learning because it affects working memory and information processing. And kids who also have ADHD are already struggling with things like attention and executive functioning.

As an educational therapist, I will temporarily discontinue working with a child on academics if he needs to focus on his emotional and behavioral challenges. In a school with an emotional-behavioral focus, academics can still be important, and you will most likely find the specialized conditions help your son learn even better.

When making this decision, it’s also important to remember that switching to a specialized school doesn’t need to be a permanent change. Most special education or therapeutic schools operate with the mandate that they will identify a child’s issue, work to remediate it, and then return him to a less restrictive environment in which he will be better prepared to learn.