American Schools Don’t Serve Kids of Color, Especially Not When They Have ADHD.

This article is improved and expanded from an episode of the Neurodiverging podcast. If you’d prefer to listen instead of read, you can find it here.

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

When you think of a child with ADHD, and you’re a white person like me, what might pop into your head is the stereotype of the hyperactive, rambunctious little white boy who can’t stop talking. But, the truth is that people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and races have ADHD at about the same rates.

About 5–10% of everybody on this planet has ADHD. And those rates don’t differ between white, Black, or Latine populations.

However, we know that ADHD is underdiagnosed and undertreated in kids of color attending American schools. Some of that is caused by racist bias from teachers. Some of it is anti-ADHD bias or lack of education about ADHD from parents.

But I would argue that the majority of the reasons ADHD students of color don’t get the support they need it structural. Let’s talk more about that.

Most White Teachers Are Racist, Because Most White People Are Racist

Let me just start with one factoid for you. Only 18% of teachers in the United States are people of color. That means that 82% of teachers in the United States are white people. The vast majority of students are being taught by someone from outside their own racial and ethnic group, who may not be culturally competent in their milieu.

Additionally, the majority of white teachers will be racist teachers. I recognize that most teachers are doing their best for their kids with very limited resources, extremely low pay, little support from their administrators and community, and many other roadblocks. That said, teachers are just as likely to display race bias as anybody else in the world, and are just as likely to suffer from a set of implicit biases as anybody else.

What I mean by that is that even people who are awake to racism and are doing active work to become less racist still have a set of internalized assumptions that they make about people based on the color of their skin, their ethnicity, or their culture. If white people are doing the work to become less racist, they will have recognized some of those biases, but probably not all of them, and probably not all of the time.

Teaching is a stressful profession, and often decisions about discipline in the classroom are made quickly, without much time to reflect, and without group input or support. Teachers are therefore less likely to be able to recognize when they’re making a racist assumption or decision.

Now, given that teachers are supposed to educate our children, teach them critical thinking skills, provide basic social skills to them, provide emotional counseling to them, on top of creating lessons, being in correspondence with various other therapists, co teachers, aides, going to meetings with parents, all of this work that we give to teachers with no time or money to do it in…

Given all this, and implicit biases too, we are expecting teachers to be the frontline for noticing when a child is struggling with an undiagnosed learning disorder. And, not only to notice, but to have the wherewithal to report it to parents or other professionals to get assistance for that child, and to follow-up with parents and professionals when assistance isn’t immediately forthcoming.

Teachers Are Not Trained to Recognize ADHD

In a school with mostly high-achieving kids, a child with behavior or attention problems will be conspicuous. But in poorer schools — those that are overcrowded, understaffed, and underperforming — a similarly struggling child won’t be as obvious. In crowded, underfunded rooms with 30 kids and one teacher, who maybe only started teaching a year or two ago, that’s a big ask.

Now, in order for a teacher to suspect that ADHD is part of the reason a child is struggling, the teacher must have been educated in some way about ADHD, what ADHD looks like at different ages and in different populations, to even be able to pick it out among other discipline or social issues among children in the classroom.

I have a child and a partner with ADHD, and I’m relatively familiar with what it looks like from the outside, and I still sometimes have trouble recognizing behaviors that are ADHD traits, or even remembering that certain issues are caused by ADHD traits.

So if a teacher in a busy classroom is seeing a child with a lack of impulse control, who isn’t listening to directions, who is constantly distracted or falling asleep, who’s pushing, shoving or otherwise being violent out of overwhelm or impulse control issues, that teacher might not immediately realize that those issues are indicative of ADHD.

Instead, that teacher is more likely to label that child as a problem kid, and begin to assume that that child will never work to expectations, because the child doesn’t listen or doesn’t seem to care about the class. Then the child is sent to the principal’s office more often, or may more often be suspended, expelled, or see other sanctions.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline Has Even Worse Consequences for ADHD Kids

Being suspended once or twice, especially as a BIPOC kid, is highly associated with being involved with the Juvenile Justice System in the United States. We also know that these kids who don’t do well in school and aren’t incentivized to stay in school have a much higher risk of ending up incarcerated.

I found a horrifying statistic while researching this essay: 40% of people incarcerated in the United States have ADHD. 40%!

Considering we’re seeing a 5 to 10% incidence of ADHD in the general population, the fact is that an incredible number of ADHD kids are being failed by the school system and the justice system, and are ending up incarcerated, instead of receiving support and help.

Structural Racism Is Alive and Well in Our School Districts

So obviously, teachers need more funding, more support, smaller classroom sizes, and many other things, but we also need some sort of better mechanism in the school systems for recognizing ADHD and referring students for evaluation, perhaps especially if we’re seeing what looks like defiance in the classroom or somebody ending up in the principal’s office a lot.

Some schools are really great at this, but they are usually schools with a mostly-white student body, located in more affluent areas.

Certainly school systems that are underfunded should not be blamed for not having the resources to recognize their ADHD students of color, and to successfully refer them to better support. But then what’s to blame? I’ll tell you what: it’s structural racism!

If you’re not familiar with structural racism, I highly encourage you to do some additional reading, as it’s an important concept outside the scope of this article. But basically, structural racism is the existence of discriminatory treatment, unfair policies and inequitable opportunities and impacts, based on race.

This discriminatory treatment is made and perpetuated by institutions like schools, churches, laws, the media, and so forth, and ensures that Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color do not have access to the same power, privilege, and treatment as white people do.

We can see the results of structural racism in the American public school system. The schools that are the least likely to have support structures in place, enough school counselors, enough highly educated, or highly paid teachers, are also the schools most likely to have a majority population of black, Latine, and other ADHD students of color. Why is this the case? Well, there are a couple of main reasons.

First, most states in America rely on a combination of local funding, state funding, and federal funding to fund their schools. Most of the local funding comes from local property taxes. Overall, public K–12 schools get 45 percent of their funding from local revenues. Poorer communities pay less in property taxes, which leads to less funding for their local school system.

Second, school districts are mostly drawn by the government, and are rife with the same racist issues of redlining and gerrymandering as our voting systems are. Most towns and cities are still highly segregated according to race, with white people living mostly separately from Black people.

That means that most American public schools are also highly segregated, having a student population that is “mostly white” or “mostly brown and Black.” This segregation compounds the property tax issue, and ensures that “mostly brown and Black” schools receive less money for their students.

Third, in areas that are gentrifying, redlining and gerrymandering can, and will, change the composition of neighborhoods to cater to new residents with more money, over existing residents with less money. That means that children from richer families end up in better schools than children from poorer families.

One report says, “White districts enroll just over 1,500 students — half the size of the national average, and nonwhite districts serve over 10,000 students — three times more than that average. Poor white school districts receive about $150 less per student than the national average — an injustice all to itself. Yet they are still receiving nearly $1,500 more than poor nonwhite school districts.”

So white students throughout the country are in schools that are 50% smaller, with up to 10 times more funding than BIPOC students. Are we surprised that white children with ADHD are diagnosed more frequently and younger than ADHD students of color?

Are we surprised that teachers in rich white schools, with more education and more support, are also more likely to recognize ADHD in a student when they see it, and be able to communicate their suspicions to the student and their parents, so they can seek out individualized, professional help?

You Can Help Your Local School Districts Do Better for ADHD Kids

So, what are some things you can do to help in your community?

  • Learn about your local school districts, and work to make them more equitable. What’s the population of Black, white, and Latine students in your local schools? How about ADHD students of color? Is everyone reasonably mixed together, or are you seeing segregation?
  • Learn about how your school districts were created. Is the districting fair, or is gerrymandering a problem? How is funding obtained and apportioned in your school districts? Do students of color, and their teachers, have access to needed funding?
  • What’s the school’s policy on identifying ADHD students, and ADHD students of color, and referring them for help? Is there any training for teachers about ADHD? Is the school board willing to fund training, or is there a professional in your community willing to volunteer their time to teachers who want the training? Do teachers have a list of ADHD professionals they can pass on to parents? Does that list include any folks who are not white?
  • Support legislation that funds education, especially legislation that evens out the funding differences between white schools and black schools.
  • Check out the links in this article for more reading on this topic, or check out my book recommendations on BookShop.org for some great reading on social justice issues. (If you buy something through that link, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. Plus, you’ll support a local book store!)

The fight for a better world for people with ADHD is inextricably tied to the fight against racism. We all need to do the work together.

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Autistic neurodiversity coach and parent of 2 neurodivergent kids living in Colorado. I run the Neurodiverging Podcast: http://neurodiverging.com.

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