You are currently viewing ADHD: Mainstream or Specialist School?

ADHD: Mainstream or Specialist School?

Have you ever had to make the difficult decision of choosing a school setting, mainstream or specialist, for your child with ADHD who has an EHCP? If so, you are not alone. This is a common challenge that many parents face. An EHCP, or Education, Health and Care Plan, is a legal document that outlines the special educational needs of a child and the support they require. When creating an EHCP, parents are often asked to specify the school setting that would best suit their child’s needs.

This decision can be particularly challenging because it requires careful consideration of various factors, such as the child’s academic abilities, social skills, and emotional well-being. It is important to choose a school that can provide the necessary support and accommodations to help the child thrive.

Ultimately, the decision of choosing a school setting for a child with ADHD who has an EHCP is a significant one that requires careful consideration and planning. I know, because I had to make that decision for/with my daughter. mainstream or specialist school? Homeschooling for me was definitely not an option. We would have killed each other. honestly, hat’s off to anyone that can do this with a child with ADHD. I found out during lockdown that this was never going to be a possibility for us!

As a single parent, I found myself grappling with a difficult decision. My daughter’s father, a sceptic of ADHD, was not in the picture to offer his input. The weight of the decision rested solely on my shoulders. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was making the right choice. Would this decision have a negative impact on her life? Would she hold resentment towards me? Although we discussed the matter together, she was only eight years old at the time. As her parent, I knew it was my responsibility to make the best decision for her. Despite my concerns, I knew that I had to trust my instincts and do what was best for my child.

Here’s some background to our journey.

Her mainstream primary school just hadn’t known what to do with her, like so many, unfortunately.  When she ‘kicked off’ and had a meltdown, they would take her out of the class for her to calm down.  That’s great, however, instead of trying to reintegrate her or try to do the work in a quiet space, they let her bake cookies or play with slime for the rest of the day. There was such a sense of apprehension that she might experience another meltdown and cause a disturbance.

Don’t get me wrong.  I get it.  I also had another child in her class, her twin, so why should the other children miss out on valuable learning time because of one child?  But there never seemed to be any effort to get her back into the class or at least attempt the work in a quiet space.  So, she just became an excellent cookie and slime maker.  And what kid wouldn’t want to do that? 

Then guess what, kids aren’t stupid, they learn to ‘kick off’ when they simply don’t want to do something so they can go and be creative!  Clever!  Again, I’m not blaming her primary school.  It is imperative that all teachers and support staff receive additional training on how to effectively work with children who have special educational needs (SEN). Without prior experience with a child who has ADHD, it can be challenging to understand their unique needs and provide appropriate support. But that’s a rant for another blog post.

During her journey in mainstream school, she went to the PRU, Pupil Referral Unit.  Has your child ever been?  Basically, if your child is being as ‘disruptive’ as my daughter was, then one of the options is for someone from the PRU to come and observe your child in a school setting and see if they would benefit from the PRU.  The PRU took my daughter after about 5 minutes of observation.

The PRU, is a temporary solution for children who are at risk of permanent exclusion from school. These units are funded by the Local Authority and offer highly trained staff who are equipped to handle disruptive behaviour, which is often the norm in these types of schools.

One of the major benefits of the PRU is that the classrooms are tailored to meet the needs of children with ADHD. And the class sizes are much smaller than in mainstream schools. In fact, when my daughter attended, there were only about five students in each class.

While the PRU is not a long-term solution, it can provide a much-needed break for children who are struggling in traditional school settings. The staff are able to offer individualised attention and support, which can make a significant difference in a child’s academic and emotional well-being.

Overall, the PRU is a valuable resource for families who are struggling to find the right educational environment for their children. With its highly trained staff, tailored classrooms, and smaller class sizes, it can provide a safe and supportive space for children to learn and grow. Whilst they don’t follow a strict curriculum like mainstream schools, they do make English and Maths a priority.

As with most of the pupils, my daughter was given two days a week for a limited number of terms. I think it was three full terms.  On the days she was at the PRU she did well. Having to return to the mainstream school for three days was a struggle.  As we know, children with ADHD love routine and to know what is happening next.  Being in the PRU where they could accommodate her back to the mainstream where they couldn’t, totally threw her, understandably.  However, the benefits of going to the PRU were A. Another hoop jumped through on our ADHD journey and B. An insight into what a specialist school could provide for my daughter.

After seeing the PRU, I started looking around specialist schools.  I wanted to see all my options.

Here are the main concerns I had about a specialist school.

Would she learn from her peers? If placed in a setting with children similar to her, will she pick up even more disruptive traits? I particularly hate her use of profanity. Would her vocabulary become even more colourful?

Is her behaviour severe enough to warrant this? As a parent, you are likely aware of your child’s behaviour, attention span, focus, emotional stability, and regulation compared to other children. Was this environment really necessary for her?

Will her academic performance be affected if she attends a specialist school? It’s worth noting that most of these schools don’t follow the same curriculum as mainstream schools. There is often a greater focus on practical skills such bushcraft and Duke of Edinburgh programs. While these programs are undoubtedly valuable, I was concerned that they may not provide her with the same level of education as a mainstream school.

Would she be able to make friends there? It can be quite intimidating, especially for girls, as many of these schools are male-dominated. While this is slowly changing, it wouldn’t happen quickly enough for my daughter. I was worried that she wouldn’t make enough friends, and even if she does, the catchment area is so wide that they may not be able to hang out on weekends.

Meanwhile, she got her EHCP based on SEMH needs.  She still wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD at this stage, we were still on the waiting list for that. Once she had her EHCP, her mainstream primary school went against me naming a specialist school on her EHCP. They stated they could cope with her and they didn’t feel she needed a specialist provision… one word, funding.  Sorry, but they hadn’t coped up to that point so I don’t understand why, once she had a piece of paper stating what we already knew, they felt they could cope?

I couldn’t cope with the daily phone calls telling me what my daughter had done ‘wrong’ that day. Or could I come and get her? Or could I come in at lunchtime and supervise her? How would they suddenly be able to cope with all that? Yes, they would be able to provide a 1:1 now but unfortunately, having worked in schools, this doesn’t mean you will get someone who is trained to deal with children with ADHD. It’s a lucky dip normally. Most teaching support staff are mums who work in schools so they have the holidays and shorter days as they are parents and need to! I totally get this but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be good with our children with ADHD.

It was a really tough decision but I made the decision for her to go to the specialist school. Despite the resistance from her mainstream school.  I looked at a few, but when I found the one for my daughter I just knew.  They got it.  They got her. All I can say is I am so happy she went.  She did so well.  She loved being around other children like her.  This is so often the case.  She got them and they got her.  The primary SEMH school my daughter went to quite literally saved her. She loved it and actually started to learn again. 

The classrooms were so tailored for our children.  The staff had walkie-talkies for when they had a runner, and they expected it.  It didn’t even merit a phone call home. Just a little mention in an email later, with no implied tut or eye roll!

The teachers at her specialist school are so highly trained and aware that within a few months of her starting, her teacher pulled me aside to ask if I’d mind if she tested her for dyslexia?!  Would I mind?  OMG!  An on-the-ball teacher who understood my child in a second and wanted to help!  Of course you can test her, you wonderful being!!  Guess what!  She’s soooo dyslexic and now we understand why she hated reading so much.  They put a blue perspex on the page. She said, ‘wow the words don’t bubble anymore!’, she hadn’t realised that wasn’t what they were supposed to do!  So, it wasn’t my bad parenting that I didn’t read to my children enough or that I didn’t make her read at home enough as I had been led to believe. She had dyslexia! She’s since been diagnosed with dyscalculia too.

So, were any of my fears realised? Well, the curriculum was definitely not as academic as a mainstream school. But I asked myself this, would she have coped with that anyway? Why put her through the stress of all those subjects if she was going to fail the majority of them? How bad would that make her feel and how high would her stress levels have been?

Yes, her swearing did get worse.  I can’t deny that.  But I got better at handling it.  No, I don’t like swearing. But if I let her do it in-house, she does know not to in public (as much!).  I’m picking my battles. If that helps her vent her frustrations, then I saw it better than physical vents.  As far as the behaviour she witnessed, well, this actually boosted her self-esteem. It made her feel good about herself. She wasn’t as bad as some of the other kids and delighted in telling me!

When it comes to self-esteem, there has been a significant improvement in my child’s confidence. This is largely due to the incredible school she attends. The school prioritise praising the good and minimising the emphasis on the negative. This has been a game-changer for my child. They have daily target systems, where students can earn weekly individual certificates and tangible prizes. Additionally, the school encourages teamwork, and the class can win rewards together, such as a day trip to Alton Towers!

School friendships with girls were difficult. She only had two girls in her year. Nothing against them, but they really weren’t my daughter’s kind of people and there was only a choice of two.  Luckily, we have always maintained friendships with her mainstream school friends so she still has a nice group of girlies.  She does get on with boys. She has two brothers, so she knows exactly how they are and what to expect. In actual fact, she’s made some really good boy friends. Sometimes when I hear some of the stories about bitchiness that can occur within girl cliques, I was kinda glad she was the only girl in her class! 

This said, because the school has a higher ratio of boys, its curriculum is fairly male-dominated.  Now please don’t jump on this and say but girls like football too etc.  I get it. Plus, my daughter is not a little petal, she loves mud and trees and loved bushcraft and making fires.  However, when it’s one girl playing football with the boys, due to smaller class sizes, it was off-putting.  Especially as a self-conscious young teen.  She does like practical stuff, but not mechanics or construction etc.

So, on reflection, weighing it all up, did I make the right decision?  Definitely.  I mean I will never know what would have happened if I’d left her in the mainstream school.  Maybe she would have ended up on the Great British Bake Off? I still feel that she would have drowned in that school and her self-esteem would have plummeted.  Whereas I am so grateful for the positive impact her school has had on her self-esteem and academic performance. It is actually a testament to the power of a supportive and encouraging learning environment. She moved up to their Secondary school with no hitch or stress, the school’s transition was amazing. You would hardly have known she changed site.

The daughter I have before me now is funny, caring, empathetic and feisty!  I love the bones of her!  Five years on and she is a success story in my eyes.  Yes, of course, she still has ADHD.  That is part of her.  Yes, she still has wobbles.  She still get’s ‘fizzy’, but now she can often put in place all the strategies that have now been taught to her by the amazing teachers at her school. She has learnt the resilience to do it herself. I am so immensely proud of her.

Obviously, this is just my story. I also realise that I have been lucky with finding the right school and been offered a place. My son, who also has ADHD, the very hyperactive side of ADHD, think Tigga, does just fine in the mainstream setting. He takes medication and is able to now focus for the period of time in school. They have made the necessary adjustments for him and he is doing very well. He doesn’t have the struggles of dyscalculia or dyslexia that my daughter has and is very bright. ADHD presents so differently in all children. This is why it can be such a difficult choice to make, mainstream or specialist. There is no one right answer. No one size fits all. As I always say go with your gut. You are the parent and you really do know your child the best.

I have started a private support group on Facebook for parents and carers who need support with their child with ADHD. It’s a friendly place to chat with others. Please do click this link ADHDinchildren to join. And for anyone on Instagram, I’m there too ADHD Mum.

Vicki x

Leave a Reply