How ADHD Students of Color Suffer in American Schools

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How ADHD Students of Color Suffer in American Schools

Today I want to start talking about race and ADHD. The stereotype of ADHD is a hyperactive, rambunctious little white boy, but the truth is that people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, races, all people, have ADHD at about the same rates. About 5-10% of everybody on this planet has ADHD, or is an ADHD brain. And those rates don't differ between white, Black, or Hispanic populations.

But it is true that ADHD is uncovered and diagnosed differently in white families than it is in Black or Hispanic families. There are a lot of reasons for this, and some of them are very complicated, while some boil down to simple racism. But it's important to talk about these issues, because the more people are aware that they exist, the more we can work together to create more equity in diagnosis, treatment, and support of people with ADHD brains.

🎧 Rather listen than read this post? This discussion of race and ADHD in public schools is based off of Episode 8 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts | Spotify

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ADHD Students of Color Episode Transcript:

Hello and welcome to Neurodiverging! Today I want to start talking about race and ADHD. I have been researching this topic since the beginning of this year, because it's really important to talk about. The Stereotype of ADHD is a hyperactive, rambunctious little white boy, but the truth is that people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, races, all people, have ADHD at about the same rates.

About 5-10% of everybody on this planet has ADHD, or is an ADHD brain. And those rates don't differ between white, Black, Or Hispanic populations

However, it is true that ADHD is diagnosed differently in white families than it is in Black Or Hispanic families. There are a lot of reasons for this, and some of them are very complicated, while some boil down to simple racism.

But it's important to talk about these issues, because the more people are aware that they exist, the more we can work together to create more equity in diagnosis, treatment, and support of people with ADHD brains. 

Because of the complexity of this topic, we are splitting up this discussion into a couple of episodes, so that we can dig a little deeper into different aspects of ADHD and race. today I want to talk about one of the ways that children don't get access to evaluation, or aren't recognized as ADHD in our school systems.

I am specifically talking about American school and the American school system, because that's what I'm most familiar with. I would be surprised though if some of these issues at least weren’t represented in other school systems as well.

So 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. That means 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, that large majority of white teachers will be racist teachers. Now, most teachers are doing their best for their kids with very limited resources, extremely low pay, little support from their administrators and community, and lots of other roadblocks.

We’re going to get into that more in a couple of minutes. 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 they are doing the work, they will have recognized some of them, 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 and without much time to reflect, which means teachers are 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, we are also expecting teachers to be the front line workers for noticing when a child is struggling. And not only to notice, but to have the wherewithal to report it to parents or other professionals to get assistance for that child. 

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 wouldn’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. 

So 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 identifying behaviors that are ADHD behaviors or 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 lot of impulse control, who isn't listening to directions, who is constantly distracted or falling asleep, somebody 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 almost 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. 

Being suspended once or twice, especially as a Black Or Hispanic kid, is highly associated with being involved with the Juvenile Justice System. 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'm going to link in the notes to one study that you should have a look at - it estimates that up to 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.

So obviously, teachers need more funding, more support, smaller classroom sizes, and a lots of 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 which 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 a really important concept outside the scope of this podcast. 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, highly paid teachers, are also the schools most likely to have a majority population of black, Hispanic, and other ADHD students of color. Why is this the case? Well, there are a couple of big reasons.

First, most states in America rely on a combination of local funding, state funding, and federal funding. 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 systems.

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.” 

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 black 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?

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 hispanic 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 in 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 the shownotes for more reading on this topic, and several organizations you can follow and support to help schools do a better job for ADHD students of color.

Thanks so much for being here with me today. In future episodes, we’ll be discussing some other facets of ADHD and racial inequality, so stay tuned. 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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