More supports needed for students with ADHD, trustee says

A trustee with Waterloo region's public school board says the Ministry of Education is failing students with ADHD by not automatically identifying them as exceptional learners.

Natalie Waddell says the way children with ADHD are identified in the system is problematic

Natalie Waddell wants children with ADHD to automatically be identified as exceptional learners, so that they qualify for special help at school. (Tom Woodward/Flickr Creative Commons)

A trustee with Waterloo region's public school board says the Ministry of Education is failing students with ADHD by not automatically identifying them as exceptional learners. 

"It's time for our province to really recognize that these children have a neurological condition that interferes with their learning," Natalie Waddell told CBC News.

"It's time that we make sure that the educational staff have extra knowledge of how they can help accommodate and make things easier, not only for the student with ADHD, but also for the other students in the classroom, to keep the classroom environment on track."

Right now, students in Ontario can receive special supports - or accommodations - when they are identified as exceptional learners, according to ministry guidelines. 

Exceptional learners

Exceptionalities are divided into five general categories - behaviour, communication, intellectual, physical and multiple - and then further divided into the following sub-groups:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Behaviour Exceptionality
  • Blind and Low Vision
  • Deaf and Hard of Hearing
  • Developmental Disability
  • Giftedness
  • Language Impairment
  • Learning Disability
  • Mild Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Exceptionalities
  • Physical Disability
  • Speech Impairment

"School boards are required to provide special education programs and/or services for students who have been identified as having special education needs," said Heather Irwin, ministry spokeswoman, in a statement to CBC News. 

"The broad categories of exceptionalities are designed to address the wide range of conditions with no medical condition being excluded."

Fight for accommodations

On its own, a diagnosis of ADHD will not result in a child being identified as an exceptional learner. According to Waddell, a child would have to have a secondary diagnosis, such as a learning disability, to secure a legal right to receive supports.

"Parents are feeling like they're having to fight for these accommodations," she said.

"And we're not talking about expensive accommodations. We're not talking about getting an additional educational assistant to sit with these students. We're talking about simple things like having a break - a scheduled break - and preferential seating."

"But because these children - some of them - are not getting categorized as having a disability, there's no legal obligation through the education system to provide them with supports." 

Students are struggling

The result, according to Waddell, is a system where some children are getting the help they need, while other children are struggling.

"They're at an increased risk of mental health issues," she said. "They're at an increased risk of substance abuse. They're three-times more likely than their peers to drop out of high school." 

Waddell wants the Ministry of Education to automatically identify children with ADHD as exceptional learners, similar to how it identifies children with Autism.

On March 19, Waterloo Region Public School Board trustees voted in favour of a resolution to that effect. They also agreed to submit the resolution to the Ontario Public School Board Association. 

Although she knows it will take time, Waddell hopes that this resolution will eventually lead to change. 

"It's definitely a provincial issue. It's not just limited to one single board," she said. "So, I think that it needs the support of several school boards to push it forward and put the needed pressure on the ministry."

If the OPSBA executive committee approves the resolution, it will be discussed during a general meeting at the end of May. 


  • This story has been edited to clarify when a student with ADHD can receive supports in the current system.
    Apr 11, 2018 4:57 PM ET

About the Author

Melanie Ferrier is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in Kitchener, Ont. You can email her at