When It Isn't ADHD: Ryan's Story

Ryan and his dad had another argument tonight about math homework.

Dad's yelling at Ryan. Ryan's crying. And Mom's telling Dad to stop yelling at Ryan while trying to get Ryan to stop crying.

Ryan was pretty sure he had homework, but he wasn't sure what it was.

Ryan feels terrible. Not only has he made a mess again with his math homework but his parents are fighting. And it's all his fault.

This year Ryan is getting up out of his seat whenever he feels like it and disrupting other kids. So he's getting in trouble at home for that too.

Sometimes Ryan's Mom emails the teacher and gets Ryan's homework. But she can't do that everyday. And Ryan needs to be more responsible.

At Back-to-School night, Ryan's teacher suggests testing him for ADHD. She thinks maybe he needs to be on ADHD medication.

Dad, annoyed by the whole thing, starts asking more questions. He wants to know exactly what Ryan is doing and what Ryan isn't doing. Need to solve this homework problem and this behavior problem right now before this business with Ryan gets out of hand.

Then the clue! Ryan's teacher says, "You know, at the beginning of the year, Ryan did his math homework every single night. Then all of a sudden he stopped doing it."

Ryan's Dad remembers this and comments that he often looked at the math pages that Ryan brought home. And Ryan really liked doing his math homework. Says that Ryan hasn't brought math sheets home for ages. Now he brings a math book home but doesn't know what page the homework is on.

Ryan's Dad and the teacher both agree that math is Ryan's best subject. Ryan loves math. He's had an A on every math test. But his overall grade isn't very good because of this homework problem.

Turns out that when the new math books finally arrived, Ryan's teacher started writing the homework on the board. She didn't need to give the kids homework sheets since the problems were in the book.

Congratulations! By now, you've guessed what Ryan's problem was.

Ryan couldn't see what the teacher had written on the board. So he'd get up out of his seat to get closer to the board and the teacher would tell him to sit down. And then he'd get into more trouble.

Ryan didn't need an ADHD test. He needed an eye exam. Now he's wearing glasses. He can see the board. And he's doing his math homework.

He might have needed glasses last year but the problem didn't show up because he sat in the front of the room close to the board.

Because we all use the term "ADHD" so often to describe not only our kids but ourselves, it's often the first thing a teacher or parent thinks of when a child isn't doing well in school. Or, in Ryan's case, isn't doing his homework.

It's easy to miss the obvious. But stop before you jump to an ADHD conclusion.

Even when your child's teacher suggests ADHD, get your child's eyes tested by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. Teachers aren't trained to diagnose ADHD, and busy pediatricians often skip over eye exams.

Luckily Ryan's teacher and his parents figured this out before suggesting to a pediatrician that Ryan might have ADHD and should be on ADHD medication.

Sadly, all too often, well-meaning pediatricians who often have just 15 minutes per patient will write a prescription for ADHD medications. No complete physical. No eye exam. No referral to a child psychologist or psychiatrist.

If your child doesn't have ADHD symptoms at home and only one thing is out of whack at school—like not doing homework—your child does not have ADHD. To find out what else is often labeled ADHD but isn't, pick up your free copy of "Maybe It Isn't ADHD After All: 12 Common Conditions that Can Cause ADHD-like Behavior."  Just put your name and email in the box in the top right column on this page.

Please leave a comment.  What have you done to figure out exactly what's going on with your child at school?

Discover 12 conditions that look like ADHD and ADD but aren't. Sign up now!

About Dr. MaryJo Wagner

MaryJo Wagner, PhD, helps you help your kids transform ADHD behavior for success. Sign up at Coaching & Accountability to get your questions answered with a complimentary Transformation Session.


  1. How I wish someone would have thought about the possibility that my son had difficulty seeing when he was constantly in trouble at school for leaving his seat last year. He is diagnosed with both Asperger's and ADHD. Unfortunately, everyone missed the possibility this behavior was a symptom of something other than ADHD or Asperger's. Then, as part of his re-assessment process this past spring, it was recommended to us by his OT that we take him to a developmental eye doctor. The Ophthalmologist diagnosed him with several neurological vision conditions which limit his ability to do things like focus from the board to his paper and back to the board and interfere with his ability to see from a distance of over 10 feet. Now that we know more about his vision, he can be supported more effectively. And as a result of this situation, I have learned to think more dynamically when assessing a behavior and determining a possible cause and solution. I am so grateful for websites like this one which share so much helpful information so that parents, educators, and therapists can learn from situations like these and better support children.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. Glad you agree with me that it's important "dynamically assess behavior" as you've stated. What a great way to describe how we need to look at ADHD-like behavior before jumping to conclusions.

  2. Leslie Alvarado says:

    Hello I have an 11 year old son and the Dr has switched him from Concerta to Vyvance, I don't like the outcome of the meds, and don't want to rely on these. Yesterday his teacher stated that he did have a hard time gettin on task & he did take his meds . I got some books to read up to help me understand his adhd to cope with him but I'm not sure if it is really ADHD He also doesn't like taking his pill What do you suggest please help me !

    • Hard to say whether your son has ADHD or not. But I'm guessing he doesn't since you don't like the outcome of the meds and the teacher is telling you they're not working. Also hard to suggest to you what to do because I don't know enough about what he does, what he eats, how much sleep he gets, etc. But here are some general suggestions of things that are very important to curb ADHD symptoms and behavior: cut WAY back on TV (3-4 hours a week), NO TV before school or before bed. He needs lots of vigorous physical exercise every day and plenty of sleep at night.

  3. Susie Cabrera says:

    My son is 7 years old. He has always been very social and very active. We always thought he was overly excited around other kids since he is the only child at home. He is doing great at school and is reading at grade level. He always needs to know who, where and why. His vocabulary is great he uses big words for his age. He seems to over react when something happens, he doesn't take losing very well. We have tried every punishment possible. I would like to know what other diagnoses there is since he was born with a congenital heat disease and medication for ADHD would be hard. Please help.

    • Hi Susie,
      Thanks for your comment. Why do you think your child has ADHD? Doesn't sound like he has ADHD to me, at least from your short description. Many 7-year-olds have a hard time losing. They usually grow out of it. I'm not sure punishing him it is going to change anything. I would always mimic the behavior you want him to have. So when he loses and over-reacts, you need to stay calm, not yell, talk gently in a peaceful voice. I know this is sometimes hard. And to not get into the yada yada back and forth. If you're talking about playing games with him like card games or board games, explain quietly and firmly that if he starts to get angry if he makes a losing move, that you will stop playing. No arguing. No discussing. He loses it because he's losing, then you quietly get up from the table and put the game away. No drama! Hope this helps. He sounds like a pretty normal kids who is sensitive. MaryJo

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