The new school year can be a time of dread for parents of kids with special needs

Students with learning differences struggle in an education system that values conformity and efficiency over excellence and understanding.

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This week parents across the nation are dusting off school hats, itemising pens and glue sticks and swathing exercise books in contact paper as Aussie kids prepare to head back to school. Most will be breathing a sigh of relief. Not me.

Don't get me wrong; I crave the downtime as much as the next person. But the new school term for my family – and possibly others who have a child with an attention disorder or learning disability – is just the start of another year of worry and frustration.

The term "learning disability" is on the way out, as it happens, replaced by the more palatable "learning difference", which is all very well except it creates the impression that the child with said difference can be neatly paired with a more effective teaching style. Regrettably, that's not the case.

Despite a wealth of research on cognitive function in kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and specific learning disabilities – and increasing recognition that their deficits may be accompanied by intellectual and creative gifts – for many of these children the journey through school continues to be miserable. I speak from experience, although I dearly wish I didn't.

It's not much comfort to realise that we're in good company, but we are indeed. Around one in five public school students in the United States experiences attention issues or learning disabilities, and the statistics are much the same here. One in five. Can we afford to be failing – despite our best efforts – such a significant portion of our youth? And what does this say about our education paradigm that it's unable to adapt to the needs of up to one-fifth of children?                

As a parent of a child who acquired language early, who is curious and imaginative, with a flair for the double entendre and a passion for music and the natural world, the discovery that school was going to be a struggle came as quite a surprise. In case you're wondering, these character traits aren't out of the ordinary for kids with ADHD – they're pretty typical – although if you took your cue from the ABC's woefully titled Kids on Speed you might have formed a different view.


If you dispense with the sensational media depiction, though, you'd be hard pressed to see kids with attention disorders as outliers. Up to 10 percent of children satisfy the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, with studies suggesting the condition is under-diagnosed in adults. Genetic research supports the view that it's largely heritable, widespread, and may even represent a level of neurodiversity that's been with us for millennia. But that doesn't mean we've learned how to integrate it into the modern classroom.

As my boy enters grade 5, what haunts me is not just the awareness that his creative strengths are failing to compensate for his reciprocal weaknesses; it's the emerging suspicion that, in the current education system, they might also be liabilities in themselves. 

Individuals who struggle to focus in a "neurotypical" way on standard schoolwork tend to demonstrate strengths in divergent thinking, exploring many possible solutions to a problem, and score better than their non-ADHD counterparts on standardised creativity tests. They also have what psychologists call a "leaky mental filter" – an inability to suppress activity in parts of the brain known as the "imagination network" – which might be strongly correlated with creative achievement; but it's darned challenging at the breakfast table. And how do you think it goes down in the classroom?

It's perhaps unsurprising that "ideators" – people who prefer to generate ideas rather than clarify or implement them – struggle to find a niche in school. I'm not just talking about NAPLAN, by the way; a lamentable public policy experiment dubbed the "enemy of creativity" by some educators. The larger, more fundamental problem is the traditional pedagogical approach to instruction, the almost exclusive focus on convergent thinking and the apparently arbitrary selection of some intellectual disciplines over others – to say nothing of the obsession with benchmarking that risks mistaking conformity for excellence and efficiency for understanding.

It's not that extraordinary teaching doesn't exist under the current model; of course it does. What's more, we'd be in denial to think the deficits of ADHD are necessarily outweighed by its benefits; that the challenges aren't both real and substantial. My point is that they're largely thus because of the learning environment we've created, and our failure to think up other options. Worse, an unquestioning belief that there are no other options. 

Sadly, while I'm the full bottle on the problems, I'm not much chop at inventive solutions. Some researchers suggest using creativity as a pathway to learning, rather than an outcome. And they're not necessarily talking about shadow puppetry or interpretive dance here – although I think the embrace of the latter format by Science magazine's "Dance your PhD" is priceless. 

Whatever form it takes though, it's not just kids with learning differences who may benefit from an education model that places greater value on things like innovation, improvisation and imagination – qualities, incidentally, that can't be replicated by a machine.

But until it does, all there is – for my square peg in a round hole – is slow, painful, incremental change. He may not thrive, but he will, I hope, survive.

Sarah Gill is an Age columnist.