What Can Childhood Report Cards Reveal About ADHD?

ADHD childhood report cards

I’ve seen them: Childhood report cards that might as well be ADHD report cards—if teachers and parents had known how to read them. In this post, I’ll share the report cards from one man diagnosed later in life with ADHD.

When undergoing a professional evaluation for Adult ADHD, you might be asked if you had ADHD-related challenges as a child.  Sometimes a parent isn’t available—or isn’t an entirely accurate reporter. If you are still hanging on to your childhood school report cards, they might come in handy.

Case in point: the childhood reports (below)  for San Diego-based psychotherapist and ADHD specialist Lew Mills. He has graciously agreed to share them here. He is a powerful ADHD advocate, beginning way back in the 1990s, when we met.

Looking for Clues in “ADHD Report Cards”

Such records aren’t mandatory. When I hear from readers whose physicians demand such, I suspect these clinicians aren’t entirely expert in ADHD. Or it might just be a wearing-you-down obstacle to diagnosis. The goal? Limit the number of people receiving ADHD treatment through a national health system or managed care provider.

In some countries, an adult ADHD diagnosis depends on a childhood diagnosis; never mind that when these folks were children, pediatric ADHD wasn’t much on the radar. There’s a nice little Catch-22 there.

The official diagnostic criteria for Adult ADHD does include this condition:  Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present before age 12 years. The leading ADHD experts I have asked about this, however, explain that this is more suggested than required. We have to consider the larger picture, the other factors.

Even if your school days were stellar—full of friends, high grades, and positive reports—that doesn’t mean you didn’t have ADHD. Plenty of bright kids with undiagnosed ADHD can compensate, sometimes all the way through college, only to fall flat when entering the “real world.” They might also benefit from a well-organized household and support.

From an early age, though, Lew’s teachers were detecting something amiss with their bright little charge.   See if you can detect the red flags.

ADHD report cards

“His Lack of Self-Control”

November 19, 1962

Grade: One

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Mills,

Lew Mills, First Grade

Lewis has been doing satisfactory work usually, however, his lack of self-control often interferes with his learning during quiet or written work. He misses directions and frequently does not finish. He also disturbs and interrupts the other children. He needs to be spoken to about this.

Mrs. B. reports that Lewis would rather talk or sit crooked on his chair or watch his neighbors than write. At first, he couldn’t get a lesson finished because of this but he is doing better work now.

Lewis has a very short attention span for group play but performs the basic skills in physical education well. 
- Mrs. C.

Lewis has difficulty paying attention long enough to learn the words to a song but when he does he sings it fairly well. 
- Mrs. G.

Sincerely,

Gloria H.

ADHD report cards

“Wiggly Worm”

April 8, 1963

Grade: One

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Mills,

Lewis has accomplished a great deal this year…His achievement scores show he is well above public school grade level and in the upper half of all first graders in independent schools.

Lewis has a particularly fine understanding of number relationships; however, he is handicapped in his classroom work by his inability to work fast.

Lewis is generally the last student to hand in his work and he frequently has several papers on his desk waiting to be finished. He continues to be a wiggly worm but his attention span has increased a great deal. I have enjoyed being Louie’s first-grade teacher.

Mrs. G. reports that Lewis is still very easily distracted but he can sing well when he tries.

Mrs. C. reports that Lewis has improved in his individual skills and enjoyment for group play.

Sincerely,

Gloria H.

ADHD report cards

“Ups and Downs”

March 7, 1968

English, Grade 6:

Lewis is really going through “ups and downs” right now.

He has a keen insight into many facets of the grammar, composition, and literature comprehension aspects of the English this year. He’d far rather relate these orally than in written form.

His subtle sense of humor gets him into all kinds of “jams” which a better sense of self-direction would have appeared on paper.

One can intentionally increase an attention span — it’s like exercise, Lewis. Work harder so the effective things you want to say will get the notice they deserve; the quality of your thought is diluted by the careless, ineffectual way you put it to paper. You have something to say; now say it effectively!

Jean C.

ADHD report cards

“Erratic”

June 6, 1968

English, Grade 6:

Lewis’s work for the year can best be described as erratic. He has turned in work ranging from poor to superior depending on the amount of time, effort and thought he gave it. …

His compositions have shown considerable sensitivity in content, but poor to impossible mechanics and appearance of papers.

If Lewis can bring up the level of neatness and accuracy in his written work, that is, care more, he can do excellent work in English

Jean C.

ADHD report cards

“Inconsistent, Superficial”

October 31, 1968

English, Grade 7:

Attitude: Inconsistent

Work Habits: Superficial

Progress and Achievement: Adequate

Lewis has shown flashes of thorough preparation and sustained effort so far this term. He is better about promptness and completeness of papers. However, we need to help him organize his time, materials and self-direction. His inattentiveness for a large portion of the class time is a handicap to him when he wants to get to the job — he is vague or unsure what it was that was assigned or discussed. Seldom has he brought the appropriate materials to class; often he is removed from what is relevant in class. When he’s alert and accurate, he does very good work. Much too often he is erratic and distracted.

Jean C.

ADHD report cards

“A Great Deal of Ability, Sloppy”

October 31, 1968

History and Anthropology, Grade 7:

Attitude: poor

Work Habits: sloppy and disorganized

Progress and Achievement: little, if any

Lewis has a great deal of ability which he does not apply to his work. His written assignments are sloppy, barely perfunctory attempts to complete the assignment. He can contribute in class and occasionally will do so but it doesn’t happen often. His behavior tends to be disruptive. I hope the material we will be covering next will catch his interest because his ability is obvious.

Doug S.

ADHD report cards

“Mastery Good When He  Works”

June 5, 1970

French, Grade 8:

Lewis seemed to make progress only when I was able to keep track of his studying every five minutes. Assignments even one day ahead of time were too distant to have any effect on his work habits in class. When he learns to study without someone to look over his shoulder, which is impossible even in a class often, he’ll do just fine in French; his mastery of the skills is very good when he works. ????

Mr. H.

————–

Lew was diagnosed well into adulthood, and devoted considerable energies as a volunteer and treating professional to create more awareness about the reality of ADHD.  Here he is with his school-age son.Lew Mills, Phd

28 thoughts on “What Can Childhood Report Cards Reveal About ADHD?”

  1. My favorite comment was “…she talks incessantly…” Hey, it’s one of our family traditions! Nobody knew diddly-squat about ADD or ADHD back in those days. I didn’t learn about the root cause of our “family tradition” until I was in my 30s and my kids were in grade school.

  2. The report cards you quoted from sound a lot like mine. From Kindergarten through 5th grade, I often received unsatisfactory marks for things like “Completes Work,” “Listens and Follows Directions,” “Self Control,” and “Uses Free Time Wisely”. And teachers wrote comments in my report cards through the 7th grade such as these:

    “Matthew does not complete assignments.”

    “Matthew does good work but works very slowly. It is difficult for him to complete work on time.”

    “Matthew needs to be more organized.”

    “When interested in a topic, Matthew’s comprehension is excellent.”

    “Matthew has ability, but could apply himself better.”

    “Matthew has difficulty getting started…”

    “needed more sustained effort than Matthew gave..”

    “Sometimes has difficulty retaining skills of material studied previously”

    “Slow and uncertain in his approach. Works well in a structured situation. Interested, but dreamy, lack of concentration gives results below his ability.”

    1. Hi Matthew,

      Wow, all the red flags are there, aren’t they? And rather objectively reported (that is, not castigating your character, etc.).

      If only someone knew what to do with that information.

      Thank you for sharing those details.

      You know what I’d love to do? Create a collection of these report…photos of them. Noting at what age the person was finally diagnosed.

      If you can send photos and are interested, please do!

      G

    2. Jenny Livingston

      I’ve only recently come across the possibility that I have ADHD and I looked back at my report cards yesterday. Many of mine says the same as yours.

      I was horrible in math and had to get a tutor in the summer for maths and English, I had extra help at the school for both as well.

      Handing in assignments on time was a constant issue through all grades.

      I forgot math concepts shortly after learning them, had difficulty memorizing the multiplication tables, and used a chart well past the time the school thought I should have.

      I forgot books at home and was always being told I needed to apply myself more.

      When I was interested in topics I did very well. They usually included reading, creative writing, Environmental Studies, and crafts, or Art.

      I think it’s time that I get checked, I really think it would make my current situation at school much easier if I was receiving treatment or assistance.

    3. Hi Jenny,

      Definitely, you suspect ADHD might be an issue for you, it’s worth learning about.

      I would start with self-education, though, and not overly rely on the average mental-health professional to recognize ADHD. There are too many other issues ADHD can be mistaken for (as several guest essays on my blog attest). Also: ADHD in females is more poorly understood by even some professionals with ADHD expertise.

      Good luck!
      g

  3. This report card reminds me of mine…
    kim talks to much i had to move her more than once
    kim is inattentive, never has writing tools .
    kim is not finishing her assignments outside of class
    kim is not understanding mathematical rules and remembering multiplication tables.
    talks too much
    talks too much
    inattentive

    1. Hi Kim,

      🙁

      And never a suggestion as to how you might be helped? I’m so sorry.

      If you have those handy, I’d love to share some pix. I am asking all my friends who still have their report cards.

      best,
      g

  4. Gina, I am so excited to have found this site and I am looking forward to reading your book. My 11 year old son was diagnosed this summer and the entire process has been so eye-opening as to why my husband behaves the way he does. When I filled out the diagnostic for my son and met with the physician (who has an ADHD son), I felt I had hit the jackpot of marital hope. Of course, convincing my husband that he could be helped by treatment is a giant hurdle. Convincing my husband that our son can be helped by treatment is also a challenge but I’m doing my own research so I can be the best advocate possible for him.

    You’re right about all the adult ADD press lately – the Today show segment was timely to my situation. (It figures my husband had to leave the room and couldn’t wait for it to air even though we knew it was coming on shortly by the teasers.)

    I’m going to read your book by myself and let it settle as you recommend. I feel one weight being lifted due to understanding, but another one coming on as to how to move on together.

    1. Hi Stacey and welcome aboard the ADHD roller coaster! Our goal is to make the ride more fun and less bone-rattling. 😉

      Yes, PLEASE read the book thoroughly first — especially the Success Strategies on getting through denial, following a medication protocol, and finding the right kind of therapy. I wrote my book to be a consumer’s guide to solid strategies for ADHD. It will help you to know how to select a clinician and work with that clinician for best results. You CANNOT expect just any physician or therapist to know the ropes. Self-advocacy is definitely the way to go when it comes to ADHD — or really any health issue.

      As for the weight coming on, my book should save you many wrong turns that can destroy hope and optimism (not to mention the budget). Just do what it says, and no one gets hurt. lol!

      g

  5. Oh, and Mungo, I don’t know if reading my book together is the best strategy. :-0

    Sometimes it’s best for each person in the couple to read it independently first.

    If ADHD has gone unrecognized long enough – and created enough hurt to the relationship – reading the book can be like breaking a damn. The validation, the explanations, the fact that there is a treatment (and therefore so much of the hurt and confusion was unnecessary)…..this can all prove emotionally overwhelming for some poeple. It’s best that they have some time to themselves to let the emotions settle down.

    This goes for both people in the couple.

    I also wrote it to be a guide for adults with ADHD to understanding the core issues with ADHD as well as the subtle ones. Moreover, consider it a consumer’s guide to

    –finding the most effective therapy (the basics of CBT for ADHD are explained via my interview with UPenn psycologist and ADHD expert Russ Ramsay)
    — getting the best results from medication (the medication protocol is detailed by ADHD expert Margaret Weiss, MD).

    In other words, though the subtitle and the “voice” of the book directly addresses the partners of adults with ADHD, it is a fully useful book to any adult with ADHD, in a relationship or not.

    And many say they also it helped them to understand the impact of their unrecognzied ADHD symptoms on others.

  6. And Bobcat, my tireless energy is a marvel to me, too! I marvel at where it went! lol!

    Actually, it lasted a pretty good long time. I’ve been raising heck on the Internet about the reality of ADHD for about TEN years now. (Boy, did I take some flak, too.) And now you can Google “Adult ADHD” and everybody and his duck has a website devoted to it now. Amazing.

    I do appreciate your noticing, though. This little mission of mine has been a giant labor of love, and it means a lot to me to know that it makes a difference to someone. 🙂

  7. Hi Mungo,

    I just read your post and left a comment. Your teacher was “disappointed.” Did anyone ask how YOU felt about your school experience? 😉

    Hi Lisa,

    It’s amazing how hard it is, even now, to get people to understand that “hyperactivity” in girls can look like “Chatty Cathy” syndrome. I’m glad you’re feeling that diagnosis, etc. has been worth it.

    Hi Sue,

    Yes indeed. I’ve just spent the afternoon with a friend who is a renowned nurse educator (critical care). Highly accomplished. Accustomed to dealing with high-level surgeons, hospital directors, etc.

    But when I hear about her child’s lingering symptoms and side effects from ADHD meds and I encourage her to be more pro-active with the prescribing physician, she hardly knows how to proceed. Yes, it can be intimidating dealing with some psychiatrists, but in my experience, the best ADHD treatment outcomes seldom come to the passive patient (or parent).

  8. Hi Mungo,

    I just read your post and left a comment. Your teacher was “disappointed.” Did anyone ask how YOU felt about your school experience? 😉

    Hi Lisa,

    It’s amazing how hard it is, even now, to get people to understand that “hyperactivity” in girls can look like “Chatty Cathy” syndrome. I’m glad you’re feeling that diagnosis, etc. has been worth it.

    Hi Sue,

    Yes indeed. I’ve just spent the afternoon with a friend who is a renowned nurse educator (critical care). Highly accomplished. Accustomed to dealing with high-level surgeons, hospital directors, etc.

    But when I hear about her child’s lingering symptoms and side effects from ADHD meds and I encourage her to be more pro-active with the prescribing physician, she hardly knows how to proceed. Yes, it can be intimidating dealing with some psychiatrists, but in my experience, the best ADHD treatment outcomes seldom come to the passive patient (or parent).

  9. Hi Bobcat,

    Sorry for late response. Yes, I figured that lack of resources in your area was the reason for your not yet having an evaluation. It’s a problem in many areas. I’m glad that you found a local lead and hope it proves helpful.

    it really pays to get educated so that you can advocate for yourself. The more you know, the better you can keep persevering until you find effective help. And not settle for less!

    There seems to be skyrocketing awareness of Adult ADHD now, so let’s hope the resources are growing, too.

    Please keep us posted.

  10. I have similar comments on my gradeschool report cards. In junior high and high school I had problems with talking, especially in classes like chemistry, where we shared tables. I spent a fair amount of time in front of the teacher’s desk. I also had issues with “not paying attention”…drifting off, doodling, etc. I was an irritant to some of my teachers, for sure.
    It’s been harder for me to compensate for my ADHD as demands get higher. When I was in college I wasn’t able to compensate very well, but I did graduate after a long time, with a very spotty transcript. But I haven’t been able to hold a job since.
    Now, with treatment, I’m working on things and it’s going much better.

    For all you guys who are seeking diagnosis and treatment, I wish you all luck! I know it’s been a long, hard road to this point. It does take some work to figure out your ADHD…meds and therapy/coaching, but it’s totally worth it.

  11. Thanks for sharing this. It is heart breaking to see how kids are judged and held to unattainable expectations. Even after all these years of increased awareness and education, I find that the parent of a child with ADD still needs to be the expert and of course, the advocate. It is even worse if you have a child with “borderline” ADD. These articles are priceless to me. Every little bit of information helps in trying to raise a confident child with healthy self-esteem. Thanks!
    Sue

  12. Hello Gina,
    I really enjoy your writing, and your site is so useful to read through. I’m planning on buying Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D. to read with my wife – ADHD sure can affect a relationship.

    re: your post above, I gathered my school reports together for my diagnosis (at age 39) and I was amazed to review them. I’d always avoided reading them, because it just made me feel so anxious, and I felt like such a failure. Knowing about my diagnosis has put everything in a new light though.

    Hopefully I can share my teachers’ remarks and report cards here:

    http://www.mungosadhd.com/2010/04/historical-autobiographical-documents.html

    Thanks,

    Mungo

  13. Gina,
    Thanks for the response. I REALLY appreciate what you do. Your tireless advocacy for those of us with this “condition” is a true marvel to me.

    As for why I’m waiting for a Dx: It wasn’t for lack of trying. For many years there simply wasn’t ANY support or services for ADHD in my area. Especially nothing for ADDults. After a while I gave up. The only help available was for depression. I only started digging for it again when I started contemplating re-training. (I was laid off a few months ago.) There was a chance encounter with a local Learning Disability Association over the internet that pointed me in the direction of a local clinic. I have no idea how long that has been around.

    I’ve asked for a referral from my GP. I’ve filled out a detailed questionnaire. I’m still waiting for that first face-to-face appointment.

    Regards,
    B665

  14. Bobcat — Thanks for visiting. I’m sorry to hear that ADHD was flying under the radar screen on your report cards, too. That’s great that you still have them. Why are you waiting on the diagnosis, though? You can’t find a competent clinician in your area to conduct an evaluation?

    Hi Pam, Thanks for sharing that great resource (help4adhd.org). The guides are also in Spanish, FYI.

    I should point out, though, that Lew (and his parents and teachers) didn’t know he had ADHD when he was in grade school. They also mostly didn’t know then that ADHD is highly treatable in the majority of cases. Today, we do know that.

    So, I’m not sure why an educational advocate would provide such a response. It would seem to me to set up more problems for children with ADHD, to disallow the role that medical treatment often plays, in conjunction with accommodations. Moreover, it surely seems unfair to the child.

  15. When we would receive these kinds of teacher comments, our educational advocate used to reply: “Thank you for confirming our child’s ADHD diagnosis. Unfortunately since those are all symptoms of his condition, there is not much he can do about them.” Then she would hand the teacher written materials about the symptoms of ADHD such as the CHADD ‘What we know” FACT sheets from:
    http://www.help4adhd.org/en/treatment/guides/dsm

  16. Yes, Teresa, “talk to your child.” As if being told to stop fidgeting is all it takes to cure ADHD.

    Even decades later, it’s heart-breaking to read these and see obvious signs of a boy trying to pay attention and “do well” in school — and having all the aptitude to succeed — but ADHD symptoms getting in the way.

  17. I am sure these “red flags” are very familiar to a lot of people.

    I always seem to get the same comment – please talk to your child about (not paying attention, not completing their work, being talkative, etc), even after the diagnosis and accommodations are in place.

    I am really not quite sure what I am supposed to say to my child about symptoms that they have little control over. Sigh… Thanks for the blog Gina and thanks for the report cards Lew.

  18. Been there, have similar report cards. The most painful part is the obvious moral judgment implicit in many of the comments. They are so certain that the child is choosing their behaviors intentionally.

  19. Man! Sounds a lot like my own sad grade school story. The difference is I’m quite alone where I am. No kids, no wife, no college education. I barely made it out of high-school, barely graduated. (Perhaps a more typical ADHD outcome?)
    Still waiting for a diagnosis. I’ve got the old reports cards ready, though.

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