What Can Old School Report Cards Reveal About ADHD?

ADHD school report cards

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

Professional evaluations for Adult ADHD should ask about ADHD-related challenges as a child.  Sometimes a parent isn’t available—or isn’t an entirely accurate reporter. Still hanging on to your childhood school report cards? They might come in handy—or at least be illuminating.

Case in point: the childhood reports (below)  for San Diego-based psychotherapist and ADHD specialist Lew Mills, Psy D. He graciously agreed to share them here. Even when we met, in the 1990s, Lew was a veteran ADHD advocate and clinician.

Looking for ADHD in School Report Cards

To be clear: professional evaluations for Adult ADHD should not require school records. When I hear from readers whose physicians make them mandatory, 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 first having 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. They might also benefit from a well-organized household and support. They hit the “ADHD Ceiling”  only when entering the “real world.”

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 school report cards

“His Lack of Self-Control”

Grade: One.  November 19, 1962

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.

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

Mrs G. reports that 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”

Grade: One. April 8, 1963

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 school report cards

“Ups and Downs”

English, Grade 6.  March 7, 1968

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 school 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.

school age report cards point to ADHD

“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

40 thoughts on “What Can Old School Report Cards Reveal About ADHD?”

  1. My husband had a sad story.

    He never did well in elementary school. he couldn’t read and the teacher used to send notes home that he was distracting the other students. He loved math however and always did that work. He was punished and spanked many times for not completing his school work.

    Finally, he was sent to boarding school for bad boys. He graduated at age 13. He went to middle and high school developing an interest for the arts.

    Although its been a difficult 47 years of marriage, he was diagnosed 10 years ago and now he is aware of some of his behavior and tries to correct it. At 68 , he loves to read and has read many books. It’s never too late.

    1. Dear Winnie,

      Indeed it’s never too late. I’ve met newly diagnosed folks well into their 80s.

      But how much unnecessary human suffering…..to have ADHD “fly under the radar” over so many years, for so many people.

      I’m glad he and you have gotten the explanations and help you deserve.

      best
      G

  2. The most common comments on my report cards were “daydreams in class too much,” “always distracted,” and “doesn’t pay attention.” I told my psychiatrist this, and he asked how they possibly missed it for so long. My only possible answer was that back then, they didn’t think that girls had ADHD and if they did, it was of the same hyperactive variety that the boys had.

    1. Hi Elaine,

      That’s one explanation. A clear one.

      I suspect another might be that all kinds of things can be going on with a child to cause similar behaviors. Problems at home. Poor sleep. Poor diet. Just not interested in school.

      And teachers can only point to the issues. Not “diagnose.” Even if they understood the puzzling presentations of ADHD.

      cheers
      Gina

  3. Reading teacher comments on old school report cards ( not the grades themselves) is truly a tell-tale way to see ADHD. I have a grandson who is 11, diagnosed with ADHD and on Concerta ER. He had many remarks by his 2nd and 3rd grade teacher ( only 6 months in person schooling, the remainder was virtual) similar to Lewis’ teachers’ remarks. Now, his 2nd grade brother is getting similar comments like “ sloppy printing, talks incessantly, has difficulty completing tasks on time,” he even has signs of dyslexia— but excels in oral completion of what usually is written (spelling test, etc.). Maybe his 2nd grade teacher comments on his progress reports/ report cards should be looked at in the “ADHD light.”

    1. Hi Christine,

      Wow, “sloppy printing, talks incessantly, has difficulty completing tasks on time” ….. and “signs of dyslexia.”

      How many more red flags for ADHD do they need?

      Many parents know when their child’s ADHD medication is wearing off because their handwriting turns from legible to a scrawl.

      “Dyslexia” is a common misdiagnosis for ADHD-related challenges with reading. I’m very cautious of any “diagnoses” from educational specialists.

      best of luck to both,
      g

  4. This made me cry. It’s my husband’s story, too. He started elementary school in 1960. He didn’t learn to read until 3rd grade. No one gave him support at home or at school; he was constantly chastised for being lazy, disinterested, or fidgety. Somehow he got through college and law school. ADD was diagnosed in his late 30’s, after we were married. He’s since learned so much about his brain and how to do his best work, but still carries scars from his school years. Because of my husband’s experience, we were on it from the start with our son, who was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia early on and received support all through school and today believes in himself and has the job he always dreamed of. My husband’s experience paved the way for our son’s success and watching our son validated for my husband his own condition. I ended up in the land of ADHD unknowingly and it’s been a journey, but I count my blessings to have these two good men in my life.

    1. Dear Linda Jean,

      Hats off to you and your husband.

      Some late-diagnosis adults with ADHD, having experienced similar, become a sworn enemy of the diagnosis. At the very least, they seem to believe, “I did fine without drugs, my child doesn’t need drugs, either.”

      It takes a big, thinking, compassionate person to learn about ADHD — and want differently for their son. Same for the co-parent.

      Congratulations to you all.

      g

  5. Thank you for this article! This has helped me a lot with knowing what to look for with my assessment. I have a fair few of these on some of my reports. Much appreciated!

    1. Hi Star,

      You’re welcome!

      You might also be interested in this post, on how evaluations should go: https://adhdrollercoaster.org/the-basics-about-adult-adhd/the-adult-adhd-diagnosis-how-is-it-made/

      I cannot over-emphasize the importance of self-education and self-advocacy, with evaluation, medication, etc.. It was not great before COVID but since…..shew.

      I devoted a detailed step in my course to the evaluation — how it should go, how you can help it along, and getting very familiar with the DSM criteria. This helps to establish treatment goals and track progress.

      https://ginapera.adhdsuccesstraining.com/solvingyouradultadhdpuzzle

      good luck!
      Gina

    1. Hi Kim,

      Wow. You’d think somebody would have caught on!

      Maybe they would have if you hadn’t been so darn pleasurable to teach! 🙂

      g

  6. 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.

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