Discipline and Students with ADHD in Charter Schools

guest blog by Deanna Christian, Esq.,
CHADD Public Policy Committee


At eight years old, Michael was diagnosed with ADHD. The traditional city school he attended declined to evaluate him to determine eligibility for special education and related services because his grades were above average.

Instead, the school provided Michael with minimal accommodations through a 504 plan. As the years progressed, Michael’s grades began to decline, and his teachers reported minor problem behaviors in class. The school failed to address these concerns.

Michael’s mom heard that one of the local charter schools offered innovative programs and small class sizes. After touring the school and discussing his diagnosis with a school administrator, she decided to enroll him at the charter school for sixth grade, hoping the school would be a good fit and help him succeed.

What Michael’s mom did not know before she enrolled him was that the charter school enforced a very strict disciplinary policy. Due to Michael’s disability, it was very difficult for him to conform his behavior to the school’s rigid policies. He began to receive frequent disciplinary infractions for not paying attention in class, not following directions, off-task behavior, and poor homework completion. The accumulation of these minor infractions triggered daily after-school detentions. As per school policy, Michael was also prohibited from attending activities, class trips, or participating in sports with his peers.

Michael was removed from class several times a week to spend the period in the dean’s office for “problem” behaviors such as talking, fidgeting in his chair, and not actively participating in the lesson. Whenever he became upset about a consequence or tried to explain himself, he was assigned an out-of-school suspension for disrespect or defiance.

By the end of eighth grade, Michael had thirty out-of-school suspensions. As a direct result of his numerous suspensions and other classroom exclusions, he failed every academic class and was in danger of being retained. For three years, Michael did not qualify to attend any class trips or school dances. Labeled as one of the “bad kids” by teachers and peers, he felt discouraged and defeated in his school setting. Rather than provide Michael with child study team evaluations at his parents’ written request, school administrators advised his parents that the charter school might not be the right fit for him.

Charter schools and student discipline

Michael’s story is a fictional narrative created from a collection of real life experiences of children with ADHD. Unfortunately, it has become all too common for such scenarios to occur—for discipline to be applied without regard to disability or used in a punitive manner and often in place of evaluations and supports. For students with special needs, the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that governs special education, emphasizes the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports to address behavior. Further, suspensions and other classroom exclusions of children with special needs for behaviors related to their disability may violate anti-discrimination laws.

While exclusionary discipline practices persist across the educational landscape in the United States, it may be a more serious concern in charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools run by a private board of trustees, and are granted more autonomy and flexibility for educational innovation in exchange for increased academic achievement. On the national stage, charter schools have gained prestige among champions of school choice as beacons of hope for children in failing school districts and safe havens for learning. Critics have raised concerns about equity and access in charter schools for children with special needs and other at-risk populations.

Charter schools educate fewer children with special needs on average than traditional public schools. Proponents of charter schools claim the sector’s robust interventions and supports provide students a strong foundation and prevent over-classification. Others believe that militant disciplinary policies employed by some charter schools may be one factor in discouraging parents of children with disabilities from applying or may contribute to pushing out struggling students who are already enrolled.

Charter schools that fail to improve student outcomes risk closure. With state pressure for high academic performance, charter schools have co-evolved strict behavioral standards and expectations to prevent distractions from learning. Unfortunately, these policies can at times discriminate against children with certain disabilities.

Paycheck system leaves students in behavioral debt

In the charter school sector, the use of a “paycheck system” or “point system” has become an increasingly popular method to curb problem behaviors in the classroom. Students are expected to maintain a weekly “paycheck” or “points” balance by earning “dollars” or “points” for positive behaviors, while also receiving deductions for minor misbehaviors. For those students who do not meet the weekly goal, consequences can include weeklong detentions and silent lunches. They are often ineligible for school activities and trips.

At first glance, this behavioral intervention model may seem benign; it has even received praise as an effective method of disciplining inner-city children. But it can be demoralizing for children with behavioral disabilities who consistently fail to achieve an impossible goal. For children with ADHD, many of the infractions, such as off-task behavior, are directly related to their disability. It may also be more difficult for them to achieve the commendable behaviors that receive positive rewards at the same rate or frequency as children without disabilities.

The paycheck system is not used in every charter school. Just as with any other public school, charter schools’ policies and procedures vary significantly. However, recent studies have sparked concern regarding discipline of special needs students in charter schools. A report issued by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found, nationally, that suspension rates for children with disabilities were 16 percent higher in charter schools than in their traditional school counterparts.

High suspension rates in charter schools are particularly troublesome since out-of-school suspensions are directly related to increased dropout rates and future incarceration, particularly for students of color and those with special needs. As a result, there has been a push nationwide to decrease suspensions and other forms of classroom exclusions and implement new approaches to discipline.

Charter schools may continue to struggle in this area, even those with the best intentions. Problems with addressing behavioral challenges are only compounded in schools that lack resources to employ an adequate number of certified special education teachers or maintain a variety of placements. Charter schools, which are often smaller and may have fewer resources than traditional schools, may feel ill-equipped to manage problem behaviors while maintaining a structured, safe environment.

Questions for parents to ask about charter school policies

Children with ADHD are disproportionally affected when harsh disciplinary policies are applied without accounting for their disability. It is discriminatory to exclude children from their learning environment activities with peers because of behaviors over which they have no control. Such actions may amount to a denial of a free and appropriate public education.

So, what should parents of children with ADHD do if they are considering enrolling their children in a charter school? Low special education enrollment and high suspension rates in charter schools throughout the nation should prompt them to ask more questions and explore the policies of each school individually. Some questions to ask include:

  • What are the school’s policies around disciplinary action?
  • What efforts are made to use positive behavioral interventions to address discipline?
  • What training do general education teachers receive to work with children with special needs, including ADHD and learning disabilities?
  • Does the school have an adequate number of special education teachers?
  • Does the school have a variety of placement options available?

CHADD’s public policy committee invites parents of children with ADHD who attend charter schools to share their experiences with us. We look forward to hearing from you about disciplinary policies—including problems, concerns, and best practices—as well as successes at charter schools.

Contact the public policy committee with your story at PPC@CHADD.org.



Deanna Christian, Esq., is an attorney who specializes in advocating for children with disabilities and a member of CHADD’s public policy committee. After graduating from Rutgers University Law School at the top of her class, she designed and received grant funding for a project that explored how charter schools in New Jersey serve children with disabilities. As part of her project, she provided direct legal representation for low-income families of children with disabilities who attended charter schools in Newark, New Jersey; organized and presented at various community workshops and hospital case rounds on the topic of charter schools and children with disabilities; and researched discipline data for children with disabilities throughout the state. She has also presented her charter school research at continuing legal education programs and research conferences.


  1. Scott Craig on March 7, 2019 at 10:22 pm

    Hello Ms. Christian,
    Thank you for your report on Charter Schools and ADHD.
    Your reporting and developed insights on the subject are helpful and encouraging to me in my work, studies, and home life.
    I appreciated the spotlight (understanding the composite nature of Michael’s story) being placed on the dramatic attention given to corrective actions by educators. The swift, take-no-prisoners mentality of discipline may represent a pure-hearted effort to help the student achieve greater (and expected) success. Though sadly, as you reported, the strict nature of student behavior modification attempts stems often from fear of school failure to meet academic standards. Follow the money.
    What does our friend Mr. Peter Shankman call the schoolhouse behavior dysregulated student problem…? the “Sit down, shut up you’re disrupting the rest of the class” disease”? or something like that (apologies to Mr. Shankman if I have it wrong).

    Ms. Christian, I found your writing to be accurate, helpful and encouraging. Thank you.

    Scott Craig
    Teacher to Special needs students
    Masters in Counseling student
    Adult with ADD

  2. Lucinda Bowman on March 8, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    I couldn’t agree with this article more. My son with ADHD attended a public school charter from Kindergarten through half of 4th grade, but I ended up pulling him out mid-year due to unaddressed bullying, ineffective and punishing behavior management techniques, and a hostile, non-self-regulating teacher. It turned out that a traditional public school was the answer.

    We were initially drawn to the charter school for its innovative teaching methods, small class sizes and community enriched programming. My son existed there but never thrived. With a huge teacher turnover and ill-equipped special education teacher, my son was not getting the attention nor care that he needed and deserved. As the years rolled on, I witnessed a significant increase in the number of students with special needs attend the charter. With a large special education population, one would think that the services would not only increase but improve, but I was wrong. The charter school seemed to be drowning in a sea of unaddressed behavior difficulties across all grades and classes with no end in sight. My son was swept up in the dysregulation and dysfunction of his classroom, which only exacerbated the symptoms of his ADHD. We had to leave.

    For about a month, we unsuccessfully homeschooled my son while we looked for other school options. Other charter schools were full, and our neighborhood school not only had the lowest rating, 1 out of 10 on Greatschools.org, but we knew several children from the neighborhood who attended the school who were aggressive bullies who engaged in burglary, theft and violence. That school was not an option for my son. We looked at a public school just out of our neighborhood boundary that had a score of 4 on Greatschools.org and where several friend’s children attended. I did some research on the school and like what I saw. It was structured and predictable, had a strong special education teacher and related supports and offered more traditional school programming such as library, STEM, music and PE, that the charter didn’t offer. This school seemed worth a try for my son, so we petitioned to attend this school. A few weeks later, our petition was accepted and my son started attending the local public school.

    On his first day of school, he came home stating that he not only had 11 new friends but that he LOVED the new school and teacher. I couldn’t believe my ears! It was the first time I had heard him say that he “loved” school. Truly remarkable and unexpected! What this school offered my son was the structure and support he needed that the charter wasn’t able to supply. The fact that his new class and traditional public school was the right fit for my son seemed counter-intuitive yet it was a combination of the structure, special education supports and a school culture that valued and expressed kindness. These were the elements of school that my son needed and finding a combination of all of these was essential to his well-being.

  3. bill irwin on March 14, 2019 at 4:18 am

    First off, you nailed it. We have used two charter schools and pulled our children from both.
    1. First school actively weeded out those students that did not raise their rankings. The waiting list justified their efforts and lord help the principal that tried to support a kid. This was the school that you nailed in the description.
    2. Second school was a weird one. The school had a 50% student turnover rate during the year. Rankings were 1 point from being underachieving, and the principal encouraged us to look for alternatives because he could not get support from district to make changes. Again, the waiting list was so long they could afford 300 kids leaving, they just got backfilled.

    accountability is definitely lacking and the bottom line is the driver. The teachers also appear to be victims

  4. Reema Dixon on September 9, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    This blog is spot on. I work at a socialization development camp called Camp Sequoia, where our program helps high functioning non-neurotypical children, and we see this all the time and hear it from all of our parents. Not accepting students where they are while denying that they need any support in the classroom leads to punishing them for their disabilities, when otherwise they are brilliant kids who are just missing the social piece they need to be able to “follow the rules”. By not taking this into account, we constantly hear that they are used to missing trips, failing to connect with peers because they are left out of activities, and fall behind in their studies due to disciplinary actions. I’ve always been proud to work somewhere where we accept kids where they are at and give them the one on one support they need to help them become the best version of themselves instead of disadvantaging them through harsh disciplinary action.

  5. Becky Wooten on September 21, 2019 at 4:23 am

    Yes! I couldn’t agree with this article more! My son had an amazing few weeks of school and then was given out if school suspension for telling a student “screw you.” He missed his 1st football game of the season due to the suspension. Returned to school the next day and the day after was suspended again, this time for 3 days for saying “frick you.” (And will also miss another football game and may get kicked off the team.) I’m at odds. How are there not more creative lines of discipline then OSS? Do I move him to a public school where there is more support for students dealing with ADHD, behavioral issues? Or should I stick it out? 🤦‍♀️

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