Early intervention is critical to support students in the classroom, but what happens if students struggle in differently simply due to gender?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people of all genders, yet the way it manifests and is diagnosed can vary significantly between boys and girls. Rachel Smathers ’23, primary childhood education, spent her summer on a research project through Capital’s Summer Scholars program, looking at the different symptoms girls exhibit and developing strategies to improve early diagnosis.
“Boys, through no fault of their own, tend to present ADHD in ways that we are all aware of. If you imagine a person with ADHD, you are probably imagining someone like Bart Simpson or Luke from Modern Family or something cliché like that, little boys with externalized hyperactive symptoms of ADHD,” said Smathers. “It’s literally the polar opposite for girls. They primarily have internalized symptoms, so their struggle is rarely seen on the outside for doctors, parents, or even educators to see. Symptoms can be emotional regulation issues, anxiety, depression, or social cues misunderstanding.”
As Smathers explains in her research paper, a more public understanding of ADHD in boys has led to a diagnostic bias that has historically disadvantaged girls. Early diagnosis can be a game changer, and educators are often the first to identify students who may benefit from early intervention.
“For my research, the best place to start was with primary education teachers. They are the starting point for spreading awareness in the most realistic way,” said Smathers.
“ADHD can present as early as preschool, so children 3 to 5 years old. ADHD symptoms start to worsen around 8 to 10 years old with comorbidities that can develop into disorders for students around 13 years old. For example, anxiety can develop into anxiety disorder. Based on the timeline, symptoms can worsen if early intervention isn’t offered.”
As someone diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, Smathers is closely connected to the topic on a personal level.
“I grew up as a young girl with ADHD in the classroom without a diagnosis. I struggled, and my teachers really didn’t know how to help me, because they weren’t getting trained properly on the full scope of how ADHD presents,” said Smathers. “Teachers don’t have the time to learn everything, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to do so. Plus, class sizes are getting bigger, making it harder for teachers to offer individualized learning.”
By raising awareness, improving assessment tools, and providing individualized support, Smathers is working to ensure that girls with ADHD receive the help they need to thrive academically and socially.
“The project has a lot of moving parts to it. Part one was delving into the differences in symptoms between boys and girls, with a specific focus on how girls with ADHD present. The second part was looking at support options, including what training and resources already exist in the classroom for teachers,” said Smathers. “The third and final part was creating a condensed and simplified workshop for teachers to start to raise awareness and improve early diagnosis rates for long-term success.”
As Smathers heads to the classroom for student teaching and then as a professional educator, she hopes her research and knowledge will help offer support and early detection to girls with ADHD who may have previously been overlooked.
Through Summer Scholars, Capital supports undergraduate students in their research pursuits. The 10-week experience connects students with a faculty mentor, plus awards a stipend. All Summer Scholars present their work to the Capital community at the end of the summer and at the Symposium on Undergraduate Scholarship the year following completion of the Summer Scholar experience.
To learn more about the Summer Scholars Program, visit https://www.capital.edu/academics/experiential-learning/undergraduate-research/summer-scholars-program/.
To learn more about education at Capital, visit https://www.capital.edu/academics/education/.