Even before I had children, I always knew that the end of summer was near because of one specific commercial. I can see it now: a dad glides gleefully down a store aisle, gingerly tossing school supplies into his shopping cart as his children follow behind him. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” plays in the background as an announcer plugs the great sales on all things school-related at Staples.
As a student, I always loved purchasing school supplies. Putting dividers into new colorful binders and filling my pencil case was always so exciting. With each new year, came new possibilities and I truly looked forward to all of them. Even now, in returning to school as an adult, I get a little thrill each semester when purchasing textbooks and fresh packages of erasable pens. Dorky? Absolutely! However, completely true. I love being a student and assumed that my son would as well. How could he not? He is brilliant and always interested in learning. Most of our time together is spent answering questions about obscure subjects or listening to theories on even more abstract concepts. I mean, his hobbies include learning all about sharks (do you know what ovoviviparous breeding means? Because he does.) and building Rube Goldbergs. The very idea that school would not appeal to this child’s brain never even crossed my mind.
Like the dad in the commercial, I figured that back-to-school shopping for Man would bring me the same joy. I would relish in the excitement that he would get from a new folder covered in hammer head sharks and a new 12-inch ruler, as that meant he would get to measure things all day, another favorite pastime. I would meet him as he came running off the bus on the first day and listen intently as he eagerly told me all about his new teacher and all the fun they were going to have that year. A little unrealistic? Maybe, but in those early years especially, much of school should be relatively enjoyable. They should instill a joy of learning and an understanding of the importance of school.
This has not been the case for my Man and me. Every item purchased on the school supply list means just another thing that he must maintain and keep track of. And getting off the bus for those first few weeks, even months, I’m met with a child who is deeply saddened and frustrated by the day’s events. In that initial period, I get almost daily phone calls from the teacher and the vice principal, listing his challenges for that day. In those early months, every morning, I hear a little boy ask why school can’t be more like summer camp—an engineering-based camp that does hand-on, academic-based projects, mind you – and ask the question, “Do I really need to go today?” Every day, in these final weeks before school begins, I am filled with worry; will this year be the same as the one that came before it?
ADHD causes specific academic and behavioral challenges in students. Man has difficulty organizing and executing tasks, making in-class assignments very challenging. Once he feels like he can’t do something that every other child around him appears to be doing with ease, he does what he does best – runs off and does something else he knows will bring more success. For children with ADHD, their classroom challenges often manifest as poor behavior. Most of the time, they don’t even know where the challenge lies, or how to say, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing right now.” What they do know is that causing a disruption will get the attention of the teacher. It takes a savvy, patient teacher to understand this fact and to have the capability to find the root of the behavior and not just dole out immediate punishment.
Because children with ADHD are wired differently, their intelligence doesn’t present itself in the same way as their neurotypical counterparts. Man will never, EVER be the child that can complete classroom assignments with little to no assistance. He does not learn like other children do – lecturing from the front of the room and then expecting him to complete an assignment quietly at his desk is pretty much out of the question. He has already lost focus on what the teacher is saying by the second sentence; his thoughts began running wild with what was expressed in the first one. Therefore, he requires a lot of repetition and asks a lot of questions. Unfortunately, this can make him seem just average, or even slightly below. Thus, he is treated accordingly by all who must educate him and he misses out on the opportunity to learn on an appropriate and stimulating level.
Many things come easily to Man, however, when something is a challenge, he wants no part of it. Challenges for other children are 100 times more difficult to a child with ADHD. It’s like hiking up a steep mountain with an extra 100-pound backpack on. This is what ADHD does to my child, especially in a classroom setting. When he is tired and just can’t take on the extra work that each day brings, it makes him look defiant or like he cannot follow simple classroom rules. He needs a teacher who is going to understand this, look past it, and make it interesting for him to want to attack the challenges head on. Will this be the year that he gets such a teacher, I wonder?
Just like neurotypical children, atypically developing children are all dissimilar as well. A diagnosis of ADHD means different things for different children and the educational strategies are not one size fits all. When someone tells me that they have experience teaching children with ADHD, that means almost nothing to me. The most important thing that a teacher needs to understand is that they must look beyond the diagnosis and assess my child’s needs based on what they see, not what they expect to see. This was not the case last year and he suffered greatly because of it, and as his mother, I suffered right along with him.
Public school, it seems, is not designed well for Man, or any child with ADHD and other learning disabilities. It’s no one’s fault; they must teach to the masses, and I totally get this – the entire school system does not need to turn on a dime for my son’s specific needs. While I appreciate that the district trains the teachers well and makes accommodations for my son, ultimately the expectation is that as a round peg, he adjusts and fits into their square holes. In fact, every accommodation he has is to help him function better in a classroom designed for neurotypical students. They have nothing to do with helping him use the brain he has, to learn to the best of its own ability. They have nothing to do with teaching him how to use his strengths and overcome his weaknesses to simply learn the information that is vital to his education.
I stress again that this is no one’s fault; it is just how the public education system is designed. They do their very best to help with the resources available to them, but the end goal is always the same, to make sure every child is “on grade level”. It doesn’t matter how much potential the child has, simply whether they meet the national standards for their grade. Man did 50% of the work that the other students in his class did last year, 50%, and at the end of the year he was on grade level. While only doing half the work as the other students in his class, he still came out on grade level. Yes, while I’m thrilled he is on grade level, am I not allowed to expect that he could possibly be doing better if his educational environment was more conducive to his learning style? Should I just ignore the fact that he no longer qualifies for certain accommodations because he is on grade level, even though the challenges within the classroom are still the same as they were the previous years? Am I not allowed to be upset that my son already feels disappointed in himself every day because he sees the other children able to produce more than him while trying half as hard? It’s not pressure that I put on him, it’s simply what he sees going on around him daily.
So yes, I worry every day. I worry that this year will be the same trying year as the last. He does not deserve that, nor does any child who is like him. Going back to school, it seems, isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for every family.