By Vicki Little
A school classroom is one of the best spots for “people watching.” One kid picks his nose in the corner, two children wiggle their loose teeth, and five more are just wiggling. A handful of others tip their chairs back and forth. Repeatedly. Everyone is doing something! All those little actions make it even more distracting for a child with ADHD to pay attention. And for the teacher, giving that one kid a break while reprimanding the rest of the wigglers is next to impossible. It seems like a no-win situation, and in many cases, the child with ADHD will be the one who loses. My son lost a lot. The tears and frustration that he brought home every day had me desperate and confused by the end of the first week of school.
Since my son started Kindergarten, I feel like I have been playing a precarious game of trying to advocate for him without making the little guy feel like something is wrong. I realized that I was afraid people were going to judge him, like ADHD is something to be ashamed of. But it isn’t. We certainly aren’t trying to give our son an unfair advantage — we are just reaching out to those who support him, so that together we can help him manage his ADHD in the long run. Those moments when kids with ADHD feel frustrated or misunderstood are not the times when learning can happen. Those children need to feel calm and supported in order to stop the runaway train of their thoughts. Because impulsive actions or thoughts are key characteristics of ADHD, if a teacher or parent is quick to yell or discipline, that child does not have a chance to move past his first thought before both people are upset.
I understand the difficulties of what I’m asking, especially since I’m not always patient or understanding myself. The following scenario gets played out in different ways throughout the day: Something happens and my son reacts by getting upset with himself. For instance, we may be running late to school because it took 10 extra minutes for him to get dressed (with constant reminders). He then takes his frustrations out on me. He will say something mean about himself (such as he is ALWAYS messing up). I get frustrated because this conversation makes us even later. And for the hundredth time, I have to tell him to get his shoes on. Here comes the critical moment. If I am lucky, I am able to breathe through my own impulsive reactions (such as yelling) and just wait silently for him to calm down. In that moment, the key is to watch for indications of his thought process — such as making little fists that indicate he is getting more overwhelmed. Hopefully, he puts on the shoes. The latter rarely happens. So I need to remind him that this is actually a small thing and we both need to remember we can be grumpy or grateful. Grumpy makes us have a bad day, but instead, we should be grateful that we have shoes to put on our feet. It sounds like it should be easy … but it isn’t.
I made mistakes early on when trying to be an advocate for my son at school. I didn’t know how to prepare. I was unfamiliar with the school’s stance and certain terms, and I wasn’t armed with a detailed plan to back up my requests. It ended up taking me about two years of hard work until I was fully prepared to be assertive and get something done.
Every ADHD child is different, which means that each one should be given a different plan to be successful. These are not cookie-cutter children, and they should not be treated as such. Sometimes, schools have plans in place from which they don’t want to deviate. Some children may need more time to take a test. Some may need a chair band to lessen their fidgeting, or some may need stimulation-free time. I honestly didn’t know how my son was dealing with his ADHD at school, so I started volunteering in the classroom more. It didn’t take long before I was able to see how my son struggled to pay attention. I could tell he wanted to pay attention, but he simply couldn’t. The sound of the pencil tapping on the desk two tables over sounded like a fire alarm to him. The sight of the girl twirling her ponytail was mesmerizing. And while his teacher taught them about A’s, he wondered why the letter looks like that and what if it looked like an S and not an A? As he has said more than once, “I tried mom. But then I just got distracted and forgot to keep trying.”
There were times I just wanted to cry for my son. Like the time he yelled at his friends to stop whispering (because it seemed a lot louder and more irritating to him). He got in trouble because the teacher hadn’t heard the whisperers. Then he had to spend the entire science class sitting in the hall while everyone else did an experiment, which would have been the one thing that would have excited him enough to keep his attention. More than once a day, my son used to tell me that he felt like he was a bad kid who couldn’t do anything right, and I was frustrated trying to figure out how to get him what he needed, and I wasn’t exactly sure what that was.
By the time he started first grade, I had a few things figured out. I did my research and knew that our district DOES allow for exemptions to be made for children with mental or physical challenges, including ADD or ADHD. I had spent two years meeting with school administrators trying to get them to understand, and I always left feeling like I didn’t know what had happened. I walked in full of great intentions, thought that I had made my point, and then later realized my requests were dismissed. Eventually, I figured out that I could only get the door slammed in my face so many times before I had to try a different tactic. So I talked with my son’s teachers and the school psychologist to get some help.
Finally, there was some relief. My son’s teachers were very responsive. They cared for my son and didn’t want to see him frustrated either. They also realized that if we could find ways to help my son, he would, in turn, disrupt the class less. His first- and second-grade teachers were truly his saving graces. Things were not perfect, but my son was certainly better supported. His teachers understood him, and they were very patient but also firm. They gently reminded him and gave him consequences when needed, but they also were understanding. They didn’t reprimand him when he fidgeted or lost attention, they simply re-directed him. One teacher let him chew gum during writing assignments, which was a time he typically got fidgety. His writing improved tremendously. For a while he would play with a rubber band or a spin ring to minimize fidgeting during lessons. He was able to email assignments to his teacher, which decreased the number of meltdowns we experienced because of forgotten homework.
School isn’t the only place that I needed to speak out for my son, though. Since I am trying to teach him to manage his ADHD without medication — and because I don’t want him to take more medicine than is absolutely necessary — we have to give him breaks from medication, usually in the evenings or on weekends. This means he is even more distracted and impulsive during swimming, Cub Scouts, church, or any other activity. Even though all the adults who come in contact with my son love him and his spunky personality, I sometimes see the frustration on their faces. It looks very similar to my expression when I am biting my tongue. So I tell them. I have the conversation in private so my son doesn’t feel like he is being “singled out.” I ask for help in guiding my son in ways that will help him take ownership without accidentally initiating a meltdown. Every single one of them has been understanding, and every single one said they were happy I shared the information. And every single one of them has been more patient through understanding. Some have even given us great ideas to help.
One thing that helps the most is that I pay attention and learn the language that my son’s instructors use with him. If they tell him to focus, I use that word at home. If they just touch his shoulder to redirect, I do that. If they give him a schedule or planner to fill out, we do so diligently. I don’t want to make others adjust their typical language or days just for my son, so we adjust at home. And it works. His reactions are becoming more automatic every time the word or action is used.
It doesn’t stop, and it isn’t only one meeting at the beginning of the year. Advocating for my son is a constant activity filled with evaluations, adjustments, changes, successes, and failures. As hard as it is for me to help make his life a bit easier, it would be impossible for him to do this himself. He is not the kid that is always naughty, disrespectful, or disruptive. My son is a smart, spunky, and loving kid who happens to have ADHD and really wants to live up to his full potential despite it. And it is my job as his mom to help him succeed.
“ADHD Is The Diagnosis, But It Does Not Define My Son ” is the second in a three-part series on having a child who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. You can read the first two articles in the series at “My Kid Has ADHD….Now What?“ and “ADHD Is The Diagnosis, But It Does Not Define My Son.“
Vicki Little is a work-at-home mom with two young kids. Her son was diagnosed with ADHD in 2012. A Colorado native, she is the Publisher and Editor of Macaroni Kid Aurora and Downtown Denver. When she isn’t writing or trying to keep up with her kids she can be found volunteering, reading, or enjoying a bottle of wine with friends.
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