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Categories: 2010, August
by Fereshteh Shahrokhi, LCSW, and Maureen Gill, LCSW
I REMEMBER THE DIFFICULTIES I faced while raising a
child with major school issues back in 1989. I was out there alone and
seemed unable to control my child’s behaviors. Others were judging
me. No one seemed to know what was wrong; they just wanted it to go
The mother of a child with ADHD frequently finds herself in such sad
dilemmas. She feels very alone because others judge her child to be
bad—that is, not controlled properly. “Just make him
behave,” people would say. “You are not doing it
right.” But I knew that I was disciplining him—in fact, I
was disciplining him all the time. I was trying to get his homework
done, but I could not get him to sit still long enough or get him to
listen to me as I was trying to finish my own sentence. I was
discouraged because so little that I did seemed to work.
One day, his kindergarten teacher had an intern write down everything he
did wrong in her morning class. She sent me a list of fourteen things
that I was supposed to talk to him about and then make disappear in her
class. How was a mother to have any control in her classroom? I could
hardly control my own tears.
They asked for a child study team to meet and evaluate him. They wanted
to put him in a class for the emotionally disturbed. They thought he was
mentally ill. I had problems with him at home, but nothing like what
they described in the classroom. Would I have a mentally ill son
forever? The team agreed that this was the diagnosis. Except for one
member, who said: “I think he has ADHD.” My thought at
the time was that it sounded better than mental illness. I had
previously wondered, after reading a very short article, whether ADHD
was what I was seeing. But surely, I had thought, the school would
recognize this before me.
A competent developmental pediatrician very quickly diagnosed my
son’s ADHD. Why did the majority of school staff not recognize it?
Why had this one staff member known? Her knowledge changed my
son’s school life. Thus began my first contact with one of many
school staff members who would become my son’s saviors.
My son’s success and my sanity were dependent over the years on
school staff who were knowledgeable about ADHD. There were not many in
1989. Along the way, some teachers unknowingly created an atmosphere
that would only make my son worse. They mistakenly thought that being
overly strict would make him cooperate, but this only increased his
anxiety, making school even more difficult for him (and for the
teacher). I realized that the difference was based on one large
factor—school training in ADHD. I became an advocate for better
training in ADHD. I joined with the developmental pediatrician who
originally diagnosed my son and several other CHADD members and school
experts in developing a grassroots (totally volunteer) training program
for our school system. We started in one school at a time.
Did life become perfect? Absolutely not. Each school year was a new
beginning. An early sign for a successful school year is a positive
relationship between the parent and teacher. I became astute at
sensing how the school year was going to go within the first five
minutes of meeting the new teacher. I was rarely proved wrong. Once I
thought a male teacher would bond well with my son. However, he treated
me as if he knew all that there was to know about ADHD and thought it
was unnecessary for me to communicate with him. He was a good teacher,
but my son progressed little in his class. Fortunately, the school
counselor filled in for me with that particular teacher. She helped my
son for many years afterward. Both the principal and I were surprised
when my son received the most awards at his sixth-grade graduation. The
principal had been through a lot with my son, and I am grateful to her
for her enduring kindness to him. Support from the principal is a
necessity for students with ADHD, as is the principal’s
willingness to obtain training for school staff on ADHD. This support is
not always found, unfortunately.
Secondary school brings bigger problems for students with ADHD. My
son’s first middle-school counselor told me that the school had
many students with ADHD. She was happy to say that all of them did well.
Life could not be better for my son, I thought. Alas, her naivete about
the problems that were occurring gave me false hope. What a terrible
year that was, as I had no school advocate for my son or for myself. I
had no one to turn to and felt like I was in a strange land.
Fortunately, during his second year there, he had just the opposite
experience. His new counselor had a child with learning disabilities,
and she guided both of us with supreme expertise. She trained the
teachers and picked the teaching teams that would work best for him. By
the time he entered high school, my own expertise had increased to the
point that I worked jointly with the school staff. Not only did I help
my own son, I also began to help organize training sessions with school
and community experts.
I have learned over the years that the most important thing a student
with ADHD needs is one school staff member who believes in him or her
and is not afraid to share helpful strategies for working with the
student with other staff. I found such advocates at the
high-school level as well. I hope other parents will seek out and find
these school advocates—whether a teacher, a social worker, or
other interested school staff.
School knowledge and training about ADHD, a positive attitude toward the
student, and finding school advocate(s) go a long way toward enabling
the student with ADHD to graduate from high school, complete college,
and start his or her own business. I am the mother of a businessman who
is living proof of this.
I AM NOT SURPRISED THAT IN 1989 there were so few
school staff members trained in ADHD. Parents usually were getting
training before the teachers. This is no longer true, thanks to the
volunteer school/community training program Maureen Gill helped
coordinate in 1992. I am currently a trainer for this program. I have
been involved since the mid-1980s in educating myself about ADHD and the
many comorbidities that can result when the disorder is untreated. I
also try to keep up with the latest research. I work daily with the
parents of students with ADHD. I know parents may feel very alone and
judged for the behavior problems of their children or lack of progress
in school. Increased training in schools and more public knowledge about
ADHD will hopefully decrease this, though I still see it occur. Parents
are judged not only by school personnel but also by other parents and
even their own family members. I try to advocate for these parents and
support them, and I try to educate my school peers.
Reading about the kindergarten teacher who assigned an intern the duty
of recording everything Maureen’s son did wrong in class over the
course of a morning saddened me. With better staff training, something
like that would never occur. We must ask parents for help in ways that
they are able to provide. Teachers are responsible for their classrooms,
and it is the teacher’s job to help a student who has behavior
issues by using the behavior management techniques that all teachers are
taught. Parents can also learn to use these techniques at home. Parents
need to support teachers but are limited in how much control they can
have in a classroom.
I agree a hundred percent with Maureen that her son’s success in
school depended on school staff who were knowledgeable about ADHD. My
school system in Northern Virginia has been a strong advocate for staff
training in ADHD. Many community experts in the area have also offered
to work with and provide free training for school staff members. Many
who receive training later train staff members in their own schools.
Parents must also be knowledgeable about ADHD and school strategies that
help their children. I have met many parents who have not done their
research. Parents cannot advocate fully for their children if they do
not understand these issues. Both the school and the parents must have
expertise for a child to be successful. Maureen is leaving out the part
that her son’s success was also dependent on her knowledge,
support, and work with school staff to get the right help. She also
sought outside professionals to help her with the medical issues as well
as how to deal with his behavior issues at home. Parent education is
equally important as the training of the educators if the child is to
have success in school and in life.
I cannot emphasize enough that the relationship between a teacher and
student is crucial. Teachers of students with ADHD must be flexible,
knowledgeable, caring, supportive, firm, and structured. A teacher who
is too strict can increase a child’s anxiety—and these
students are already very anxious in their school performance. Our
schools have great teachers, but some teachers are not a good fit for
Early diagnosis is crucial in helping a child with ADHD. We are
fortunate in our area that we have knowledgeable physicians,
psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers who can help parents
assess the child. If qualified, the school can also aid in this. CHADD
chapters across the United States can help parents find knowledgeable
community professionals to help them.
Maureen wrote that parents must identify who are the advocates for their
children in their schools. I see a variety of school staff members who
have filled this role. Students can improve greatly if they have someone
in their school with whom they have a good relationship, someone they
trust and are comfortable with. As a school social worker, I try to help
these children every day. Parents often try to rely only on themselves
to help their children. But there are supportive people in their school
if parents will look for them. I find that parents of children with ADHD
find it helpful to talk to other parents, and as a result I have run
several parent support programs.
For years, CHADD of Northern Virginia has presented certificates of
appreciation to school staff members who have helped a child with ADHD.
My colleagues have highly valued this recognition—I sure
did! Parents request a certificate for someone they consider a
special advocate in their child’s school. The advocates are
invited to the CHADD chapter’s last meeting during the school
year. I highly recommend this practice as a positive gesture for
goodwill between parents and schools.
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