I’m a little bit late to pick up my son, T.K., at school, so he’s sitting in study hall finishing his math homework. On my way in, I see his geography teacher — the only one whose patience has not yet worn horribly thin. “How’s my boy doing?” I ask, in the most robustly positive tone I can muster.
“Don’t ask any questions you don’t want the answer to,” she says, head down as she hurries past me toward the door. I know in an instant that my last ally is lost.
T.K. has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, but it’s not the garden variety case that makes kids fidget in their seats and drift off during class. His ADHD is severe; it muddles his thinking, impairs his memory, and undermines his efforts to control his social behavior. And that’s on a good day, with medications in full effect. Without them, he is almost totally disabled.
I’ve walked this dreadful walk through schools before. In preschool and kindergarten, the most well-intentioned teachers became exasperated eventually. T.K. hit other children, blurted “shut up” on the playground, talked incessantly during circle time, couldn’t follow directions. He wasn’t learning anything; nothing he said made sense. Two or three times a month the principal would call me to pick him up. He’d shoved a girl to the ground at recess, thrown clay at the art teacher, become disruptive in the library.
Yet T.K. was not malicious or mean. Even then, his teachers described him as compassionate, affectionate, unusually empathetic for his age. His verbal and physical outbursts were oddly out of character and almost always followed by remorse and self-recrimination. “Why can’t I stop?” he would sob. Timeout and other forms of punishment seemed so futile.
We were relieved when we got a diagnosis because ADHD is treatable. Behavioral therapy, medications and a highly structured home environment almost always help ADHD kids. Immediately after he started medication, T.K. slowed down enough to hear the teacher and begin to learn. Behavioral therapy helped him manage the hitting and verbal blurting. At home, positive discipline based on systemized behavior charts and earned rewards reinforced appropriate conduct.
While these interventions can — and did — provide dramatic results, they do not cure ADHD. T.K. was in far better control of himself, but only 80 percent of the time. The remaining 20 percent — coupled with his learning disabilities that often occur with ADHD — still proved too overwhelming for most of his public school teachers. Shunted into special education classes, T.K. fell even further behind his peers and faced ridicule on the playground. His confidence plummeted.
With great reluctance, we enrolled him in a private, special needs school primarily for children with ADHD. But to our delight, T.K. began to thrive in this environment. Teachers trained to work with ADHD kids turned him around. They provided a partition to put around his desk when other children distracted him. If he needed to do his math problems standing up, stand up he did. He didn’t just memorize the mountain regions of Tibet, he experienced them, building papier-mache peaks and painting the summits snowy white. He felt smart. He relaxed. He skipped the second grade.
The happy, helpful, engaging child I always knew was there emerged for the rest of the world to see. His friends’ parents loved having him over because he was so well mannered. He was generous and kind with his younger brother, sharing his toys, teaching him games, making him laugh. His teachers loved him. If a classmate fell on the playground, he’d be the first one — often the only one — to rush over and comfort his friend. His impulsive ADHD symptoms continued to plague him, particularly under stress, but he found ways to handle them. “Every now and then T.K. will fall into inappropriate behaviors,” his fifth grade teacher wrote on his report card. “But he assumes responsibility, apologizes and moves on. One-on-one, T.K. does very well, especially with adults, and is able to hold a meaningful conversation. I’ve enjoyed engaging in some of those conversations.”
This year, in sixth grade, it all fell apart. We mainstreamed T.K. — in part because his special needs school ends at fifth grade, but also because he seemed ready. While there were academic peaks and valleys, standardized tests showed him reading at an eleventh grade level. Indeed, one of special education’s primary goals is to prepare kids for the “real” world and integrate them as quickly as possible; ADHD kids who can be mainstreamed fare far better academically and socially than those in special education, studies show. We knew if we could find a school that would work with us to manage academic stressors, his ADHD would not be a major problem.
I found a tiny private school — only 12 students per grade — willing to make the necessary accommodations. I suggested all the standard ADHD modifications that had helped him get this far: seating in the front row; fewer and shorter homework assignments; study buddies and note-sharing; assignments provided in writing; stress breaks during long class periods; brief, daily written communication between his primary teacher and parents; tests given orally, untimed or to take home. To reduce his stress load even further, we hired a tutor for extra support.