When ADHD Goes to School

A college professor who had little empathy for struggling students with ADHD changes her tune when her young son is diagnosed with the condition.
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"My Child Has ADHD" What the Diagnosis Taught Me

Keaghan Turner, today’s guest blogger, teaches writing, literature, and women’s studies at Coastal California University. Her recent essays have appeared in Brain, Child magazine; Babble; and South Writ Large. This blog originally appeared in brainchildmag.com.

It’s about that time in the semester when the first paper due date looms on the syllabus, and college students start pulling out their ADHD. They approach the lectern after class and spill their psychological guts. About their quiz grades … about the paper length … about that first novel we read … about their paper topic.

Eventually and awkwardly they get to the point, trotting out what I know is coming: They have ADHD. They might need an extension, they’re planning to come by office hours, they can’t remember what they read for the quizzes, they had a tough time getting through the whole book, their doctor is adjusting their Ritalin or Adderall or Vyvanse dosages.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I would think. “If I had a nickel,” I wanted to say. What a pop-psychology diagnosis! What a crutch! I shook my head in academic dismay over such a Made-in-America “disorder.” How could so many parents be hoodwinked by the big pharmaceutical companies? Maybe if they made their kids read a book once in a while instead of allowing them to play video games for hours at a time they wouldn’t have ADHD. What is the world coming to when college kids need medication to help them read, write, and study? Why are they in college if they can’t do what kids are supposed to do?

Turns out, ADHD is real. At least, it is at my house. No one was more surprised than me. I wound up with a toddler who might be down the street—naked—before I realized he had left the kitchen, who couldn’t be trusted not to draw blood on the playground, and who broke my nose once (at least) by throwing his aluminum thermos at me from point-blank range. “This is not normal!” I cried, holding an ice pack to my nose. My little boy McDiesel faces off with Escalades in the middle of the street, he cannonballs into the hot tub, he smashes Lego Starfighters—with no provocation or warning—that his big brother has painstakingly built. He has shattered two flat-screen TVs and one MacBook, pulled a leaf of the kitchen table clean off its hinges, and reduced a 1920s mahogany dining room chair to sticks. He is fierce. Feral.

My mother said it was lack of discipline. Friends said it was the Terrible Twos (and then Threes!). Doctors started saying things like it was too early to say for sure if it was ADHD, and that we wouldn’t want to jump to the conclusion that it was ADHD. My husband didn’t know what to say.

I didn’t say anything. I was shocked: Why in the world were they talking about ADHD? What could my kid breaking my nose have to do with writing a paper? Plus, I do everything right—I recycle, I clip box tops, I have a Ph.D., we have good genes! Nothing could be wrong with my kid.

Everyone said, “What? ADHD? He’s just … active.” or … just impulsive, just curious, just energetic, just willful, just physical, just fearless. Check, check, check. Almost every word matched the Child Behavior Checklist we filled out at the pediatrician’s office, then at the behaviorist’s, the child psychiatrist’s, the occupational therapist’s, and the chiropractic neurologist’s.

We were all right, of course: It wasn’t normal. That is, it wasn’t “typical,” but it was “just” something: textbook ADHD. A severe case, but still, according to our Beloved Behaviorist, it could be worse. I’ll have to take her word for it.

Now we’re sending McDiesel to school. Real school. Public school. True, as my husband says, finally we don’t have to worry (much) about him getting kicked out the way we did at his preschool. But being part of the school system seems much more serious. They have official paperwork for this kind of thing. There, under “Asthma,” is where we check the box. Now is when we label him. Until he goes to college and will label himself, approaching a lectern and saying that he has been having trouble with the material, that he needs help understanding what exactly the professor is looking for, that he has ADHD.

In the meantime, McDiesel’s new kindergarten class newsletter explains the breakdown for daily behavior reports, which, in the past three years his big brother, Typ, has been in school, I have never paid much attention to before:

Happy Face

Squiggly Face

Frowny Face

These three options seem at once overly simplistic and completely adequate. The school day is long and most of McDiesel’s days are filled with happy, squiggly, and frowny faces in different combinations. (Aren’t most kids’?) Every day is a behavior grab-bag and slim chance the Happy Face is going to take the day. McD’s a Squiggly-Face kind of kid, after all. Just textbook ADHD, as our Beloved Behaviorist would say. His happy-face behavior lights everything up; his frowny-face behavior is impossible to ignore and difficult—in the space of a mere six hours of almost constant contact—to forget or overlook.

On the first day of school, McDiesel proudly comes home with a Happy Face and a note that he had a “great” day. Oh, I think. Maybe it won’t be that hard. Maybe he won’t need medication. Maybe we won’t begin filling out Individualized Education Program paperwork. Maybe he can behave for six hours. My anxiety ebbs. The second day, he hops off the bus and pulls out his chart—obstructing the bus doors—and thrusts it in my face: “Squiggles!” he pouts. Attached note reads: “Sassy!” (Also a deceptively adequate measure of behavior). My anxiety flows.

Next day, I take necessary precautions. I dress him in an overpriced preppy T-shirt, madras shorts, and Kelly green converse Chuck Taylors. The strategy is to distract Mrs. W. with cuteness. Can she possibly give a Frowny Face to a kid who looks so stinkin’ good? Alas, yes. As if on cue, confirming my sense of some cosmic inevitability, the third day of school, brings the dreaded Frowny—a face that has never before entered the house in the two years our family has been at this elementary school so far. (Big brother Typ—wide-eyed—gasps and avoids contact with the paper altogether.)

Mrs. W., the teacher I have special-requested, provides a short laundry list of ADHD symptomatic behavior alongside the Frowny: distracting others, talking during instruction, laughing while being disciplined. My anxiety flows some more, approaching tropical-storm categorization. (Come on! I think. What about the Chuck Taylors?)

McDiesel sulks. Things had been going so well. Behavior seemed to be on the upswing during the summer—to the point I was crediting 45 minutes of occupational therapy a week for working an almost miraculous transformation: Maybe some beanbag tossing and a sensory tunnel really can undo ADHD! Now OT seems useless. McD seems doomed to a Frowny Face-filled kindergarten year. All of the statistics about learning disabilities, poor academic performance, and social difficulties jockey for position among my myriad anxieties. I sulk.

I spend all weekend promising to come to school for lunch, reinforcing the extra-special milkshake celebration we will indulge in if Monday sees the return of the Happy Face, and even madly agreeing to a trip to the Target toy aisles (negotiated by opportunistic big bro Typ) as a reward for a week’s worth of Happy Faces.

I drive to school Monday, quizzing McD on how to earn a Happy Face (“Listen to Mrs. W.”) in case he might have forgotten or tuned out any of my coaching sessions.

Then Monday afternoon comes and the cosmic forces have realigned: McDiesel has earned a Happy Face with a note that he had a “way good day!” My anxiety is checked, the tropical storm dissipates. We head out for vanilla milkshakes.

Now I’m worried I might have been too lax this week in continuing the behavior pep rally. Yesterday, I drove up hopefully to the drop-off point in front of school. Carpool kids and big brother Typ hop out with waves and smiles. McDiesel unbuckles and acts as if he’s about to do the same. Then, he doesn’t budge, wants me to walk him in, holds up the entire drop-off line, and dangles halfway out the open car door. Frantically (and I hope not too sharply) I call Typ back from the school entrance to grab and drag (if necessary) McD away from the car and through the door. The principal announces over the PA there will be no tardies today because of traffic backup. I have no choice but to jump out of car, walk around to his side (avoiding eye contact with all parents stacked up behind me in the drop-off lane), remove McDiesel and his backpack, close the back door, and leave him standing curb-side in the rain, a scrunched up squiggly face in my rearview mirror.

But that afternoon, when I ask McDiesel about his day, he says the happy parts were bigger. He was only a little bad. I open his folder and, voila, it’s true! I’m going to get Mrs. W. the best teacher gift ever this Christmas. She gets it. McD is not doomed to a Frowny Face kindergarten year or to years of academic distress. In the center of the Wednesday box, she’s drawn a medium-sized Happy Face. Beside it she’s written: “Precious little boy!” In the bottom right corner, she’s drawn a smaller Frowny Face. In parentheses: “Kept jumping in puddles when told not to.”

“You know,” I tell my husband, as if this is news to anyone. “A good teacher is going to make all the difference for McDiesel.” Back on campus, I assess my students, not as their professor but as McDiesel’s mother. I see the telltale signs: That kid always has to get up and throw something away. This one shakes his foot for the entire 50 minutes. There’s one who can’t stop talking. Here’s one who is approaching the lectern. I imagine their kindergarten selves, their anxious parents who wait to hear how they did, if they got a Happy Face, if all the medications and therapies and specialists and interventions did the trick. And I know they’re like me, waiting for the report, waiting to learn if their kid is making the grade, if he’s going to be all right.

So my student comes up to the lectern and begins his fumbling explanation.

“Sure,” I say. “I totally understand. Let me help you….”

You won’t believe this, but it’s true: He’s wearing green chuck Taylors.

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