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“This Is Not Your Fault, Son. There Is a Problem with the School System.”

After 15 years of mom-advocating for my child, I still look up at the sky, shake my head, and ask: Why does it have to be so hard? I wish I had the answer.

I was enjoying a rare morning walking the dog with my husband before he left for work when I got a call from our 14-year-old son. I could barely make out, “I’m getting zero credit,” and, “He said I thought my mom would bail me out,” and, “I give up.” I put the phone on speaker so my husband could hear.

Two days earlier I’d driven the half hour to my son’s new high school to have a conference with his teacher. The teacher apparently told my son, “I don’t care about your 504 Plan; you better get your homework in on time.” A 504 Plan is a blueprint developed by the school to provide accommodations to students with disabilities so they can succeed at school. My son has attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) — Hyperactive/Impulsive type. His accommodations include an extra day to turn in assignments, frequent homework reminders, and taking brief classroom breaks.

When I met with the teacher, I explained about ADHD and poor organizational skills and following the 504 Plan. He nodded and seemed compassionate. Then my son lost his science packet. It included two weeks of calculations he could not recover. He combed his classrooms and our house. He couldn’t find it. Misplacing things is not uncommon for people with ADHD. Neither is anxiety. By some estimates, 30 percent of children with ADHD have an anxiety disorder.

My son was freaking out. I told him he needed to speak directly with his teacher. The assignment wasn’t due for two weeks. I was sure they could work something out.

“He’s giving me a zero,” my son said over the phone. “He said I thought my mom would bail me out.” He was so distraught he left class to call me. It felt like an endless loop. Different year, different teacher, different school, but the same issues… over and over and over again.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have an Executive Function Deficit?]

ADHD is tricky. Many people, educators included, don’t believe in ADHD. They think they can cure it by being tough on the kid, or they consider the manifestations of ADHD as character flaws — as if a student blurts out, moves around, interrupts, doesn’t pay attention, loses assignments, or talks too much because he doesn’t respect the teacher.

This is not true. The student blurts out, moves around, interrupts, doesn’t pay attention, loses assignments, and talks too much because he is hyperactive and impulsive. Hence: accommodations. But accommodations only work if they are well designed and if they are implemented.

My hands gripped the steering wheel as I headed to my son’s school. I walked into the office. “Is the principal available?” I asked. “No? I’ll wait.”

I planned to sit there all day. Eventually the assistant principal invited me into his office. I told him I’d hoped the teacher would use the lost assignment as a teachable moment, whether he gave my son a way to make up some of the lost points or not. I wanted this to be a lesson, not an opportunity for punishment and humiliation.

[Free Guide: 40 Best Accommodations for Children with ADHD or LD]

As we spoke, text messages kept popping up on my phone from my son: “I’m so upset” and “Come pick me up.” I ignored his texts and I was glad that he didn’t have the Find My Friends App, or he’d know I was at his school at that moment.

I’d driven out there to talk about him, not with him. I wanted him to make it through the day and recover. I knew the zero would upset him. I knew how much he cared about his grades. I knew he hated himself for losing things. But I also knew that his sense of self could not depend on whether his teacher thought he was doing a “good job.” Too often his teachers judged him by standards he could not meet. Whether he was five or 15, I’d keep reminding him that the only thing that mattered was whether he thought he was doing a good job. If he was doing his best, that was enough.

So, no, I wasn’t going to let him come home and stew over this. Even though I thought the teacher needed to be educated on working with students with ADHD. I was in it for my son’s highest good, which sometimes means his discomfort.

During our follow-up conference, the teacher and principal said to me, “This is high school.” My answer to that is, so what? A blind child is still blind in high school. Kids with ADHD still struggle with hyperactivity and impulsivity in high school. They may require extra time and extra reminders and extra days to be successful — even in high school.

The wheels of advocacy keep on turning. Emails are sent, meetings are held, conferences attended. My son feels guilty that it takes up so much time. Although he knows he is entitled by law to a “free and appropriate education,” he also knows it is hard work to get it. “There is a problem with the system,” I tell him. “This is not your fault.”

In the end, it wasn’t the zero that bothered me. What bothered me was that, after 15 years of mom-advocating, I still look up at the sky, shake my head, and ask: Why does it have to be so hard? I know many parents of children with special needs ask this same question. I wish I had the answer.

[Downlad This: Free Guide to Solving Disorganization at School

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  1. Why is it so hard ?!?! I ask this every day. I ask this as I sit here wondering if my high school son is going to finally be able to go to school today after 4 days of school refusal. Why does he have severe school refusal ? Because of Everything you just said – because no one is sufficiently educated on the effects of ADHD, because its easier, less time consuming, and way less costly to just say “this is high school – you have to learn how to do it yourself – no one is going to watch out for you in college- we have to prepare you for the real world ….blah blah blah” . Those options are all easier than actually taking time to learn about ADHD and implementing the accommodations to level the playing field for your student. It’s so much easier to say – he has the problem – not us – not the school – we don’t have to change – he has to change or he isn’t going to make it in life – the real world isn’t going to change just for him just because he has ADHD.

    “Kids do well if they can” Dr. Ross Greene

    If only schools could approach each child and each situation with that one little sentence in their head ………..

    After 17 years of raising my ADHD son in a world that is seriously lacking in empathy how could I expect the school system to be any different ? If people were raised to see one another’s point of view and be able to put themselves in others shoes we wouldn’t have hate, racism, prejudice or wars.

    I really think the only way we will ever change how our ADHD children are treated in school will be to somehow make them understand that by withholding accommodations and services for people with ADHD is no different than taking away hearing aids, eyeglasses, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, diabetic or seizure medications.

    1. Thank you so much for this insightful comment. “I really think the only way we will ever change how our ADHD children are treated in school will be to somehow make them understand that by withholding accommodations and services for people with ADHD is no different than taking away hearing aids, eyeglasses, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, diabetic or seizure medications.” I could not agree more. We still have a long way to go for our kids with ADHD in school.

    2. I am very concerned the SPED teacher isn’t doing anything about withheld accommodations. I have told general ed teachers if they withhold the accommodations, they will be violating federal regulations and that pretty much handles it. I also point out that if they don’t like the accommodations, they are welcome to voice their opinions at the next meeting and we will discuss it. Usually by then, the principal is involved and the situation has been handled (to the parents and my satisfaction). if necessary. There usually is a SPED office at the school district and I have been known to discuss issues with them too, although it is not usually very popular with my school principal. However, if you don’t get what you need from the SPED teacher or the principal, usually the district is willing to listen. After two districts here in Alaska being sued and lost $1M each for SPED issues, they seem to be very willing to follow the rules.

      1. Thank you so much for your wise comment.I have sent many emails, and had many teacher meetings, both individually and with the 504 team and to no avail. The message my son received from teachers who refused to follow his accommodations is “we don’t care about you” and therein lies a major problem. Children learn best when they feel their teachers care about them. I did contact the principal and he didn’t care much either. We left the school. It is sad and frustrating but, in the end, like all parents, I want the best for my kid!

  2. So true! It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening. When in elementary school, my son once lamented “Why can’t they just understand I have ADHD?” He’s graduating from middle school this Friday, and then on to high school next year. I’m so relieved to be leaving the middle school behind, but dread having the same old battles with the high school staff next year. My only consolation is that he is learning lessons about persistence, patience, and self-advocacy that will serve him well later in life. Unless the staff members you work with have some background in special education (my DS once had a great science teacher who had a masters in special ed), then they generally are clueless as to how to help kids with learning differences. I have a bachelors degree in Elementary Ed and was only required to take one Intro to Special Ed class while getting my degree. That’s not enough to get any kind of handle on the best way to teach and accommodate kids with special needs.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. “I’m so relieved to be leaving the middle school behind, but dread having the same old battles with the high school staff next year.” The way our children experience school is so totally dependent on the support they get from the administration. My child’s middle school experience was extraordinary due to some very extraordinary educators. This first year of high school at a new school has been the pits! It is often hard to know until you give it a go. I wish you and your son the best of luck and I am sad and sorry it depends on being lucky!

  3. I am a teacher in Special Education. I have run into some of these same problems with general education teachers, including those who don’t believe in attention deficit issues. Usually that goes away when I let them know I am diagnosed ADHD and on meds and anytime they want to get into a discussion of whether it exists or not, all they need to do is ask or talk to my wife (she was about to leave until I was diagnosed and went on meds – 42 years and counting). I consider myself an “advocate” for my students and NOT a “case worker”. This distresses some of the general ed teachers, but when they see me coming, they know I am there to advocate for my students and it usually goes well. I know a number of teachers who also have ADHD or other issues we work with and make excellent SPED teachers and advocates. By the way, since I also have a number of grandchildren who are diagnosed ADHD, I frequently find myself on the other side of the table as well. I find it to be a common practice to use acronyms and SPEDeze to try and confuse parents and try to teach new SPED teachers that it is our job to ensure the parents understand what we are doing and to discuss in English what we recommend.

  4. Dear RobinFinn,
    tears welled in my eyes as I read your article. I’m the AdD/Anxiety mom of 2 teen boys who also have AdD and anxiety. We are SO grateful to the teachers and staff of both public and private schools (and now 1 in University) who were/are understanding and kind about our boys’ IEPs. Our younger son has Selective Mutism and I say a similar thing to people who doubt or question his behavior: if a person is blind do you tell them to “see better”? Of course not! My entire childhood and adulthood up to age 39 I didn’t know I had AdD. I thought I was just broken. My (school teacher) father told me “you are capable, you just don’t try” I tried my hardest everyday of my life but still failed at getting homework done, understanding classes, keeping my room neat, getting to things on time. I was put in the lowest level of science and math and still struggled. I repeated chemistry – 2 full years of the same course and still didn’t understand it (public school in the 70s and 80s). BUT my sons have been lucky. Their school careers have been positive and uplifting – their teachers, staff, doctors and their dad and I all are understanding. We can advocate for our children all their lives but they must advocate for themselves too! It is difficult to stand up for yourself when others are putting you down or don’t try to understand. I often wish adults could have IEPs at work. I hope you and your son have better luck in future years. You are a wonderful mother and he is lucky to have you!

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