ADHD/LD Schools

Saving Katie: How An ADHD-Friendly School Changed My Daughter’s Life

My daughter was bullied in public schools because of her ADHD and autism. Finding and switching to a specialized ADHD school helped her thrive academically and socially.

Family playing a board game to kick off the new school year
Family playing board game

Katie was relaxed and happy at home, but she had plenty of problems with her schooling. At school, students flapped their hands at her, mocking her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) and Asperger’s syndrome. Classmates formed cliques and left Katie out. “She can’t be in our club. She’s weird.”

Throughout her elementary school years, Katie was placed in an “inclusion” classroom, the kind that allows kids with special needs to get support and accommodations. I learned that inclusion did not keep Katie from being singled out. It hit me during field day at Katie’s school, a mini-Olympics, in which her class battled it out with others for bragging rights.

Katie was ecstatic. “They’re having field day on my birthday. It’s gonna be so much fun.”

When I arrived, Katie’s class was in the middle of the egg-and-spoon race. Her team had a big lead. When Katie’s turn came, I shouted, “Scramble, sweetie!” I watched in horror as she dropped the egg, bent over to pick it up, and drifted into the other lanes because she had no idea where she was headed. “She’s making us lose!” shouted the daughter of one of our neighbors — a girl who was supposed to be Katie’s friend. “She can’t do anything right!” said another “friend.”

When Katie reached the finish line, the last one to do so, her teammates walked away, shaking their heads. Then I watched as she sat down on the ground and cried — on her birthday! Frustrated and angry, I reached for Katie’s hand and said, “You don’t need this. It’s your birthday and we’re going home.”

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“No, Mom. I’m fine. I want to stay here with the kids,” she said, getting up and wiping tears from her eyes. “I don’t want to go home.”

I gave her a kiss and walked away — and sobbed like a child after I got in my car. “She stands out like a sore thumb!” I said aloud. “Why can’t she be like everybody else? Is this what her life’s going to be like?”

How Do We Know When It’s Time to Change Schools?

I had long considered putting Katie in another school, but the public-school system kept reassuring me that they could handle her needs.

“Have you had kids like Katie?” I asked more than once.


“And have they gone on to college?”

“Our goal here is to ensure that Katie will lead a productive and independent life.”

I felt a knot in my stomach. Did they think Katie should be bagging groceries for the rest of her life? What if Katie wanted more? I didn’t want her to suffer one more day in public school.

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My neighbor, Jane, a public school teacher for 20 years, asked me one day, “Why don’t you put Katie in another school? Every day that she’s in that school, she’s reminded that she’s different, and that she’ll never be as good as the other kids. What do you think that does to her self-esteem?”

Beginning the Search for ADHD-Friendly Schools

I began looking at alternatives to public school. I discovered Willow Hill School — a small private school for kids with learning disabilities, a few miles from our house. It had everything I wanted — a low student-to-teacher ratio, a new gym, a computer lab, a drama program, and, most important, other students with disabilities.

Katie was reluctant to go and see the ADHD-friendly school (“I don’t want to leave my friends”), and I had to bribe her to go by promising to buy her a Tamagotchi. After spending a day at Willow Hill, meeting students, and sitting in on a class, she remarked, “Mom, if you want me to go there, I will. It’s pretty cool.”

Can Our Family Afford Private School Tuition?

My plan was falling in place, except for one last hurdle — I needed the school district to pay Katie’s tuition. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I had heard stories about long, expensive battles between school districts and parents. I was about to hire a lawyer, and send him a retainer check, when someone advised me, “Talk to the district first.”

I wrote a letter to the director of pupil services, telling her about Katie’s challenges and why Willow Hill was better equipped to meet them. I thanked her for the support they had given Katie, but explained that Katie’s social needs were too great for the school to manage. The director responded immediately, saying, “You can discuss Katie’s placement at your upcoming IEP accommodations meeting.”

That meant waiting. Every night I pored over the Willow Hill brochure. As I read about their students who went on to college, and the school’s “everybody makes the team” sports policy, I grew more excited. “Oh, God, please let Katie get in to this school,” I prayed. Willow Hill was more than a school; it seemed to promise my daughter a future.

One evening I woke up, panicked. “What if she doesn’t get in? What if she does get in, but I’m making the wrong decision?”

I turned on my iPod to help me relax. Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” was the first song I heard. I hadn’t listened to the words before, until then: “Make a change, and break away.” As I listened to the song, I knew that Katie would get in to Willow Hill.

The next day Katie’s letter of acceptance arrived. I was ecstatic, but scared because I had to find a way to pay for it.

“I don’t care,” said my husband, Mike. “We’re sending her, one way or the other.”

“I don’t know how we can do that,” I said.

“What if we cut out the extras?”

“I don’t think food and heat are extras, Mike.”

Can We Get IEP Team Approval for an Alternative School?

When Mike and I arrived at the school for the meeting, he grabbed my hand before we went in and said, “Let’s go get ’em for our little girl!”

The IEP team considered Katie’s needs and the proposed placement for the following year. They talked about the services offered at their school, and my worst fears arose. They were expecting Katie to stay in their system. I was shattered. My daughter would continue to suffer and be singled out.

Then the assistant director of pupil services asked, “I know you’ve been looking into schools. Why don’t you tell us about what you’ve found?”

With tears in my eyes, I explained the benefits of Willow Hill. The inclusion specialist looked at me and said what I had waited seven years to hear — the truth. “Mrs. Gallagher, we don’t have anything like that for her at our school. The team agrees that Katie should go to Willow Hill. You did a good job.”

I thanked everyone and hugged the teachers. “You saved my daughter’s life. God bless you!”

When Katie got home from school, Mike and I couldn’t wait to tell her the news.

“Katie, Katie!” Mike yelled.

“What’s wrong? I didn’t do it, I swear!”

“You’re going to Willow Hill.”

“I am?” she asked, looking at us with a big smile slowly spreading across her face.

Mike swooped her up in a bear hug as Emily, Katie’s little sister, and I beamed. “No more suffering, honey,” I said, as I rubbed Katie’s back. “No more.”

Will I Ever Find a School that Meet My Child’s Needs?

The day Katie began at Willow Hill, I worried. “What if she doesn’t like it? Then what will we do?”

When she got off the bus at the end of the day, I asked how it was, and she said, “Good.”

“Just good?” I asked, deflated. “So you really didn’t like it?”

“Are you kidding, Mom? I loved it. The teachers understand me, and the kids are so nice.”

I was thrilled. Her sixth-grade year went beautifully. She made friends and blossomed in ways we wouldn’t have imagined. And although Katie seldom said so, she loved school. “Katie, honey, I don’t like the sound of that cough. You should stay home from school.” “No way, Mom. I have perfect attendance. I’m not blowing that.”

What shocked me, though, was when the drama teacher pulled me aside one day and said, “I’d like to give Katie the lead role in You Can’t Take It with You. I’ve never given the lead to a sixth-grader before, but I know she can handle it.”

“My daughter, Katie Gallagher — with the blond hair and blue eyes, about this tall?” I asked, sure that there had been some mistake.

“Yes, your daughter. She’s quite talented.”

On opening night, Mike and I were nervous, particularly since Katie was anxious and doubted herself. “What if I can’t do this?” she asked us.

“You’ll be fine. We’ll be right here watching you,” I said, suppressing the urge for a glass of wine (or six).

“Sit in the back!” commanded Katie. “You’ll make me nervous.”

When Katie walked out, she delivered her lines flawlessly and picked up her cues. We sat there — in the first row — stunned. We couldn’t believe this was the same girl who desperately tried not to stand out.

Mike turned to me and said, “See what happens when you believe in a child?”

“I never doubted her for a second,” I answered, crossing my fingers behind my back.

Watching Katie struggle at all the things I was good at — playing sports, getting good grades, making friends — was enough to leave me, an overachiever and chronic worrier, awake at night, pondering the same question: “How will my little girl get her self-esteem?”

What I failed to notice was that Katie was happier and more self-confident than I ever was. Katie taught me to appreciate the little things in life — things that most take for granted.

“Daddy, guess what? I answered a question right today at school!”

“You’ll never believe this, Mom. I got invited to a birthday party!”

At one point, I would have done anything to make Katie’s Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD go away. (“Mike, I wish I could take her to be cured. What’s that healing place in France?”) I learned to stop seeing Katie through society’s ridiculous looking glass of perfection, and to see her through her eyes.

To cure Katie of her disorders would be to take away all the things I love most about my daughter — her innocence, her wonderful sense of humor, her fighting spirit, her quirkiness. Anyone who knows me, a lifetime subscriber to Popular Pessimist magazine, can’t believe I now see my daughter this way.

Excerpted from Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid, by Gina Gallagher and Patricia Konjoian. Copyright 2010. Reprinted by permission of Three Rivers Press, New York, New York.

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4 Comments & Reviews

  1. While reading “saving Katie” I felt like sonesone was writing my sons story and using another kids name, I’m an older adult that adopted a baby boy after fostering him for one year, Zech is almost eight now and to say life has been difficult and a daily challenge is a mild description. Our child has severe adhd and is in and has been in a special ed. Class from pre-k until present and tho the classes are small and all the children have behavior issues Zech also is a stand out meaning we usually get weekly calls about his aggressive behavior or we are asked to drop what we are doing and pick him up because they are not able to de escalate his behavior: When I go in the class his eyes are wild and he is sweating and wild, throwing things and running all over the class pushing tables and desk over: I talk to him calmly and reassure him it’s ok and talk him down with a little empathy, he calms down within 5 minutes and apologizes to the teachers. I don’t understand why theses teachers appointed to these behavioral classes are not able to do the same, every child I’d different and when Zech is angry or scared strict discipline doesn’t work when he is in melt down mode, he get in a fight or flight state of mind and reacts negatively to the standard decipher,ine used when a child steps out of line: Zech is a smart,loving and funny kid who wants to be like everyone else and knows he has anger issues because he ask us why his brain makes him act different, we love him so much and feel he is not getting the education and understanding he needs to deal with his issues in a productive and positive way. Any suggestions would be helpful; he also takes lots of medication which is an entirely different issue. I’m a registered nurse and stopped working because the frequent phone calls were becoming overwhelming and unfair to my employer. Our son deserves every opportunity life has to offer and we will do whatever it takes to make sure that happens, thanks for listening!

  2. Thank you!!!! I was in tears reading this. My daughter is in public school and I am searching for a school for her that is different that can meet her needs. She hates going to school and she feels left behind. She is going to be in middle school next year and I know it is too much for her to stay in main stream. Her IEP team has been great but it’s not enough. Her teachers have been great but it is not enough. She is being pushed through and not learning at her pace. Everything you wrote is what I am feeling right now. I keep asking the school what are my options and they keep telling me she will be fine but she isn’t. I just wanted to say THANK YOU. What you said is how I am feeling.

  3. My 8 year old was miserable in public school. The IEP and even a 1:1 assistant wasn’t enough. He was aggressive and then being singled out by classmates and teachers. We hired an IEP attorney, fought the district for more services but knew it wasn’t enough. He was given so much medicine and became extremely ill and went to the ER twice for nonstop vomiting and then did a PHP program for three weeks. The more research we did and professionals we spoke with the more we realized the inclusive special ed class was only going to cause him to fall further behind because the public school couldn’t properly teach him. They’d just call me daily- he even locked the principal out of her own office. They had no clue how to handle him and this was an area known for great schools and services. Therapy didn’t help, OT didn’t help, medicine seemed to just make him exhausted or sick and he was never hungry. When Covid happened we decided we needed a total change…we left the area and tried going to private school that caters to special needs. They immediately identified he had dyslexia…probably a big reason for his frustration at school. Never had the public school mentioned such a concern or even suggest he be tested. The private school said he absolutely hated school so we had to retrain him and build trust and endurance to be in class. We started by tutoring for 2 hours if needed to finish just one hour of work. He now is finally learning and doesn’t yell or throw a tantrum when we want to read with him. It’s not perfect, at home we have plenty of bad days. Changing schools to a private with a focus on the special needs and working with teachers with special training was life changing. The school referred us to an amazing behavioralist as well…so the school and behavioralist work together with us. Don’t give up…you may need to make some major changes but it will be worth it and the earlier you make the change the better- the problems only seem to compound as they get older from what we understand…also go with your gut for the school, the behavioralist and the psychiatrist. Interview them & don’t just choose the most convenient. If we’d listened to our gut, our son never would have been so ill on all that medicine. You know your child better than someone who sees your child for a few minutes every 30 days and medicines can react in many different ways. There can be serious withdrawals or even permanent tics with many of the pediatric medicines related to severe ADHD.

  4. Just another reason I sorta wish my teachers would’ve picked up on my differences; my mom has ADHD and some autism symptoms, like me, and my dad definitely has the ADHD side, at least. They weren’t diagnosed, and neither was I. I also got pulled out of the public school system in fifth grade, because I was bullied basically for existing (everything from weight, to smarts, to the way I talk, to smelling like cigarette smoke because my mom smoked, and more). I was homeschooled, and my schooling so far has fit my needs (I’m about to graduate with two associate degrees), but if I had known about my ADHD and possible-ASD then, and had the option to go to a specialty school… I don’t know. I think it would’ve helped me come to terms with my public school experience sooner, at the very least.

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