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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