“My Daughter Was an Underachiever. A New Way of Learning Changed That.”
“In return for giving up so many of the rituals of adolescence, Elena has learned how to put forth effort, risk embarrassment, and trust in her own abilities. She has acknowledged the circumstances that led to her underachievement and, with the help of her therapist, has committed to reversing them. My daughter sees a future for herself and knows that, with hard work, she has control over it. The trade-off has been worth it.”
A year ago, I was wholly consumed by the task of getting my teenage daughter through high school. She was in her fourth school in two years. ADHD, an undiagnosed learning disability, and several unhelpful school administrators made her life – our life – a living hell. Now, while so many of her peers are struggling with remote learning, my daughter is thriving in the one-on-one school she attends online every day. It has saved her future, and our family’s sanity.
Elena’s difficulties with school date to her early elementary years, when she struggled to learn basic math. She had always been verbal, curious, confident, and sometimes challenging. Some adults seemed to “get” her and were delighted by her spirit; others clearly thought she needed to be reined in or, as a few indelicately put it, “broken.” Almost no adult was indifferent to her.
Her older brother was at a Catholic school that we liked, and we assumed she would flourish there, too. My husband and I had also attended and thrived in parochial schools. While I’d heard that Catholic schools struggle to educate those with unusual abilities or challenges, we didn’t realize yet that Elena was in this group.
As her math difficulties persisted, we tried just about everything to support her, but nothing seemed to work. Given her strong personality, her teachers thought she just wasn’t trying. No one at her school ever mentioned screening for learning disabilities, though they did refer us for an ADHD evaluation – and Elena was diagnosed. At the time, however, we chose not to treat her with medication.
By fourth grade, it was clear the parochial school wasn’t working. So we transferred her to a Montessori school, hoping the hands-on approach to learning would suit her.
The new school was small, warm, and nurturing, but a deep shame had developed in Elena – the first signs of what would become years of academic underachievement. She avoided engagement and participation. This way, she could avoid feeling embarrassed about the things she didn’t know. For two years she did almost no work, and while I expressed concern that her math abilities were slipping still further, her teachers assured me she would do the work when she was ready.
The first Montessori school ended in sixth grade, so we transferred her to another, still hoping that a small school would set her on the right path. To our dismay, the second Montessori school blamed her poor math performance on her previous school, and said it was hard to catch up after two years of scant instruction. Again, no one ever suggested testing Elena for learning disabilities – everyone assumed she was choosing not to work.
When the time came for high school, we tried to get her into the public magnet schools in our area, but failed. So we tried for a Catholic school that had a good program for students with learning disabilities, for which we thought Elena could qualify. It was only then that we finally pursued a neuropsychological evaluation, as required by the school.
Though she had many intellectual strengths, the evaluation revealed that Elena had a profound visual-spatial deficit that finally explained her struggles with math. Unfortunately, she wasn’t admitted to the school with the LD program. Instead, we sent her to the only school that did admit her – an all-girls Catholic school.
It was a disaster almost from the start. The transition from a Montessori school to one with so many rules, especially with ADHD in the picture, was beyond difficult. In the first few weeks, Elena failed to turn in a form, and amassed a demerit for every day the form was late – eight in all – which resulted in a Saturday detention. She received additional demerits for forgetting her lanyard, her laptop cover, and her laptop at school overnight. She had to appear before the disciplinary board, and was warned she would be banned from playing sports if she received another demerit (even though all of them were linked to her ADHD). The next step would be suspension or expulsion. We finally began medicating her for ADHD, something we’d avoided until then.
But Elena continued to break down. Her grades and behavior worsened as she evaded all schoolwork. Eventually she was caught chewing gum in class, and was kicked off the tennis team. We withdrew her from the school the next day, in a meeting where the school president also asked us to donate to the capital campaign.
Elena finished out the year in an online school. We frantically searched for other schools, but she was rejected from all of them due to her grades and what one administrator called a “poor work ethic.” We had no choice but to enroll her in our last resort option: another Catholic school of questionable quality. The school’s ADHD program was filled to capacity, and by the time administrators tried to arrange informal help, her situation had become much more dire. We pulled her out of that school, too.
I came to view the administrators we’d encountered in her two years of high school collectively as Nurse Ratched, the tyrannical head psychiatric nurse in the novel and film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (#CommissionsEarned). They seemed to exercise power for power’s sake, without considering the needs of the students over which they reigned. Interactions were laced with cruelty and a need to assert total control. As I spoke with other Catholic parents whose children had learning disabilities and attention disorders, I heard eerily similar stories. While we still attend a Catholic church, I’ve lost my faith in the value of Catholic education.
We began seeing a therapist who specializes in underachievement. Together, we unpacked how Elena’s shame about her math challenges had led to a system-wide shutdown in her approach to education, and a defensiveness that spread to her relationships with us.
Given the discrepancies in her abilities, Elena’s therapist felt she would benefit from a learning mastery approach, where students review material until they are able to perform at 80% or better on assessments. This would allow her to move at her pace through math classes while moving quickly through subjects that came easily to her.
I had found such a school out of state, but as we were preparing to relocate, the pandemic hit. The school moved its classes online, and for the past year Elena has attended school in her room.
She has absolutely blossomed in the past year. In her new school, she struggled through hours and hours of geometry, barely eking out the grade needed to finish, but learning the value of perseverance in the pursuit of knowledge. She has moved more easily through English and history, and she has discovered a deep interest in psychology.
Unlike in a classroom, where Elena could hide in the back and joke around with her friends to avoid trying, there is no hiding from a teacher when you are the only student. Cornered, she has discovered that she has many intellectual gifts and talents, and her grades are far beyond anything she thought herself capable. She’ll finish high school nearly a year ahead of schedule, thanks to the self-pacing of one-on-one schooling. She’s narrowing down her college list, and looking at a potential gap year.
It pains me that my daughter, who had so looked forward to the rituals of high-school dances and football games, is finishing high school alone in her room. In this way, the pandemic has given her some cover, as many of her friends are in the same boat. But in return for giving up so many of the rituals of adolescence, Elena has learned how to put forth effort, risk embarrassment, and trust in her own abilities. She has acknowledged the circumstances that led to her underachievement and, with the help of her therapist, has committed to reversing them.
My daughter sees a future for herself and knows that, with hard work, she has control over it. The trade-off has been worth it.
Underachievement to Success: Next Steps
- Download: What Learning Disabilities Look Like In the Classroom
- Read: What to Do When the School Doesn’t Get Your Child
- Read: When Traditional Schools Fail Your Child
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Updated on February 24, 2021