Give Nick a Chance

My son’s ADHD and dysgraphia held him back in a traditional classroom, and his teacher blamed me for enabling his learning disability. How we found a supportive school that accommodated his differences.

An ADHD child having difficulties at school and with getting this work done.

I belong to a large parent-support group for children with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), and the same topic comes up nearly every week: “The school says I am enabling my child to be the way he is,” says one parent. “The teacher says that if we disciplined her more, she’d be fine,” adds another. Parents of children with invisible disabilities are often blamed for their difficulties at school. We are easy targets.

It is devastating to hear these accusations. Most of us have spent hours researching our child’s disability, and finding the right doctors to diagnose and treat the symptoms. We have tried to explain those symptoms to the school, hoping to get the accommodations and support he needs to do well. When a crisis erupts in the classroom, though, the parent is often in the teacher’s cross-hairs. I received a note, written in red, angry letters, recently, from my son’s teacher that read, “If he would only do the work, there would be no problem!” She was referring to the fact that I was allowing my son, Nick, to dictate his homework answers to me.

I understood her frustration. I was frustrated, too. Nick didn’t want to write anything — classroom assignments or homework. He has dysgraphia, the inability to produce legible handwriting. For him, handwriting was a struggle: It took him forever to write a simple sentence, and the end result looked babyish. He knew he didn’t measure up to his classmates.

Nick’s psychologist said it was better for him not to write anything than to look foolish. I agreed, but I couldn’t make the teacher understand. We weren’t a team. Earlier in the year, she had called me in for what she termed a “woman-to-woman talk,” and accused me of enabling my son. She said that it was my fault that Nick had writing problems.

I was taken by surprise and cried. I started second-guessing my actions. For the next week, I couldn’t think of anything else. Had I really caused my child’s problems?

Was I Hurting, Not Helping?

It was a relief to talk with my son’s psychologist. Was I an enabler? I asked. “No,” she said. I hadn’t prevented Nick from overcoming the challenges he faces. A parent becomes desperate and afraid when her child doesn’t succeed in school, she explained, but the help I gave him was a legitimate accommodation for a child with dysgraphia. The school insisted, however, that he do everything by himself, no matter how much time it took. Would they force a child in a wheelchair to participate in regular gym class?

A friend who recently received her Ph.D. studied children with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and found that those with chronic illnesses need an “enabler” — someone to make sure the child gets what he needs and to protect him when necessary. Without this vital person, his disease — and his quality of life — worsens.

I am that person for Nick. I make sure the playing field is level for him, so that Nick wants to play and doesn’t get discouraged.

Turning Nick Around

That day is coming. For the last two years, he has been enrolled in a private school that allowed him to ignore writing for the first year and to focus on his strengths. He met his writing requirement by drawing comic books, something he is good at and enjoys. He entered a Lego competition, and had his artwork displayed in an art show at a local coffee shop. He became interested in photography. We also taught him keyboarding, something his previous school should have insisted he learn.

This year he is doing more writing, including a science paper. Nick no longer resists doing his work. In fact, he passed up an invitation to a friend’s house recently, so he could work on a paper that was due.

I understand why schools want our children to be responsible, productive people, but when a child doesn’t measure up, the “solution” is sometimes detention or failure. This one-size-fits-all approach is damaging to students with disabilities. At first, I thought I was the only victim of this misplaced blame. I wasn’t. Now I am upset for all the other parents who work as hard as I do to ensure their independence and academic success. Enabling, in the best sense, can be a good thing for our children.

Excerpted from, by Deborah Thorpe.

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