Learning Challenges

“How Our Teen Became His Own Best Advocate”

It takes a village to make sure children and teens with ADHD get the support they need to thrive. With the help of an ADHD coach, 16-year-old David Webber turned his plummeting grades around and improved his school life thanks to stronger executive function skills.

Ann ADHD student during a transition.

High-school junior David Webber has two big passions: writing and the Washington Redskins. Nearly six feet tall, he’s athletic, musical (he plays piano and clarinet), has a wry sense of humor, and loves those rare times when he beats his dad at Scrabble.

David is a high-achieving, ambitious student, a far cry from his time in fifth grade, when his grades and love of school took a nosedive and he had debilitating headaches that kept him home for days. Until that point, his father says, David was master of his universe — a cheerful child, happy to go to school.

An observant teacher noticed David’s school behavior and talked with his mom and dad. So began the family’s journey of discovering — and managing — David’s ADHD. A doctor diagnosed David with inattentive-type ADD, as well as executive function deficits. His mother worked to get him a 504 designation in the sixth grade, which entitled David to services and accommodations in the classroom.

Despite the doctor’s suggestion that David start taking ADHD medication, the Webbers held off. David was already taking migraine medicine, to prevent the headaches. Ginger and Martin didn’t want to pile on the meds if there was a chance their son could handle the academic load without them. He couldn’t, so they changed their minds.

Educating teachers and administrators about David’s condition proved to be challenging as he moved from middle school to high school. Most of them had never heard of executive dysfunction. Some were unwilling to cooperate with the Webbers’ requests for extra help for David. Ginger and Martin visited the school often, and followed up visits with e-mails, to get David the accommodations he needed. They insisted on bringing David along when they met with his guidance counselor or 504 team, anticipating that David could take the lead in turning his life around. And he did.

[Could Your Child Have an Executive Function Deficit? Take This Test to Find Out]

With the help of teachers, tutors, and ADHD coach Jodi Sleeper-Triplett, David is again excited about schoolwork, earning good grades, and willing to ask teachers for help. His ability to advocate for himself makes David’s parents confident that he will have a bright future.

David: Midway through the fifth grade, I lost interest in school. My teachers in earlier grades knew that something was up. I didn’t participate in class, and my grades went down. I thought it was because fifth grade was harder than fourth.

Ginger: David had increasing stress at school. His teachers made a point of not reminding students about turning in homework assignments or upcoming tests. They were preparing them for the rigors of middle school. Until the fifth grade, David was smart enough to compensate for his disorganization, which, we discovered, was due to his ADD.

Martin: He started losing things, and he didn’t know why. He worked hard on a science project and stored his work on a disc — only to lose it. The teacher gave him an extension, but he never found the disc. Because we didn’t know what was behind his behavior, we got angry with him.

Ginger: One doctor explained executive function deficits this way: It’s like an orchestra without a conductor. David had all the instruments — he is smart, works hard, and finishes his homework most of the time — but couldn’t put them together. He forgot to hand things in or to ask teachers about something he didn’t understand.

[Click to Read: Coaching Through the ADHD Life Cycle — Advice for Each Age and Stage]

We were relieved to learn there was an explanation for David’s behavior. The diagnosis confirmed what we had suspected. We knew what he could do, and now we knew what was hard for him to do. It took us until the sixth grade to have him identified as a Section 504 student, so he could receive classroom accommodations.

We started him on medication in the seventh grade, when we realized that he couldn’t cope with ADD on his own. Now he takes a low dose of Concerta, and Ritalin in the afternoon to get through the homework hours. The medication, combined with tutoring, coaching, and working with his teachers, has helped David reduce his organization difficulties and inattentiveness. He has been able to begin monitoring his own behavior, which is an important step toward achieving independence.

Jodi: Ginger and Martin found me through CHADD, when David was in eighth grade. They wanted him to be ready to meet the challenges of high school and to learn to advocate for himself.

Ginger: Before Jodi, Martin and I worked with David every day. We talked with him about assignments, and figured out what he needed to get done each night. We also hired a tutor to help David with math and science, subjects he was weaker in. But he resented our involvement.

Jodi: David was determined to play freshman football, but his parents worried that practice would eat into his homework time. He needed a plan — and a plan to stick with it. My job was to get David to answer to himself, instead of to his parents. In the meantime, he was accountable to me. We set up contracts that broke down large goals into smaller, more achievable ones. He earned rewards as he met those goals.

David: I knew back in fifth grade that I wasn’t dumb. The problem was, I wasn’t turning in all my assignments. I kept forgetting them or putting them in the wrong places. My interest in school started to wane because I was working hard but not getting good grades. I knew I could earn As and Bs, if I could turn in my work on time. I had trouble motivating myself. You lose your fire for school after you’ve had a few bad grades.

Jodi did a good job motivating me. She helped me set incremental, attainable goals — like shooting for a good grade on a test or quiz and getting grade sheets from my teachers, so I could track how I was doing. If I succeeded, I got a reward, like extra TV or computer time. Jodi encouraged me to set goals outside of school, as well: doing volunteer work and finding a job.

Jodi: David wouldn’t get up from his chair until his homework was done. I asked him to take 10-minute breaks every 30 minutes, so he could stretch or grab a snack. He got a dollar for each day he took breaks during homework time.

David: I would lose focus when I’d work straight through. Sometimes, I’d forget to put my finished work in my bag, or I wouldn’t finish at all.

Jodi: The large goals were As and Bs on his final report card, but it was the bite-sized goals along the way that helped him achieve those grades. David was great about checking in with me. When he didn’t take breaks, he’d tell me so, and we’d discuss whether that choice had been good for him. By his sophomore year, he decided he didn’t need the reward system any more.

David: I wasn’t always able to motivate myself without Jodi’s help. A few times, I tried to make her think everything was OK — even though it wasn’t. I wanted to succeed, but I didn’t want to work hard enough to achieve success.

Jodi: In his freshman year, David did well with his interim grades, but he wound up with Cs or Ds for final grades. I asked him to explain it, and he said, “You know how I said everything was fine? Well, I forgot to turn in something.” David let things slide and then covered it up. He can be charming, and I believed him when he said he had everything under control. And maybe he thought he did. But his parents told me otherwise. I said, “David, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but you need to get back to the plan.”

I had David ask his teachers for a grade sheet that charted what he had turned in and what was missing. This tool allowed us to catch his slip-ups quickly. I didn’t blame him for slip-ups, but told him to see them as learning experiences.

Ginger: David had his ups and downs. He’d work hard, then he’d let things slide. He’d go back to the contracts he’d agreed to with Jodi, and he’d do well again. David didn’t understand that he would probably have to use the skills he was learning throughout his life.

Nancy: When I began tutoring David, we ate up a lot of time looking around for the assignment or materials and then figuring out what the teacher wanted him to do. As the year went on, he spent less time shuffling through papers, and we spent less time figuring out what he had to do. He was more on top of things. By the second year, David would be ready to start when I arrived.

Jodi: David’s parents could have micromanaged their son’s academic career, but they saw his need for independence. David is self-motivated. When a family comes to meet with me, the student has to want to be coached. I was surprised and heartened by David’s enthusiasm for school.

David learned to follow the plan without me, so we stopped working together during the winter of his sophomore year. He checks in with me from time to time, when he has a lapse or needs to tweak the plan.

David: My parents were on my back from the middle of seventh grade to the middle of ninth grade. They looked over my assignments, made me stick to their plan, checked my homework. It became annoying, and we had a couple of big fights over it. Jodi stressed independence, and I knew that’s what I wanted, but I wasn’t able to achieve it right away.

Ginger: Today, David is the point person with his teachers. Martin and I go in with him to talk with the guidance counselor, but David talks with teachers. They see that he wants to help himself.

David: Two weeks before school starts, I e-mail my teachers, tell them about my 504 Plan, and ask them for help. If I don’t hear back, I talk with them at the start of school. Teachers are impressed when kids ask for help. This year, I’m taking classes I want to take, including physics and advanced placement classes — in English and U.S. history.

Ginger: I admire David for what he has accomplished. It’s hard to fix something about yourself when it isn’t your fault.

David: I’m not perfect. I occasionally avoid things I don’t want to do, although I have more self-control, thanks to the coaching and medication. And I haven’t fought with my parents about schoolwork for a long time. It’s important for me to have a good relationship with my parents. Like any kid, I get annoyed at them sometimes. But I know they are always there for me.

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