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Mainstreaming Special Needs Students: How Parents (with and without ADHD) Can Help

During my daughter’s first year in mainstream high school after years in special ed, my wife and I found several ways to offer homework help and emotional support.

None of us knew what grades my 15-year-old daughter, Coco, who, like me, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other comorbid conditions like dyslexia and memory issues, would get on her report card at the end of her first semester in mainstream high school. After being in special ed at public school in Hawaii, when we moved to Georgia, she transitioned into regular classes for the first time. And though she put up a tough front and didn’t let on to us how much she was struggling, Coco was worried.

At midterm, she was failing math. The curriculum was new this year, and a whole lot of the kids also failed and will have to take it over, but Coco only saw this grade as her personal failure and proof of not being smart enough. On top of that, her biology, geography, English lit, and health grades all looked to be teetering toward low Cs, at best. The only bright spot was music appreciation, where she was getting an A. But Coco said you had to murder someone to not get an A in that class.

As I wrote at the end of my last post, one night during October, the pressure had built up and built up, and Coco snapped. At last, she let us know just how hard it was for her: She vented her frustrations about mainstreaming out of special ed in her new high school and her fears of failure and shame. And I listened and shared an ADHD experience I’d had at work, which I hoped would help her see that our harshest critics are often ourselves and that the more we accept the whole grab-bag of contradictions that make up who we are, the more the rest of the world would accept us as well. She seemed to get what I was saying, but was that going to be enough to turn her self-confidence and her grades around?

As we headed down to dinner, I knew that her (non-ADHD) mother’s perspective and input would be crucial for her to put this new panic aside and let her natural confidence blossom in this new environment. At dinner, Margaret asked Coco if she felt she was being bullied or if there was someone at school she felt threatened by. Coco said no. Then Margaret asked about individual classes and teachers. Coco wouldn’t answer some of these questions with her older brother, Harry; Margaret’s mom, Nana; and me sitting at the table with them. But Margaret didn’t push Coco. Instead, Margaret moderated the conversation and said “No, thanks” to a couple of suggestions along the lines of “Spit in their eye” (Nana) and “Call in sick” (Harry). I kept busy passing plates around and eating mashed potatoes to keep from butting in.

After dinner, I did the dishes as Margaret and Coco went into the living room to dig into Coco’s backpack and into the specifics of what was going on at school. Margaret is a genius at organizing, and I knew that she and Coco would be digging into more than academics. I was a teenager with ADHD like Coco, but Margaret was a teenage girl. Unlike Coco, Margaret didn’t struggle with learning disabilities in high school, but very much like Coco, Margaret was and is free-thinking, rebellious, and sensitive to the realities of the female adolescent emotional jungle, whether it shows itself as bullying (it didn’t) or as feelings of intense new-girl social pressure and uncertainty over attention from boys. Coco couldn’t have a better sensei for any of those challenges.

How We Helped Our Daughter Adjust to Mainstream High School

1. We consciously tried to meet every aspect of our daughter’s needs (not just the academic ones). We not only provided homework help but also offered encouragement and made ourselves available for hangout and venting time.

2. We developed a flexible but structured routine. After that first night, we developed a pattern — Coco would come home from school to cool her jets by herself or to vent to a member of family until after dinner, at which point Margaret and she would dig into the homework plan for the night, coming to me for occasional help or encouragement. For months, this was what we all did every day, hoping it would help Coco succeed and feel less frustrated.

3. We relied on our parenting strengths: I gave moral support and some ADHD insight, Margaret gave homework and high school politics help. As a father, I’m the empathetic sort, which is good up to a point. That point is reached pretty quickly by a 15-year-old girl when she becomes convinced she’s going to smother to death under her overprotective dad’s heavy blanket of understanding stitched through with seemingly endless instructive life stories. That’s when it’s good to have a mother who is as practical and task-oriented as Margaret to break you out into the unsentimental daylight.

4. We did our best to avoid family conflicts, to make sure not to add to the pressure our daughter was already coping with. Not that there weren’t some disagreements — with slamming doors, accusations, and crying from Coco and, much to Coco’s frustration, a nearly always calm, cool response from Margaret and, as needed, rare mediations from me — especially at the beginning of this arrangement.

5. As parents, Margaret and I followed what we call the “Parental Divide and Conquer Prevention Protocol,” which has one directive: “No parent will take the side of a child against the other parent in an argument, unless said argument is serious enough to call the police.” Margaret and I constantly discuss both our kids and discuss and sometimes argue about what’s best for them in different situations. But that’s our private parent business; it’s never done in front of those who will suffer the outcome. We’re old-fashioned here — experience has taught us that without a united front, the young barbarians, wielding iPhone apps and Rice Krispies Treats, break through the gates and lay waste to civilization.

Through conflict and drama we kept at it — especially Margaret, though I provided moral support, entertainment, sporadic factoids, as well as rice pudding and brownies. We dedicated all the attention, time, and patience Coco needed, along with a moderately flexible home routine to provide support for her as she dug in and did her best. In trying to keep her raging self-criticism at bay, we continued to tell her that doing her best was all that mattered. (And it is.)

Other stuff kept happening in the family, of course: As I wrote about, Harry totaled his car (bad), then we hosted a big family Thanksgiving at our house (good/bad — the turkey was fine, but I didn’t do the sweet potatoes the way Nana likes them), we did our Christmas shopping (good/bad — we limited our spending but still ended up maxing out our credit cards), Harry decided to move back to Hawaii (good), and then one day near the end of the semester, a junior boy in Coco’s high school who had been showing polite, respectful interest in her (always walking with her between classes) took off running when I drove up to pick Coco up after school.

Coco had been in a better mood lately and got in the car laughing. “What was that about?” I asked.

“He just knows what an overprotective dad you are,” she said.

The next day, her mom picked Coco up after school and they walked into my office together with the end of semester report card. They didn’t look happy.

But it was a fake-out. The big news for Coco was that she passed math and that was her only C. She got a B in English lit, an A in biology, a B in geography, a B in health, and because she didn’t murder anyone and also because according to her teacher, she works hard and contributes enthusiastically, she got an A in music appreciation.

Needless to say, our Christmas was happy. But more importantly, since then, Coco has been happy and much more confident as we stick to our flexible routines and she makes her way through her second semester.

But strictly from a dad’s point of view, that polite boy better keep on running. Coco and I need to have another little talk before she deals with him. Or, more likely, she’ll work it out with Margaret and they’ll both tell me how things stand in that department and if I put up an overprotective dad front, laughter, trust, and maturity will win out. We just keep working and living each day as it comes — together.

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