Self Esteem

Mrs. Eldredge’s Arm

How a teacher’s simple gesture and undying encouragement helped me overcome embarrassment and fear as I battled learning disabilities.

supportive teacher sitting with boy with dyslexia as he reads
supportive teacher sitting with boy with dyslexia as he reads

As a first-grader, I had a great deal of trouble learning to read. I simply couldn’t decode words on a page. At that time, before we knew much about attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and dyslexia (I have both), poor readers got a simple diagnosis: They were “stupid.” The treatment plan was to “try harder.”

Fortunately, my first-grade teacher was a wise woman. Mrs. Eldredge didn’t know why I could not read, but she did know what to do about it. At each reading period, she would come sit next to me and wrap me in her protective arm. That simple sign of encouragement was tremendously reassuring. With her beside me, I knew none of my classmates would dare make fun of me. It’s incredible that a seven-year-old would sit there, day in and day out, and demonstrate his incompetence. But I did. Such was the power of Mrs. Eldredge’s arm.

By the end of the year, I wasn’t much better at reading. But I was the most enthusiastic reader in the class.

My memory of Mrs. Eldredge has helped sustain me my entire life. In spite of my dyslexia and ADHD, I went to Harvard, where I majored in English, and then on to medical school. Now I make my living with words, by writing and speaking about ADHD, and by interpreting the words spoken by my patients. And I know that the only true learning disability is fear.

How can you establish a fear-free environment for your own child? Here are some ideas:

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have Dyslexia?]

Encourage your child’s creativity however it is expressed-whether it’s inventing a new soccer kick, cooking without recipes, writing stories, or building an engineering project out of dirty socks. Sometimes a child’s creativity is messy, but as long as it’s not destructive, enjoy it. Think of it as impulsivity gone right!

Patience is critical. Find ways to remind yourself of this. Maybe you could sit quietly for a few minutes each day to de-stress. Or post a “BE PATIENT” sign on your bathroom mirror. Most important, get enough sleep!

Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t approach things in the “normal” way. Few children who have ADHD do. Encourage your child to take whatever approach works for him (and urge his teacher to do likewise).

Create routines at home and at school. Kids thrive when they have a schedule-so they know what’s coming next and don’t have to guess. “Predictable” should not mean “boring,” however!

[Self-Test: Could My Child Have a Learning Disability?]

Children with ADHD live on a different timetable than their non-ADHD parents. Find ways to minimize conflict over this difference. A countdown timer in the child’s room will help in the mornings, as will posting sticky-note reminders where your child will see them. Lay out clothes and pack backpacks the night before, and leave extra time before appointments. Make sure your child gets enough sleep, too.

Set up your child to make progress on something that matters to him. This builds confidence and motivation.

ADHD truly is a gift. The right environment will help your child realize its rewards.

Edward Hallowell, M.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.