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Good Grades Matter—but My Daughter’s Self-Esteem Matters More

When my daughter with ADHD struggled in a school system that wasn’t designed for kids with special needs, I always told her knowledge was most important. A good grade was just the icing on the cake.

“Lee, what grade did you get in First Aid?”

It wasn’t the first time I’d asked my daughter with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) this question.  We were already a month into summer, and I still wanted to know.

Lee looked up from her cereal bowl and sighed. “It doesn’t matter, Mom.  I learned a lot… and my professor said I passed the final.”

That meant one of two things.  Either she really didn’t care about her grade, or she felt too lazy at the moment to navigate the online community college website. I poured a second cup of coffee and joined her at the kitchen table.

Why did I want to know so badly? Was it all the hours I’d put into helping her study, drilling her with flashcards and practice tests? Did I need the grade to feel like it wasn’t a waste of time?  Wasn’t it enough that I’d learned a lot about first aid, too? As I’d always told Lee, knowledge was most important. A good grade was just the icing on the cake.

I thought back to when I was a child. I loved it when Mom dressed me in a new plaid jumper for the first day of school, fussing over my ponytail, and sending me off to the yellow bus with a kiss. I loved the challenge of tests and studied hard the night before at my little bedroom desk, working to earn A’s in all my classes.

[Self Test: Does My Teenage Daughter Have ADHD?]

By the time my child was in first grade, it was clear that she was nothing like me. Lee saw school as a prison and lived for recess when she could chase blue belly lizards around the grassy field.  Her clothes came home stained with mud, her hair often tangled with leaves, new sneakers scuffed and torn. Grades were never important, and often forgotten, her assignments crumpled in little balls to throw around her room. School meant paying attention, and for a hyperactive child in perpetual motion, that was torture. Homework was even worse, and if I pressed her too hard to finish, she’d crawl to the safety of the couch and bang her head with frustration.

One day, I walked into the first-grade classroom to volunteer, looking for Lee. All of the children were working at long tables, noses in their books. I scanned the room, but Lee was nowhere to be seen. The teacher walked over to me and said, “Jennifer, I’m concerned.”  She pointed under one of the tables. There was Lee, trembling, crouching like an animal and rocking back and forth. “I want to go home, Mommy,” she said, throwing herself into my arms. “I’m the dumbest person in the class.”

School was breaking Lee, my husband, and me into tiny pieces when we got the diagnosis: ADHD, sensory processing disorder (SPD), anxiety, and learning disabilities. Grades slid to the bottom of my priority list, as I became consumed with helping Lee navigate a school system that wasn’t designed to bring out self-confidence in a kid with special needs. We sought intervention with occupational therapy for coping mechanisms that helped her sit still.

Lee took medication that improved her focus. Every morning, she did exercises that grounded her body in space, allowing herself to listen.

[Dear Teacher, Please Meet My Child: A Sample Letter for Parents]

Even though my mother-in-law routinely handed out cash for A’s, I asked her not to give Lee any money. I treated an A no different than a C, celebrating the end of school, instead, with a trip to the ice cream store. I felt that her academic success was second to her effort and progress.  If Lee’s teacher sent home a good report, or Lee remembered to study for a test, or do her homework, I praised her, using a chart with stars. Once the chart was full, she could pick out a reward, like a family outing to the beach.

In middle school, I monitored grades and let Lee know when they were slipping. She looked at them if a teacher handed back a paper, but ignored them otherwise. She just wanted to pass a class so she wouldn’t have to repeat it. But grades caught up with her in high school, when the push to apply to colleges intensified. In a world where teachers and students alike were constantly measuring her up, grades lowered her into the pit of despair. Halfway through senior year, she was unable to attend school due to crippling anxiety — and finished high school at home.

Lee swallowed her last bite of cereal and reached out for her laptop. “Mom, if you really want to know my grade, I’ll look now,” she said. “I have to go on the website anyway to register for fall.”

I stood up, taking my coffee mug to the sink. “It doesn’t matter, honey.” And I meant it. My daughter’s self-esteem meant more to me than a grade.  She’d gained more life knowledge through the class, including her CPR certification. At the same time, a small thrill of anticipation went through me, taking me back to the little girl in the plaid jumper who loved to hear her grades.

I turned around as she said, “It’s an A.” A warm flush of happiness spread over her face. Just icing on the cake, I reminded myself.  But that icing tasted so, so good.

[Free ADHD Resource: Solve Your Child’s Homework Problems]