Guest Blogs

“My Son Made Me a Better Teacher”

Coping with my son’s impulsivity and ADHD symptoms gave me a truer understanding of what made kids with ADHD tick in high school.

It’s 6:43 in the morning. A noise that sounds like either a cat dying or a dinosaur roaring (or a blend of the two) is coming from the hallway bathroom. About 10 minutes ago, I instructed my 10-year-old son to brush his teeth.

Many kids brush their teeth without giving it a thought every morning. For my son, getting into the bathroom, picking up his toothbrush, applying toothpaste, and getting both into his mouth in less than 10 minutes is a feat.

Somewhere between my tooth-brushing prompt and his performing the act, he gets sidetracked. He may be making sure the lone Lego piece left on the floor the night before is placed back in its home. Maybe he’s organizing the stacks of Pokémon cards on the shelf in his room.

[Quiz: How Well Do You Know Special Ed Law?]

Or maybe, like today, he’s standing in the middle of the bathroom trying to create the world’s most annoying sound. Eventually, he will brush his teeth, but the sound will continue all the way out the door, into the car, and for most of the drive to school.

Most parents of children with ADHD can relate to mornings like this, or some variation of it. When my son was diagnosed in kindergarten, my husband and I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Finally, we knew what we were dealing with and could take the necessary steps to help him. Taking the time for understanding ADHD and its effects on my son has made me a better parent and a better teacher. Here’s how.

Students, And Their Conditions, Are Not Simple

Regular classroom teachers receive little training in special education. As a high school teacher, I majored in my subject matter and took only one class on exceptional students when I was getting my teaching license. The course offered me some exposure to the specific needs of students, but the curriculum only scratched the surface of those needs.

In fact, having taken an exceptional-student course in college made me sure that my child did not have ADHD when he started having trouble in school. He had none of the “typical” symptoms, was doing well academically, but had a serious issue with impulsivity and outbursts. At the time, I had no idea that ADHD had subtypes.

[Free Poster: What Every Teacher Should Know About ADHD]

Having a child with ADHD has made me aware that children, and their conditions, limitations, and gifts, are not as simple as the exceptional-student class had led me to believe. This has made me more empathetic and open to see my students as individuals with unique needs.

Students Need To Move

Adolescents move around the classroom, lying on pillows and lounging in foldable camping chairs. It’s not a college dorm room. It’s my high school English class. Sitting at a hard, uncomfortable desk all day is unpleasant, even for adults. For students with ADHD, it can be painful. Parenting my son has taught me to respect my students’ need for movement.

So I have put in place laid-back movement rules in my classroom and set up alternative seating options for students. Some of my students have ADHD and do well when they are allowed to stand in the back of the room for a while. Others need more space. My students are 17 years old — it’s difficult for a student who’s over six feet tall to fit into a tiny desk—without enough room to stretch his legs—for 50 minutes straight.

Being Forgetful Is Not Intentional

A name, format, due date—I have some students who forget just about everything. Many times they have gifted minds and do excellent work, but they have trouble following through. The most frustrating variation of this is the student who fails to turn in work I saw him complete in class.

[How Teachers Can Help Every Student Shine]

At times like these, I think of my son and the tooth-brushing anecdote. His extended-release medicine hasn’t kicked in yet, and remembering a task is almost impossible. The Lego piece, the Pokémon cards, and the noise-making seem to override remembering that “mom said brush your teeth.”

It’s the same for some of my students. Deducting points on an assignment without a name or refusing to take late work does nothing but penalize a student for exhibiting one of the most prevalent symptoms of ADHD — forgetfulness. So I have a flexible late-work policy, and I’m always willing to track down the student who forgets to write her name on an assignment.

Let the Little Things Go and Focus on Positive Reinforcement

Finger-tapping, incessant talking, daydreaming—any parent of a child with ADHD knows that little disruptions like these are par for the course for kids with attention and impulse struggles. As an ADHD parent, I think of myself as immune to them, or I strive to be. Major disruptions and misbehaviors are dealt with according to school policy, but my son has taught me to “let the little things go” in my classroom.

Sometimes just ignoring the (minor) negatives and focusing on the positives can go a long way. If I allowed myself to get irritated over every small disruption or distraction that occurred in my classroom, the students and I would be miserable most of the day. Many students with ADHD already feel defeated, so critiquing them on little things often does more harm than good.

When I started my career, I thought my formal education and my knowledge of Shakespeare and thesis statements provided me with everything I needed to be a good teacher. But to paraphrase Julius Caesar, experience is the best educator. My experiences as an ADHD parent have made me a more understanding, flexible, and effective teacher. I have to thank my son for that, even if he produces the world’s most annoying sound.