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What Are Realistic Expectations for Children’s Progress at School?

With goals designed for students with ADHD, an individualized education program (IEP) that works, and parental support, our kids can surprise us with their success!

It’s parent-teacher conference season again, and even though I keep in contact with Natalie’s special education and classroom teachers throughout the school year, those darn meetings still have the power to surprise me.

The surprise we received at Natalie’s fall conference was the unwelcome kind — disappointing news. Don and I both left that meeting feeling shell-shocked and sad. Natalie, we were told, was getting next to nothing out of her time in the regular classroom.

Ever since we adopted Natalie at age two and a half, from an orphanage in Russia, we’ve hoped that her incredible, natural resilience would win out over all the strikes against her — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and prenatal exposure to alcohol, paired with malnutrition and an appalling lack of stimulation during those all-important first years. We dreamed that given enough help, over time, she’d “catch up” with her typically-developing peers. Third grade, it appears, has been a defining year for Natalie, the year those dreams have been dashed. She isn’t going to “catch up.”

In reality, as the curriculum grows harder, the distance between Natalie and her peers is widening. They are speeding ahead, learning increasingly complex material, while Nat battles just to feel calm and safe, to sit still and stay focused.

Between the fall and spring parent-teacher conferences, our homework, as Natalie’s parents, has been to adjust our expectations — to refocus on different goals, to answer the question: If Nat’s goal is no longer to “catch up,” then what is it?

At Natalie’s psychologist’s suggestion during an individualized education program (IEP) meeting, the school is providing an aide for Natalie during her time in the regular classroom. This has helped reduce her anxiety.

“I know that if I don’t understand something, Mrs. Sawyer is there to help,” Nat told me.

I’m working with her psychiatrist to find the combo of medications that will best reduce her anxiety and inattention — her biggest barriers to learning. In other words, we’ll support her in every way we can so that she can do her best, whatever her best turns out to be.

Having realistic expectations for Natalie’s future has been powerful and freeing. Adjusting to this new way of thinking about Nat’s abilities meant there were no disappointments at our spring parent-teacher conference. There was still a surprise, but this time, it was a good one.

At the end of the meeting, Natalie’s special education teacher, Mrs. Carter, shared one of her writing assignments proudly, a six-page autobiography. Nat’s handwriting was better than we ever thought we’d see, and she’d used a visual tool to organize every paragraph and add detail to her story. Next, we discovered she’d achieved an even bigger accomplishment. She’d read the paper aloud — fluently and with confidence — in her regular classroom, and then answered her classmates’ questions. Mrs. Carter said that Natalie’s aide, Mrs. Sawyer, had tears in her eyes when she returned to the special ed room and relayed the story. Natalie did a better job than her teachers thought possible.

This is what I learned from this year’s parent teacher conferences: As parents of kids with ADHD and co-existing conditions, it’s important that we start out with realistic expectations about what our kids can accomplish.
But then, we should expect them to surprise us.