My son has a hard time in school. He has an array of neurological diagnoses — attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing disorder, dysgraphia, severe executive function deficits, and anxiety — so school problems are to be expected. He has struggled in school since day two of kindergarten, when I received the first call from his school. Middle school and high school have magnified his academic challenges. I’ve advocated fiercely for him at school for 12 years now. Perfection isn’t attainable, but we’ve made progress.
My Son Needed More Than an IEP
In elementary school, my son had trouble meeting general expectations. He was hyper, distracted, sensory-seeking, and virtually unable to write. His belongings were scattered on the floor in a three-foot radius around his desk. He wanted to do well, but he couldn’t meet expectations for neurotypical students.
I thought that getting an IEP in third grade was a victory, but I was naïve about special education back then. I had to fight for additional services and ADHD accommodations that he needed. The biggest challenges in elementary school were social challenges (a lot of bullying) and lots of stress caused by unattainable expectations. Some years the stress nearly broke him and me.
By the middle of seventh grade, his grades were plummeting. He was constantly losing papers and his agenda. He was completing some assignments two or three times each because he lost them before turning them in. He had an IEP in place, with goals for writing and planning/organization. I had advocated for what he needed, and the team agreed to put these items in his IEP. The problem was that he was grossly misunderstood, which caused teachers to not see the need to implement his IEP in the classroom. He was “smart enough” to succeed in their minds.
Exhausted from Navigating ADHD and School Problems
I was fed up with this by the time my son reached eighth grade. I was exhausted from emailing teachers to try to figure out what he needed to be doing, when it was due, what was missing, and which work needed to be made up. I was through with making my kid do the same work over and over. For years I had requested that he be allowed to use an iPad for his schoolwork. Between the dysgraphia and the executive dysfunctions, it seemed like it would be a big help. That year, I called an IEP meeting just for this purpose. We would provide the iPad and apps and materials needed to make the plan work, all we needed was teacher buy-in so he could use it in class. So the school added an iPad to his IEP. I let out a measured sigh of relief — by this point, I knew nothing we did would ever completely erase his academic challenges.
The transition to high school brought new challenges. The switch to a giant school, with more than 2,000 teens moving through the halls at once, is jarring for just about everyone. We started doing half a day in person at school and two classes (the other half the day) at home, using our state’s virtual online public school. I assist my son each day with his online classes to keep him on track. As of the end of tenth grade, he had A’s in both online classes. He’s never had more than one A on any report card in his entire life, until now.
Five Keys to Keep Things Positive and Productive
Here are the approaches that worked well for me in keeping my relationships with teachers and administrators in good stead:
Make your concerns heard and noted. Request a school meeting any time your child is not receiving the accommodations and/or services he needs. Draft and submit a Parent Concerns Letter and a Present Levels of Performance Letter at least three days before an IEP meeting. Request that the content of both letters be copied and pasted into the Parent Concerns section of the IEP document for the meeting. (I send them as Word documents, so school staff can copy and paste them easily.) In the Parent Concerns Letter, insert extracts from professional evaluation reports to support your concerns. Classroom teachers don’t have time to read your child’s entire school file, so this helps them see what is most important.
For the Present Levels of Performance Letter, include your child’s current grade in every class, any disciplinary actions that have occurred since your last meeting, and the current school struggles that concern you. Make sure to include all challenges related to school: academic, behavior, social, at-school extracurricular, and emotional. Submitting these letters a few days before a meeting will spur conversations among school staff on how to address concerns before the meeting.
If you can afford it, or if your state offers the service free, work with an educational advocate and have her come to your school meetings. Schools take requests from professional advocates more seriously than they do requests from parents.
Be clear about what your child needs to be successful at school. Let go of neurotypical academic expectations. Grades don’t mean as much as everyone wants you to believe. Define what success looks like for your child, and let that guide your expectations.
Give lots of attention to your child’s every win, big or small. It’s impossible to feel capable and confident when you cannot meet the expectations placed on you. Your child needs to be reminded that she can succeed, too. Make a big deal of her successes. Post them on the refrigerator or keep a stack of good reports in places where she can see them. When my son was part of Science Olympiad, in fifth grade, his team won two of its competitions and they received a medal for each win. He wore those medals around his neck like he’d won gold at the Olympics. We had him pose for photos with his medals and took him to lunch at his favorite restaurant. We hung the medals on his bedroom wall. Five years later, he still talks about the Science Olympiad competition.
Become creative about your child’s education. When you stop trying to make your child “fit” traditional school expectations, you can think creatively about how to structure his education so it works for him. For us, having our son take half his classes in person at school and half online at home was life-changing. His grades are the best they’ve ever been.
Work collaboratively with teachers and administrators. When you have a request for an accommodation, explain which approach has helped your child with a specific struggle at home, and ask the teacher what she thinks about trying it in the classroom. A collaborative approach ensures that everyone’s concerns and suggestions are heard and respected.
Leave your emotions at home. This one is hard to do as a parent, but it is crucial. When you’re emotional, the team follows suit. Speak to the team in the way you hope they’ll speak to you. When I was emotional about something going on in school, I drafted an email that said what I wanted to say to everyone, but I never sent it. This allowed me to process my feelings without compromising relationships with staff and the outcomes of meetings.
Be realistic and optimistic. Optimism feels impossible if you’ve advocated for your child, but see little improvement. Some kids aren’t good at school, mine included. That does not foreshadow success or failure as an adult. When you set realistic expectations and goals (with your child’s input), it’s easier to remain optimistic. And when you’re optimistic, your communications with teachers and administrators will be more effective.
The adage, “Treat others as you’d like to be treated,” is key to healthy school relationships. Approach school staff calmly and respectfully, always keeping your child’s needs and definition of success at the front of your mind.
Penny Williams is a parenting trainer, coach, and author dedicated to helping parents survive and thrive in this special parenthood. Williams offers mom retreats, online parent training courses, and parent coaching. She’s the award-winning author of four books on parenting kids with ADHD: Boy Without Instructions, What to Expect When Parenting Children with ADHD, The Insider’s Guide to ADHD, and The Hidden Layers of ADHD. She also writes frequently for ADDitude magazine and other parenting and special needs publications.