Have you ever wondered how much training your child’s teacher has had on special needs? Yes, I have too. Although my experience remains largely positive, I’ve often found myself explaining very basic things about ADHD to my son’s teachers. I didn’t expect them to know everything but I definitely expected them to know more. I also found that they really wanted to know more.
Throughout my son’s schooling experience, there have been few things I dreaded as much as parent/teacher meetings. And it is not the fear of the unknown - rather, it is the fear of the known. They usually go like this: “He is a very bright boy and he is doing well. However, he gets really distracted/ doesn’t stay on task/ doesn’t focus. IF ONLY he focused, he could do so much better.” The way I hear it is: “Your son is a really good runner, he did so well in the last race but his wooden leg is really slowing him down. IF ONLY he grew another normal leg, he could be so much faster, he could even win”. I know. But he can’t grow another leg.
While my son's disability is not visible, it is no less debilitating, and he is only one of over
1 mln children with special needs who attend mainstream schools. So this is my…
Open Letter to My Son’s Teachers of Past, Present and Future:
I know my son gets distracted. Sometimes it takes him 20 minutes to get dressed because he will get distracted ten times in the process. Only to come downstairs with only one sock on. There was probably a dog barking outside so he got distracted. That’s why he gets up a bit earlier - to make sure he can get ready on time. He also has a very impaired sense of time - he is unable to judge the passage of time so he loses track of it which often leads to lateness, impatience and procrastination. It remains ironic that Albert Einstein who famously had ADHD developed the theory of relativity. For my son time is definitely relative.
I know my son fidgets. He will play with anything he can find - his pen, his collar, buttons on his blazer, his water bottle. It can be annoying and it often looks like he doesn’t listen but it actually helps him listen. Very often, the more he does it, the more goes in. You frequently ask me to talk to him about it but it’s the same as telling a cicada to stop being so noisy. Also, he is even more self-conscious and aware of it than we are. Telling him to stop fidgeting would only stress him and make him fidget more. And I also need to use my very limited time with him and his very limited attention to teach him about other important things - such as resilience, or kindness to others and to himself. I have to pick my battles.
I know my son makes a lot of noise. He is used to noise and feels uncomfortable without it. Imagine being in a loud busy football stadium all the time. This is how every day feels for him. When we get lost in a book on our commute to work, we eventually manage to cut out external noise, people chatting and shuffling next to us. He can’t. At any given point, he can hear everything, including the couple arguing on another platform, dog barking in the distance, someone a few rows away opening a packet of crisps. It’s exhausting but this is what he is used to. He has no ability to filter the noise by importance. Everything is always equally important. So, if occasionally he finds himself in a quiet place with no noise (usually your classroom), he is likely to create some noise - he will start humming, shuffling, scratching something or banging a pen on his desk. It’s annoying but it makes him feel safe.
He is likely to get distressed or hyper-active if there is any unexpected change to plans or usual routine. A need for routine and structure is widely known to be one of the main traits of ASD. However, it is also one of the main traits of children with ADHD. With their minds and emotions in constant disarray, routine puts some order into a life and mind with very little order in it. It allows them to achieve a certain fragile balance and feel safe. That’s why he may need the same warnings and time to adjust, as autistic children do.
He is often tired because he can’t sleep. His mind doesn’t switch off. He does meditation in the evenings, he doesn’t play computer games during the week, he has a good bedtime routine. However, his mind can’t switch off in the same way his body can’t. He is wired differently. So, as he is going into his teenage years and all his friends sleep more, he doesn’t. He would love to but he doesn’t.
Please tell him off and discipline him. I want you to and I’m firmly on your side. Just remember that no matter how hard you are on him, he is probably even harder on himself. Also, please bear in mind that if you want to ask him to stop fidgeting, he’s probably been asked the same in every other class before. So it could be the 20th time he hears it and it’s not even 3pm. He is a cicada. He is also incredibly sensitive because he knows he is different and he feels like he has been told off for years. The reality is that he has been told off for years - at school, at home, at different clubs. He hates his ADHD with a passion and doesn’t want to be a cicada. He would have never chosen to be one if he could have had his say, and he is still too young to know that cicadas are beautiful insects that can transform boring into magical.
I know that he is often infantile and doesn’t react in an age-appropriate way, but, on average, an ADHD brain matures slower than a neurotypical brain, so, although academically he may be very able and on par with his peers, emotionally he is about 3 years behind. I sometimes forget it too but, if we remember it, a lot of behaviours make much more sense.
He works incredibly hard. Every piece of homework is a massive exercise in self-discipline and self-awareness, building the muscles he wasn’t naturally born with. Trying to grow this normal leg that would allow him to win the next race. He cares. And he idolises you. He hangs onto every word you say. When you praise him, he comes home with shiny eyes and a new lease on life. Do not underestimate the power of your praise. He needs to be constantly told that he is OK - not because he is vain but because he is so insecure. Long term awards don’t really work with an ADHD child while instant rewards and thoughtful praise can do wonders.
Other than this, thank you Teacher. I know it’s hard and I know how much patience it takes. We are a team.