Having a child with ADHD can be tough. I’ve definitely struggled with who Gabe is over the years. As a baby, he would just lay on the floor surrounded by toys and not reach for a single one of them. I remember that being a huge red flag for me, particularly given my background in early childhood.

When he was three, I went to read a book to his preschool class. As I sat in the chair preparing to start the book, all of his little peers were looking up at me expectantly. Gabe was right there in the middle of them; however, he had his back completely to me. There was no awareness that “Wow, my friends are all turned around. Maybe I should turn around too.” I was embarrassed and confused. Another red flag.

Gabe was never a particularly warm and cuddly child; although his dad will say otherwise. I guess I say that because Gabe was not a “mama’s boy” like my other two. I like to cuddle with my children. I show my love for them mostly in physical ways (e.g., back rubbing, hugging, snuggling, kissing on the head).

Gabe was bristly to all of that, which made it very hard for me to form an attachment with him that was like the ones I had with my other two boys. It’s interesting because since Gabe has been medicated, he has softened and become more affectionate.

“Having a child with ADHD can be tough.”

One evening while I was washing my face, he came in just to tell me how much he loved dinner. The other night, I was reading on my bed while the boys did their homework. Gabe came into the room, jumped on the bed, and got under the covers. We lay there for about 20 minutes while he told me funny things from his day, shared what we loved about our cats, and reminisced about scenes from The Office.

It was a moment that made my heart swell.

As Gabe approached kindergarten, it became increasingly clear that he was going to need another year to ripen. So, we enrolled him in the TK (transitional kindergarten) class at his preschool. That was definitely one of the best decisions we ever made for him. He had such warm and supportive teachers who adored him. I thought sure he was finally socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten.

This illusion came crashing down for me at the Mother’s Day performance that year. I remember sitting there with all of the other mothers watching the children sing and perform songs – all except Gabe. He just stood there barely moving his lips.

Tears welled up in my eyes, and a knot began to form in my stomach. I remember thinking, “Why can’t Gabe just be like everyone else?” I was mortified and concerned.

As soon as I got to my car, I broke down into tears. I was petrified for Gabe moving forward. What was school going to be like for him? Would teachers be supportive of him and his quirkiness, or would he be misunderstood?

Elementary school ended up being a great experience for Gabe. He always had warm and caring teachers who understood him and helped him develop into a star student. Fast forward to middle school when all of my hopes and dreams for him came crashing down again.

“IT’S TIME FOR THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM TO CHANGE FOR THEM (CHILDREN WITH LEARNING DIFFERENCES) – NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.”

Gabe is now a sixth grader, and we just finished his second 504 meeting. During the first meeting, all of us had decided that he really didn’t need a plan because he was doing so well. That was before the projects. Oh, the projects. The assignments that require an enormous amount of working memory. It’s no wonder that Gabe failed the first book study in his literacy class. Hence, the second 504 meeting.

As soon as I saw his grades for this project, I emailed his teacher. Her response was that Gabe was unmotivated, didn’t care, and was surrounded by peers who were on-task and wanted to do well (i.e., Gabe is lazy). My heart sank as I read these words. My absolute worst fears were coming to fruition right before my very eyes. Gabe had been labeled, and he was misunderstood.

I took deep breaths, and replied to her message letting her know that his motivation and desire to do well were absolutely not the issues.

What his teachers don’t see is a kid who comes home from school each day and immediately does his homework. Without a single prompt. What they don’t see is a boy who sits down at the piano each night and practices his songs for Federation. Without a single prompt.

I quickly worked to remove those words from the narrative about who Gabe is. I also realized in this moment that my job as a mother was shifting. I was going to need to be Gabe’s fiercest advocate and his voice. I vowed in that moment that I would do everything I could to ensure that he gets what he needs to not only do well in school, but to thrive.

In the second 504 meeting, Craig was unable to be there. He was on a work trip in Nashville. So, I was entering the lion’s den on my own. I had butterflies in my stomach as I entered the room. As the meeting moved on, I began to hear the words “blank stare” and “zoned out.”

As more and more teachers piled on, I stopped the conversation and said, “I’m sorry, but why does it matter if he looks like he is zoning out when he is doing so well in school? This meeting is about supporting him through the projects and nothing else.”

“OUR JOB AS PARENTS is TO HELP TEACHERS LOOK BEYOND THE LETTERS ADHD…”

My other thought was: would they be saying these things if they didn’t know he had ADHD? Surely there are other sixth grade boys zoning out in math class. It also became increasingly clear during this meeting that one teacher in particular was never going to understand ADHD, or really like Gabe.

This was even after I told the TK story (in tears) and articulated how I have struggled with who Gabe is over the years. However, now, I don’t want Gabe to be anyone other than who he is. He’s kind, funny, liked by peers, and loves his family dearly.

Gabe is a square peg trying to fit into the round hole of the educational system – especially in the race to nowhere schools that my boys attend. He is going to be misunderstood and labeled. I now realize that. I worry about Gabe, but he always manages to surprise me.

Dear parents of square pegs, I feel your pain. It’s not easy navigating a world where our children will not be seen for who they are – simply because they have a label. I strongly believe that it is our job as parents to help teachers look beyond the letters ADHD or whatever label they have been given so they can see how special our children are.

Gabe’s academic road ahead will most likely not be an easy one, but you can bet that I will do everything in power to help him understand how his brain works, and its incompatibility with the current education system. I also want him to know that he should never change who is just because that’s convenient for others.

He (and all square pegs) are fine just the way they are. It’s time for the educational system to change for them – not the other way around.

Click here for more content by Jen Neitzel, Ph.D.!

Jen Neitzel, Ph.D.
Jen started her career in early childhood education over 20 years ago in the classroom teaching young children with significant behavioral challenges.

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