Championing children's success
Debbie Phelps reveals her secrets, from raising a superstar swimmer to inspiring middle-schoolers to follow their dreams.
By Kristin Stanberry
Though the image of her cheering her son Michael Phelps from the stands may have made her famous, Debbie Phelps isn’t one to watch life from the sidelines. A dynamic parent, educator, author, and public speaker, Phelps has helped not only her own children succeed but also countless others.
In her recent memoir, A Mother for All Seasons (William Morrow), Phelps recounts her dual life as a parent of three and an educator, pursuing a career that began with teaching home economics and led to cofounding a public school, Windsor Mill Middle School in Baltimore, where she still serves as principal. Michael, her youngest, presented special challenges because he suffered from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD).
As a devoted single mom — she divorced when her children were teenagers — Phelps has much to say about parenting. But it is the stories of how she lives her life that lend her memoir special resonance. GreatSchools recently had the pleasure of interviewing Phelps about her famous son, her guiding principles as a parent, and her secrets to instilling great expectations in her students.
GreatSchools: You and Michael are very open about the fact that he has AD/HD. How did raising a child with AD/HD influence your attitude toward students with similar challenges?
Debbie Phelps: My philosophy has always been to recognize each student’s learning style, strengths, and needs — whether or not he has a diagnosed disorder. I believe in drawing out the special gifts each child possesses. As a school principal, I expect the teachers I supervise to do the same.
GreatSchools: How did you work with Michael’s teachers to help him succeed in the classroom?
Phelps: I believe being a partner with your child's schools is very important at every level: elementary, middle, and high school. Having teachers who understood Michael's personality and learning style helped him focus in the classroom. Even so, there were some teachers I had to conference with to help them understand and adapt to his learning challenges. While Michael can hyper-focus on subjects and activities he finds interesting, with other subjects, he tunes out, drifts off, or becomes restless. An observant teacher will notice that and help him stay on task using simple techniques. And when a child needs to move around or wiggle, as is true for many kids with AD/HD, there are ways to accommodate that. After all, how many of us adults can comfortably sit still at a desk for long periods of time without taking a break to stand up, stretch, and walk around?
GreatSchools: Over the years, how have you helped Michael stay grounded and focused outside of the classroom?
Phelps: I was able to provide the structure and routine Michael needed at home. I always appreciated his high energy level and tendency to hyper-focus on what fascinated him — both of which served him well as a competitive swimmer.
GreatSchools: The medications used to manage AD/HD have evolved a great deal since Michael was growing up. If you were raising your son today, would you still give him medication?
Phelps: I would consult a doctor, but most likely yes, now that longer-acting medications are available [eliminating the need to visit the school office to take a lunchtime dose, which Michael loathed], I’d definitely have him try taking medication on school days. That said, I’d still make sure his teachers understand what classroom accommodations and teaching methods work best for him. All parents should know what their children need and communicate that to teachers.
Having kids with AD/HD take medication in middle and high school makes total sense, because at that level they’re dealing with several teachers (and teaching styles), classrooms, and academic subjects as well as organizational challenges. Expecting several teachers to adapt to your child — and your child to manage those challenges if he needs medication to focus — isn’t always realistic.