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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.

GreatSchools: What have you found are some of the most effective things parents can do to bolster their kids’ success in school and life?

Phelps: I understand parents today have many responsibilities — including their jobs — so they can’t always be at school to volunteer. At my school, parents and grandparents have an open invitation to visit the school to touch base. For example, some of our students’ fathers work in law enforcement and drop by school on their way home after a night shift. This atmosphere creates for our kids a united front: parents, teachers, and principal all working together.

I firmly believe parents and kids should communicate with each other through eye contact and their voices. I encourage parents to have their kids unplug from their iPods, disengage from [instant messaging] etc., and then talk to — and listen to — them. Parents and educators need to set a good example for kids — in the way we dress, talk, and behave. We need to be honest and accountable for our own actions. You are your child’s first teacher and role model.

Too many parents try to be their children’s friends. You have to draw the line and be the parent, the authority figure. Deep down, kids don’t really want their parents, teachers, or principal to be their pals. They want the security that comes from having strong adults in their lives.

GreatSchools: Now that your own kids are adults, do you find it difficult to let go?

Phelps: I tell other parents “Don’t completely let go of your children’s hands. They may not directly ask for your advice, so just be there for them, keep the door to communication propped open, and listen between the lines.” And, yes, it’s possible do that without being a helicopter parent!

GreatSchools: In your book, you describe the philosophy of the swimming club where your kids trained from a young age and how the rigorous training members went through could ultimately lead them down one of three paths: recreation, collegiate swimming and competition, or world-class Olympic swimming. Each road was considered as worthy as the others. Has that philosophy helped you understand your children and students?

Phelps: It’s important that we inspire children to work hard, to strive for excellence, but also to be true to themselves and have some fun. Every student has goals. Some students will aim higher, but I want every child to have the goal of being successful at whatever level is right for him. All goals are worthy.

Parents and teachers should honor the dreams children have and involve them in setting their own goals — then help make them happen. No one learns the same way, so every child should feel free to ask adults for help mastering certain skills or taking steps toward a particular goal.

GreatSchools: What do you expect from the students at your school?

Phelps: I tell my students, “Someday you will run our country. You’ll take care of us — your parents and teachers.” Students are often stunned by that statement. I reassure them by saying, “Your parents and teachers are investing in your future. Coming to school is your job; we’re preparing you for the world.” Our school family embraces each student. That’s the way it should be. Kids need to know that the adults in their lives believe in them.

GreatSchools: What opportunities do you offer students so they can practice that kind of adult responsibility?

Phelps: One example is the principal's advisory board called Student Choice/Student Voice. It's a student roundtable we convene to discuss school rules and practices. When you open your heart, mind, and ears to students, it’s amazing what you learn from them and the ideas and insights they have to offer.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


Comments from readers

"I find it extremely inspiring that a person of special needs can focus on a sport like that and be so successful at it.I have 2 special needs boys. I take them swimming and they both love it. Like she wrote, you have goals for your children and right now those goals include recreation. But if they were to become serious in anything I must learn how to help them cultivate their interests. It is knowing your children. I just want my children to feel fulfilled in life - to find their glitch."
"Well said Debbie! I teach a student whose parents refuse medication for their child and for good reasons. I admire that you are sharing your personal epertise with us. I hope that more parents will inform teachers how to work with their children."
"This mother raised a son who does DRUGS. Neither should be applauded as a role model. This is absurd. Please remember this mother as you raise your children....and teach your child morals and values and don't be fooled smoking pot leads to other drugs and any drug that impairs a young mind can devastate a life. I have 2 children neither deal with ADHD but I am sure their are champion parents out there who raised their ADHD child to STAY AWAY from drugs and they should be honored in this woman spot. "
"The article was a nice reminder of the importance of being INVOLVED at every stage of your child's education. The few negative comments about drug use and Phelps not being a good role model is irrelevant. Are drugs wrong? Absolutely! But this article wasn't about that. The only difference between this mother's struggle and so many of ours is that her son's faults were publicized. The majority of us all work very hard to make sure we give our children the tools to be successfull in every aspect of life. The mistakes they make as adults; are just that, their mistakes. We should be careful how we judge others; less we find our own selves in similar situations without an ounce of compassion for us."
"Oh give me a break some of you 'Holier than thou parents!'you are hypocrites! Michael Phelps made a mistake, YES he can be forgiven and given a second chance. So what,he got caught smoking some weed,big deal. I used it as a great learning tool for my young sons as another reason for NOT doing drugs. As for all you holier than thou parents,you can't honestly tell me that you did not drink as an underage college student or even try weed at some point in your lives. Studies have shown that 75% of high school seniors have had at least 1 drink in the last year. Those kids who did not ever have a drink underage(which is illegal)are the minority. This is high school statistics, I betting college is worse, and you are still underage in college at 17,18,19,20 years of age. I'm not saying that it is right and we all want to do what is right and guide our children to do whats right, but you are being a hypocrit for condemming Mr. Phelps. I forgive a young Micheal for his dumb actions. ! "
"Are you kidding me? I think once someone who has everything makes a choice to do drugs, loses the right to be a role model. You have lost my subscription to this page and support as well. Kindergarten teacher and mom of two."
"thank you for the article very good and informative. I will read it to the children that I am guardian to ages 13thru 3 yrs. old. The two oldest boys have ADHD/OPD with emotional problems. "
"I tried all of the above. In High School, even though I had documentation in my son's records as well as spoke with his teachers, we were told, he should be more responsible and take responsibility for his actions/lack of. My son's disability is more inattentive than hyperatve. To me, because of this and though not spoken of, they did not believe he had a disability. I believe until Teachers are educated on this issue and required to fulfill their position of, a lot of kids with AD/HD will continue to score low/be less educated due to their Teacher's lack of education. "
".. nice to know"
"I would not call Michael Phelps a success. He publicly humiliated himself and his entire family by choosing to use drugs and allowing a photo to be taken of him in the act. I am extremely disappointed by our society and by your estimation of 'success' that a role model can be forgiven for breaking the law and for setting a terrible example for others, just because he happens to have won some gold medals. If an ordinary young person makes a similar choice, would he or she be forgiven? No. Such young people would not be able to find jobs, due to criminal background chcks, they would very likely not be accepted to decent colleges due to such a choice to publicly break the law, and they would be forever remembered as the kid who messed up his chances at success. Come on, people. Let's hold ourselves, our children, and our 'celebrities' to a higher standard NOW."
"What comes through in this interview is that each child has his areas of strentgh and it is for us as parents and teachers to recognise this potential and guide the child. What is also important is that collaboration that happens between parents and teachers which then benefits the child. "
"Thank you for the article. It's good to know that there are educators out there with philosophies like Phelps'."
"I am a latin single mother, I feel proud how this lady took the time to share her experience and encourage other parents with ADHD kids to look for new ideas to enhance our job."
"Thank you Mrs. Phelps for all that you do to encourage bridging the gaps and creating dialogues between parents and their children, as well as parents and schools. It's been my experience in my work that children with learning disabilities are bullied because their actions and responses are often misunderstood. Education and information are powerful tools and go a long way to allowing every child to thrive in a safe and nurturing environment. Again, thank you. Alexandra Penn, Founder 'Learning is Impaired when Children are Scared' "