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A Tale of Two Children: From School-age Struggles to Adult Success

Straight-forward, positive problem-solving helped one mom support her kids to overcome challenges.

By Emmy Fearn, M.A.

Over seventeen years ago, just a week and a half into kindergarten, my bright, sweet five-year-old daughter Dria told me she had "failed seven times, once each day" for failing to follow her teacher's directions. By first grade, she had fallen into the lowest reading group and was misbehaving in class, to the extent that her teacher had begun sending home a daily report card stating, "I was good today," "I was bad today," or "I was fair today," which I had to sign each night and return.

Based on Dria's troubling school behavior, our pediatrician recommended she be evaluated for attention deficit disorder (as AD/HD was then called). On the day of the assessment and diagnosis, I asked Dria if she knew why we had gone to see the doctor. Her reply was, "Yes, Mommy, because I am stupid."

Dria's younger brother, Jonathan, was also diagnosed with AD/HD and a learning disability when he had trouble learning to read in second grade. Nevertheless, over the years, both Dria and Jonathan have flourished academically, emotionally, and socially. Today Dria is a senior honors student and student leader at UCLA and plans to go on to law school next year. Jonathan is a freshman in computer science engineering at UC Davis. Following is the story of how our children moved from school-age struggles to adult success.

Strategies for Success

Many parents and teachers have asked my husband and me what we have done that enabled our kids to become confident and happy achievers in spite of their disabilities. While there have been bumps and uncertainties along the way, a key factor was that we consistently dealt with our children's situations in a straightforward, positive, problem-solving manner. Neither of us was defensive or tried to assign blame. Together, we focused on what we needed to do to help them.

As parents, we found several strategies helpful. We:

  • Focused on having realistic expectations of our children. For example, we didn't expect them to "behave" when they were overtired.
  • Explained their disorders to the children in clear, unemotional terms they could understand.
  • Emphasized their personal strengths (sports and math for Dria, and music and math for Jonathan).
  • Carefully structured their educational environment, including enrolling them in a year-round (51 weeks per year) private school that had smaller classes than the public school (significantly reducing distractions) and which did not assign homework. We also provided both children with remedial tutoring in reading.

Teaching the Teachers

One ongoing task was that of educating teachers, most of whom had a poor understanding of the needs of students with AD/HD and LD. As we discovered classroom accommodations that worked (e.g., seating the child front and center in the classroom, and providing assignments in writing), we shared them with our children's new teachers. As the children grew older, they learned to tell their teachers what they needed, thus learning to advocate for themselves. After a discussion with a supportive teacher, Dria and I even developed a short handout for the high school faculty titled "AD/HD: What is it and so what?" which included the practical tips that we had discovered over the years.

Medication Made a Positive Difference

Perhaps most the important decision we made was to include stimulant medication in both children's treatment plans early on, before their academic challenges became overwhelming and they were self-conscious about being "different" from other children. Unfortunately, in 1988 the landmark - which has since demonstrated that appropriate, monitored stimulant medication significantly improves the behavior of children with AD/HD -was far in the future. Therefore, immediately following her diagnosis, Dria was not medicated, because her physician did not believe she "needed" medication.