“My son doesn’t want anyone to know he has ADHD,” a worried mom confides to me on the phone. “So he never asks the teacher for help. But he’s going into 8th grade next year and the work is getting more challenging and he often has no idea what he is supposed to be doing.” She pauses. “I’m so worried about high school. What should I do?”
This loving, involved mom has raised more than one issue in this plea for help. Can you see what they are?
- Son won’t ask for help.
- Son struggling more to keep up with school work.
- Mom wants to fix it.
By definition, teenagers are pulling away from their parents and finding out who they are and who they want to become. This boy, let’s call him “Jack,” wants to be “perfectly normal” as he perceives everyone else to be around him. He is trying to reject the symptoms of ADHD which he sees as a burden.
But it’s not working. Assignments and classroom lessons are getting more complex as teachers ask students to meld their intellects while they study, memorize facts and explore new content. And in the mind of a teen, they have to look cool while doing it. So Jack, a bright, creative kid, is protecting himself by saying things like “School is stupid, it doesn’t matter, I don’t care.” But he does.
And his parents can see him changing and they are worried. They want to make his pain go away, to relieve him of his sadness and frustration. But this is also part of becoming an adult. Parents have to allow their children to find their way — not alone, of course. Parents need to continue to be present, loving and supportive but the days of pouring milk so it won’t get spilled are changing.
So how do you get everyone’s needs met in this kind of situation?
Here is one small step that sets the stage to becoming a self-determined adult — to go big with the life you want your kids to lead. The skill we are after is first to be able to identify your need: in this case, Jack can’t follow a multiple step assignment. He needs to learn how to approach the teacher and advocate for himself by asking the teacher to write down or repeat the directions. Here’s one way to do that, step by step:
- Together, Jack and his parents choose a teacher that Jack likes and who likes Jack. The subject doesn’t matter; it’s the skill we are after.
- Mom emails or calls the teacher and sets the stage by explaining that Jack has a special need that means he cannot track multiple step directions, especially when they are delivered in a lecture that includes lots of explanations and examples. Parents do not need to say a lot — respect your child’s privacy here. This is not meant to be an excuse, but an active process.
- Mom asks for teacher’s agreement to respond positively to what will be Jack’s request. If the teacher pushes back, try a different teacher. This has to be set up to work, or Jack will not ask again.
- Mom then has Jack email the teacher with his request. She does not write the email for him nor does she need to look at it before he sends it. If the teacher has agreed to help, then Jack will be fine. Jack does need to keep it short and to the point but that is not usually a problem for teens — they are used to texting!
- Here is the hard part: mom has to let Jack and the teacher work it out. She can’t grill Jack or the teacher nor make them do anything.
- Pick something small and not of significant importance. Think of this as a training practice. When Jack and the teacher have been successful, then Jack can ask for the next, bigger assignment.
- Allow Jack to set the pace for trying to make a request to the next teacher. This is a big stretch for most kids, especially those with any kind of learning challenge.
- Use parent-teacher conferences to both set the stage and discuss the results. It keeps the relationship between parent and teacher appropriate.
- Don’t make a big deal out of the results — whether they are good or bad. This is practice, like learning to play the violin or ice skate. There will be bad notes and falls along the way. The mistakes are not failures, they are just practice.
Emailing teachers (or bosses in the future) to ask for what you need in order to do the work is a lifelong skill. We often get caught up in the grade or content, and forget that for many of our kids, the skills to accomplish this must be specifically taught, one small step at a time.