By Brandi Valentine
Since 1995
Updated December 15, 1999

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by Wanda G. Schwandt

Attention Deficit students have difficulty in school for many reasons. The majority of these children are also highly intelligent and creative. How much of their success in school is the teacher's responsibility? How much of the difficulty can be attributed to the ADD? How much are we as parents responsible for?

At one of my son's recent IEP meetings, they wanted me to sign a paper that labeled my son as an underachiever. Basically, they said that in spite of his high IQ he was not living up to his potential and failing his classes because he wasn't putting in the necessary effort. Even with a doctor's diagnosis of ADHD, they claimed he did not have a learning disability that affected his education and therefore required no special services. They labeled me as an enabler, citing that I should have encouraged him or penalized him more toward his succeed. After stating that he needed to "get his act together" and that he needed no interventions, they preceded to give this "enabler" more organization tips to help him get organized. Any of that sound double-minded to you?

Webster defines an underachiever as Aa person or student who fails to attain a predicted level of achievement or does not do as well as expected@ (Merriam Webster=s Collegiate Dictionary, 10 Edition, 1999). The educational system sets the expected standards for our children. But are they doing so with a clear understanding of the challenges Attention Deficit brings to the picture? Research has proven that Attention Deficit interferes with learning and that there IS a medical basis for it. We also have first hand knowledge that our children are not willfully choosing to do poorly. I agree, my son wasn't living up to their standards, but labeling him as an underachiever also smacked of the suggestion that he didn't want to succeed and insinuated that I was supporting him in not achieving. Since kindergarten? How ridiculous and insulting!

Sally Emerson wrote me with these comments: "I have a teacher that said I am not helping by organizing my son for school. And he does not feel it should be his responsibility to make sure my son has his assignments written down. He feels my son should take on the responsibility or suffer the consequences. He and his brother are currently repeating a grade because they did not turn in their homework last year. Homework counted for 65% of their grades. If both of them were graded only on their tests, they would have pulled A's and B's." This is a personal sore spot for me. Why should homework count for so much? Don't get me wrong, I think some homework is good for practicing what was learned that day. But are we grading on responsibility or on how well the lesson stuck?

Sally goes on to say "My sons have always needed my assistance. Therefore, I started to believe that all the help I was giving them was misdirected because they were not becoming independent. I began to believe that it was my sons' responsibility to get themselves prepared for school. My thinking changed from helping them get organized to the idea that they will shape up if we just let them suffer the consequences." Yes, Sally. I've tried that too. Mine didn't want to clean their rooms, so I thought that once they lost a few things or went without clean clothes, they would see the light. If they left their homework on the kitchen table or forgot their lunch money, they would suffer the demerit or the growling stomach.

But what if they don't care about the consequences? A perpetually messy room doesn't bother them. Not being forced to remember things or to do their homework is a reward to them and gets us off their backs. Their motto: "why do now what I can put off until tomorrow?" As procrastinators, they live in the moment. They don't view it as a problem and have no internal incentive to change.

If I am honest with myself, there were also times when, due to depression or negative past experiences, my son refused to cooperate. There were times when he refused to get to work; times when he was so confused and hadn't a clue how to get his act together and turned away in frustration. We know that depression and oppositional behavior can attach themselves to ADHD because of years of misunderstandings and failures. Failure to fit into the mold that most educational systems try to squeeze them into. Failure to please their parents with their behavior. Failure to see themselves as worthwhile human beings because they just don't seem to fit in. This can all lead them to give up - if I'm a failure, why try?

Sally summed up her results. "I was so very, very wrong. My sons were miserable. I was even more frustrated with them. I saw their spirits sink and they started skipping school. Neither of them showed any signs of successful organization skills. They tried but kept failing and gave up quickly. They did not understand what was wrong but just sullenly accepted the consequences." My results were similar to Sally's. For months everything spiraled downward.

I believe it all boils down to the fact that you as a parent know your child the best. Everyday you weigh for yourselves what your child is truly capable of and what he isn't ready to learn yet. They need to learn cause and effect, but the lesson won't stick until they are ready to learn it. The schools can't force our ADD children to be responsible any faster than they can develop. Sally responded, "Their brains will take time to develop the skills that their peers have already developed." If the leading experts claim that children won't potty train until they are physically and emotionally ready, it makes sense that brains develop at different rates too. Why aren't they carrying it over to schoolwork as well?

So who is at fault? When are we enabling our child's lack of responsibility and when should we push to accommodate a true problem? Are we on a seesaw here? Who's right? Both sides make valid points. Should we let them suffer the consequences or ask the schools to do it all for them? What will bring the best results?

Structure, routine, encouragement and praise, at home and at school, break the downward spiral. They don't have the skills to analyze what to do differently in order to succeed. You as parents, with the help of the schools, do. People learn by example as much as they learn from consequences. Show them that they can succeed by implementing routines for school mornings and evenings. Press the school for accommodations that you know will help your child succeed. Step in and help them get control of the chaos. Regarding my son's IEP, I signed nothing until they struck out the underachiever label and included the accommodations that I was certain would help him.

Once they start feeling better about themselves, slowly give the reins back to them. Help them develop reminder systems; teach them how to do it for themselves - when they are ready. Praise, encourage and support any effort on their part to do it for themselves. Every once in a while, test the waters. Don't be too quick to save them from making mistakes, but be there to catch them and coach them back. These mini lessons can easily be learned at home, instead of from highly volatile lessons with grades that damage their self-esteem and makes them question their future. Sally said it well, "I praise and encourage them to do things on their own without being reminded, but I don't let them fall through the cracks and suffer the consequences if they forget something or for disorganization. Now I see days when they try their hardest to be independent and succeed. Helping them is the more positive and effective approach to get the end result of independence, and it accomplishes the immediate goals in the meantime. Encourage the child to do for himself but be a safety net, and let them succeed."

So, how did it turn out for Sally's boys and for my kids? They are all turning in their homework over 80% of the time now. She said, "When they started getting positive feedback from school, they wanted more. Now they absolutely glow with pride when they bring in their projects. Getting assignments done gets the teacher's approval and really sets them in a positive mood. And more importantly, I am seeing them take on more responsibility. I am no longer worried that I am fostering dependence. My children want to succeed." My son nearly made the Honor Roll this semester and is very proud of the grades he brings home. My daughter, who has other learning difficulties, brought home straight A's. By far the biggest benefit is that they are all happier and enjoying school this year.

Our kids do have a responsibility. They have a responsibility to try, to make an effort, and to keep trying. Webster defines an achiever as one who has "become successful as a result of exertion, attained a desired end or aim; a result gained by effort; a great or heroic deed" and defines a hero as a person "admired for their achievements and noble qualities; one that shows great courage." (Merriam Webster=s Collegiate Dictionary, 10 Edition, 1999). Self-esteem will come from doing their best which will breed success. An upward spiral. It takes great courage to turn challenges into triumphs and that is what our kids are asked to do every day. Our children are heroes, not underachievers. Our children have so much to offer this world. Let's be their biggest cheerleaders.

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