Focusing On The Long Road
When I was seven or eight months pregnant with my first child, I remember saying to my mom, “I can’t wait until this baby comes out so I can stop worrying about it!” Somehow she managed not to laugh in my face and call me a fool. Instead she said, kindly and with much love, “Honey, you never stop worrying. This is only the beginning. And let me tell you, this is as easy as it gets.”
My first child is now 12 with two younger siblings, and I fully realize and appreciate the wisdom of my mother’s words. I find it particularly significant as it relates to one of my children who has some … challenges. In addition to ADD, he struggles with inflexibility, anxiety and social issues. His executive functioning skills are weak and, despite his best efforts, he requires a great deal of help with organization, time management and study skills. We can never get too comfortable with the medications that work for him because growth and puberty are making it nearly impossible for one medication/dose to work for very long. His incredible creativity, artistry and imagination are both a blessing and a curse (there’s not much room for creativity in fractions and decimals, nor do his teachers appreciate his beautiful artwork when it covers every square inch of his papers).
We first became aware of his challenges toward the end of second grade. Though I look back with embarrassment on my naiveté, it seemed to me at the time that we would put some behavioral strategies in place, seat him near the teacher, give him a “fidget” and all would be good. For anyone who has been down this road, feel free to laugh at me. Each of these strategies helped in small increments, but none enough to make an impact on his overall learning.
After several months of hard work on our son’s part with little improvement, we decided to try medication. Though we were uncomfortable with the idea, it was clear that he was unable to do it all on his own, despite his best efforts. So we filled the first prescription. When that didn’t work, we tried another. And another. And many, many more. Several months (and at least ten meds) later, we seemed to have hit on the right dosage of the right medication to be given at the right time of the day. I thought, “Whew, problem solved!” LOL.
Though I could go into detail about the ups and downs (many downs, fewer ups) of his educational experience from second grade through the middle of sixth grade, where he is now, I’ll spare you the details. Briefly, third and fourth grades brought apathetic teachers and administrators, increased inability to focus, social isolation, anxiety and depression. We switched him to a new school in the middle of fourth grade, which was much better: stronger teachers, appropriate support, new friends. I thought we had really nailed it this time! Hilarious, I know.
Then middle school hit like an atomic bomb. Homework assignments weren’t turned in (even when he completed the work), he was unable to focus in class, he failed tests and refused to ask for help. His first quarter grades were bad. BAD. An F, a D and a C in his core subjects (though he did just fine in computers, gym and music). Making it worse, he suffered in silence. His confidence was at an all-time low. He didn’t want his teachers to see that he was having trouble with the material. Nor did he confide in us, his parents, as he didn’t want to upset us or “get in trouble.” He sat alone at lunch, too insecure to make new friends and too lost to reach out to old friends.
We met with his teachers and guidance counselor, tightened up his 504 and spoke about a few other strategies to help support him. We are in the process of adjusting his meds and he is meeting with a psychologist to help him deal with the academic and social transitions to middle school. He meets with his teacher every Monday to plan for the week. I review his homework with him every night, study with him, review his notes, help him make flashcards and prepare for tests.
We’re halfway through the second quarter and so far things are better. He scored a 98 on a science test and has been on a high ever since. I say this not because the grade itself is important, but because it was critical for him to see the payoff from his effort.
He is once again happy, confident and motivated to do well in school. He is proud of his hard work and accomplishment, as are his teachers and his parents. But he cannot do it alone. As much as I may think that a bright sixth grader should be able to organize his binder, take notes, turn in homework, study for tests, and structure his time, my son simply cannot. It’s not due to a lack of effort, motivation or caring. His mind just doesn’t work that way. His mind can do a lot of other cool, interesting, amazing things. But organize an essay, structure his week or make weekend plans in advance are not among his skills.
I do hope that eventually he will develop these types of skills. But I realize now that there is no finish line. I will never (again) say “Problem solved!” or “My work here is done!” It’s hard work every day…for my son, for his teachers, for us. We need to check in with him every day. Monitor his schedule every week. Help him organize his binder, prepare for tests, make checklists, etc. constantly.
We work hard to support him without infantilizing him. He is fiercely independent, but is now learning that asking for and needing help facilitates his independence in many ways. We constantly remind ourselves that as long as he is working to his potential, we cannot expect more than that. It isn’t always easy, but we realize it is important for our son to feel that his effort and dedication to his work is acknowledged and appreciated. We have found that the more positive feedback he receives for his accomplishments, the more motivated he is to continue working hard and taking on more responsibility for himself.
Though we all have long road ahead for all of us, I do feel that I am wise enough now to take my mom’s words to heart. We’re all in it for the long game…because there is no short game in raising our kids.