I don’t remember THE DAY the lights went out. I only know that one day I looked up and they were gone. In his eyes, instead of curiosity I saw fear and self doubt. Instead of wonder I saw dread. My son was smart, creative, a natural learner. Walking through the woods behind our house, he could name every plant. He built robots out of trash in the garage and made himself costumes out of cardboard boxes. And yet, this talented and creative kid believed he was dumb, a disappointment, not good enough.
This, sadly, is the experience for many kids with ADHD. The lights go out as their world turns from the joy and wonder of exploring, noticing and creating to being a student. A job description that isn’t a great fit for most kids with ADHD. The statistics don’t lie. There is a reason our kids with ADHD don’t fare as well. Higher dropout rates. Higher rates of self harm. Higher rates of depression. Higher rates of substance abuse. There is something built into the fabric of being a student that teaches our kids with ADHD that something is WRONG. They talk too much. They move too much. They interrupt too much. They ask too much, they require TOO MUCH! And as all kids do, they look to themselves. Something is wrong here. I am the cause of this.
When I watch my son move about in the world. As he climbs mountains, as he powers up the hill on a mountain bike. As he builds ladders out of limbs in the forest for his tree house, I marvel at his strength and his power. I often think, if he were a young man in the 1800s, on a farm, valued for strength and the ability to do hard, physical work. He would be a super star. But move him to a classroom and all of the things that would be so valuable in another time and place just aren’t. What it must be like to have this standard that you are always struggling to meet. To always feel a day late and a dollar short. I guess this experience year after year is what causes so many of the teens I consult with to seem so lifeless, so resigned, so detached.
The boy in the high school class with his hood up, his ear buds in, not even present. The girl who is so angry, every word and action appears to be motivated by the need to punish and separate herself from anyone in authority. The young man who is on a safety plan, who wants to die. When I go back in their files, I see this same story over and over again. They had ADHD. They were once imaginative, curious little kids. But over time, the lights went out. They were the dreamers, the creators, the players. They were smart too, but perhaps inefficient or unable to demonstrate their smarts in a traditional way. This has an impact.
For my son, in Kindergarten, there were still legos and class pets. Meal worms and cockroaches to tend to. Imagination and wonder were still prized qualities. In first grade, things began to change and the lights started to dim. My son came home from school and asked me, “Mom how do all the kids know what to do?” When I asked what he meant he said, “Well, the teacher talks to us and passes out work to do and everyone gets started. How do they know what to do?” He brought his homework to me with zero idea how to proceed. He was not growing in his reading skills. Then, the questions began to get more concerning. “Mom am I not smart?” The problem is, there is no Mom answer that makes the sting of this thought go away. This is when we swoop in with reassurance and lists of all the millions of ways they ARE smart. But, they know better…..They know the truth….smart kids don’t struggle in school.
So what are we to do? As parents as teachers. What are we to do to STOP this from happening to our kids with ADHD? Because I have found that once this seed has been planted, it takes root and it grows. Once the lights go out, it is extremely challenging to bring them back. I have also found that loving parents and amazing teachers aren’t enough to combat this systemic difficulty. My son has had amazing and caring teachers who DO value him, who DO value all kids. And yet, the difficulty persists.
I don’t know the exact day the lights went out nor do I have all of the answers. But I know this is a conversation worth having. In my career and in my own home, I have seen too many eyes of amazing children darkened with self doubt and fear. I DO believe we have the power to change this. I DO believe we can do better for our students with ADHD.