The Light Through the Tunnel
By Jane St. Pierre
This post is a bit of a memoire – my reflections on my son’s difficult navigation through his academic career, the man those struggles created, and encouragement to the parents and caregivers in the midst of helping children with learning differences in school.
My son was diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and OCD. Needless to say, school was a struggle. Staying seated and on task were problematic from an ADHD perspective. OCD complicated matters by offering further focusing distractions. Medication certainly helped, but the most effective ones that helped him concentrate caused exhausting tics. So, we chose a medication that gave some relief, but his ability to focus was still compromised. Dyslexia and dysgraphia made note taking and test taking areas of anxiety. In essence, he always knew a great deal about many of the topics at hand but tried to condense his knowledge into as few written words as possible.
He navigated through the lower grades fairly well. He would put in many extra hours at the kitchen table every night with homework and studying for tests. He would begin studying for a test as soon as the units were introduced. “Cramming,” which worked for many of his schoolmates, was completely ineffective for him. In total, he would likely average 5-6 hours of studying for each test (elementary grades), over several weeks. This preparation resulted in unpredictable test scores – sometimes A’s, but more often much lower. He often verbalized frustration over the fact that everyone else seemed to work less than he did yet outperform him. The private school he was attending in high school refused to grant the accommodations promised at enrollment. As his parent and educational champion, I became incredibly frustrated. Communicating with the school begging for accommodations and support, fighting for him when he was disciplined for side effects such as falling asleep in class (as a result of increased anxiety medication which was reported to the school), and forfeiting practically all family quality time trying to keep him academically afloat had me weary and nearing hopeless. By the beginning of 10th grade, my son begged me to let him drop out of school. It was a spirit-crushing request.
I am so grateful to his doctor (shout out to Dr. Joseph Grizzaffi!) who advised during a phone call placed in the evening that perhaps a radical change would be helpful rather than increased medication. It was obvious that my son’s total being was being compromised in a traditional school setting. The cure – I enrolled him in a private online school based out of Maryland. Our lives changed. He could copy lesson notes rather than trying to handwrite them, listen to lectures/ video presentations as many times as needed, schedule online private tutoring sessions with his teachers, take breaks during lessons and give his body the movement it required, and even have morning/ early afternoon employment and do his lessons in the evening. The built-in calendar and scheduling components of the program allowed him to do schoolwork at his own pace and on weekends and thereby get ahead so that he could continue playing his trombone in a band and go fishing. His medications were reduced, and he readily says that he learned more in 3 years of online school than he did the entire time he attended brick and mortar schools.
From flashback to present, he is now 22 years old. He is well-respected by his employer for his tremendous work ethic, loyalty, and dependability. He’s the type of guy who shows up early to work every day, volunteers to stay late, and makes himself available to be of service when the boss is in a crunch. He is intelligent, well spoken, and knowledgeable about most topics that come up in discussion. (His experience in the online school taught him tremendous efficiency in researching topics effectively for a dyslexic person rather than skimming textbooks.) He is kind, compassionate to others who are struggling, and very quick to offer words of encouragement. In retrospect, I can easily see how his earlier struggles molded him into the person he has become.
So, to my battle-weary friends who are presently supporting students with learning differences – CHINS UP! Allow reasonable hurdles to build character. The key word here is “reasonable.” It is not necessary to fight all battles because hardship and pain have their way of facilitating greatness. However, do not let the system break the spirit of your child. Confidence is created when challenges, kept right near the border of possible/ impossible, are accomplished. Never fear thinking out-of-the-box and creating a school experience that differs from what everyone around you is doing. Dare to be bold and innovative!