Please Don’t Make Me Beg for Help With My Child’s ADHD
My son’s ADHD and lag in emotional maturity can leave him feeling socially isolated
On the second-to-last day of fourth grade, my son came home from school, chewing on the collar of his blue T-shirt and scratching an irritated red spot on his leg.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Are you worried about the summer?”
“No,” he said, with another vigorous scratch. “I’m worried about next year. My teacher told me I might not be in Mrs. Troutman’s class. I have to be in her class. It’s not an option. Only she gets me.”
The boy was fixated on having Mrs. Troutman for fifth grade. If he wasn’t in her class, next year would be a disaster.
Fourth grade had been rough for him. His anxiety, hyperactivity, and impulsivity made school challenging but he’d squeaked by in the early years. By fourth grade, however, his ADHD and lag in emotional maturity left him socially isolated. His fourth-grade teacher, as well meaning as she had been, didn’t know how to deal with him. She often sent him across the hall to Mrs. Troutman’s fifth-grade class to “settle down.”
If she could be different and awesome, then maybe he could be different and okay, too.
Then, something unexpected happened in Mrs. Troutman’s class: My son relaxed.
Mrs. Troutman — a tattooed, four-foot-nothing ball of frenetic energy — had developed a rapport with him. He would talk to her about whatever upset him and, very quickly, it was resolved. I believed that her out-of-the-box-ness resonated with him. If she could be different and awesome, then maybe he could be different and okay, too. Whatever it was, my boy felt safe and happy in her classroom.
“Your son’s a terrific kid,” Mrs. Troutman would announce with a wink as she charged past me on her way to sell ice cream at the fifth-grade fundraiser, her stiletto heels echoing on the asphalt. “Give him time to grow into himself,” she’d say, smiling over her shoulder as she lifted up the hem of her vintage dress and marched over toward the lunch benches.
A terrific kid. Give him time. I tucked those words into my heart and revisited them often during the end-of-the-year festivities. I watched as my son, a social and friendly kid, stood apart from the raucous circle of his classmates. When I pressed him to participate, he shrugged and said, “I don’t have any friends in this class.”
“Mrs. Troutman really understands me,” he proclaimed again as he packed up his backpack for the last day of school. He’d set his sights on next year. Next year he’d have Mrs. Troutman—next year would be a really great year. But he came home on the last day of school agitated and anxious. His current teacher had responded to his repeated questions of whether he’d be in Mrs. Troutman’s class next fall with, “There are no guarantees.” His anxiety reared up like a stallion at the sight of a rattlesnake.
“Do you think I’ll have her?” he asked repeatedly over the first two days of vacation. It’s going to be a long summer, I thought, noting his tattered, blood-encrusted cuticles. An hour later, he asked, “Do you think Mrs. Troutman will make sure I’m in her class?”
Desperate, I dropped him off at camp and drove to our elementary school. I knew the administration was still at work and I hoped to allay my son’s anxieties by confirming his placement in Mrs. Troutman’s class for the fall. It was only the first week of summer and I didn’t think he (or the rest of our family, for that matter) could cope with his extreme anxiety for 10 more weeks.
His anxiety reared up like a stallion at the sight of a rattlesnake.
The assistant principal was busy when I got to the school. “I’ll wait,” I answered cheerfully. I sat down in one of the small wooden chairs that lined the front of the office. “We’re about to have lunch,” the secretary told me as she pointedly withdrew a key from her pocket and locked the entrance door. I smiled and shifted in my seat. A few minutes later, the assistant principal arrived wearing cargo shorts and a light blue T-shirt. She was in charge of students with special needs, so we’d met many times over the last few years.
She listened carefully to what I had to say. She nodded her head sympathetically. Then she went to confer with the principal. I was caught off-guard when she returned and told me: Yes, the administration was well aware of my son’s anxiety issues. And no, they could not disclose his classroom assignment. Even more troubling was the look she gave me.
What if my son hadn’t been placed in Mrs. Troutman’s class? I couldn’t forget his face as he zipped up his backpack and said, “Mrs. Troutman is the only one who gets me.” How could this be?
I bit the fleshy inside of my cheek and tried not to cry. She gave me a caring nod and patted me on the back. The principal would call me at home shortly, she said.
Several hours later, I got a call from the principal. For the next 20 minutes, we volleyed back and forth regarding my son’s classroom assignment. The principal would neither confirm nor deny whether my son would be placed with Mrs. Troutman next year. He mentioned things like “class makeup” and “other considerations,” but gave me no reassurances.
Out of desperation, I reminded him of my son’s 504 Plan which spelled out the accommodations he was entitled to, by law, as a student with special needs. “But his 504 says he gets special consideration for class placement,” I said. “Wouldn’t that mean taking into account the fact that he already works so well with Mrs. Troutman? That he’s spent time in her class and feels comfortable there? That it’s been a big success for him?” I pleaded.
The principal would only say that all 800 students at the school got “special considerations” for their class placements. And that all 800 had to cope with waiting until just before school started to find out their class assignment. He suggested we engage our son in sports and fun summer activities to “get his mind off his worries.”
Do you think I “helicopter” around my son for kicks or for lack of anything better to do?
But what I got from that conversation was that the principal didn’t get it.
I wrapped up the conversation and said good-bye. As I hung up, I felt my pulse racing. There were so many things I’d wanted to say but didn’t. So many things like:
Mr. Principal, if my child was like most of the other 800 children in this school, I wouldn’t be driving up to the school on the second day of summer, waiting in the office to talk to the assistant principal, and biting my cheek while trying not to cry. I wouldn’t be on the phone with you, tears in my throat, begging you to place my son in a classroom where he feels good and to tell him now, so he — and the other members of our family — don’t have to suffer through the rest of the summer with a hyperactive, anxiety-ridden, 10-year old.
You realize, Mr. Principal, that when you refer to the experience of the other 800 students at this school, it does not reassure me. It demonstrates to me how little you understand or appreciate what it’s like to be a parent of a child with special needs.
Do you think I “helicopter” around my son for kicks or for lack of anything better to do? I advocate for my child because he was born outside the bell-shaped curve. And even though he’s sharp as a whip, he’s got a long way to go both socially and emotionally. That causes a lot of pain for him and for me.
Really? You’re going to make me beg? Because the time I’ve spent meeting, advocating, and conferencing isn’t enough? Because it isn’t challenging and frustrating and isolating enough to raise a child with special needs?
But I didn’t say any of that. I said have a nice summer. I said goodbye.
On the second day of the second week of summer, my son woke up and asked if I thought he’d get Mrs. Troutman for his fifth-grade teacher. He asked again before breakfast, and a second time after. I didn’t tell him about my visit to the school the week before. I didn’t want him to break out into full panic mode. I walked over to the family room couch where he lay sprawled out in his Spiderman T-shirt and black pajama bottoms, and I leaned over to ruffle his dark brown hair. “I don’t know, buddy,” I said, “but I’ll do what I can.”