As is so often the case, while out walking the dog, inspiration for a blog post arrived unannounced
While out for our first walk of the day, Izzy and I ran into his best friend, a beautiful, well-behaved Golden Retriever. Izzy, also beautiful, but not always as well-behaved, but pretty good for an English Springer Spaniel. His friend’s owner and I joke often that we both know all the dogs by name but have a hard time remembering the owners. But I digress.
As my neighbours all know what I do, I am often asked for my opinion on matters pertaining to the education of children. Usually, it’s just a quick inquiry about my take on something that happened in a class or on the playground. Sometimes they want to know about private education… especially during COVID. At the end of the day, it is all about parents wanting to be certain that they are doing their best for their child(ren). As I remind them, the fact that they are asking questions underscores that they are doing the right thing. There are no easy answers to education questions, and they are so individualized that just trying to do the right thing inevitably ensures that you are on the right track.
On this particular walk, my neighbour wanted to know what I thought about the local principal’s response to a concern she has with her eldest child. It seems her child is an outside-of-the-box thinker who loves school but encounters social issues with peers. Her child gets along really well with the younger kids, as well as the older kids, but is teased and picked on by his peers because (her perception) he is so academically keen. As I say, he loves learning. Loves school. But finds it difficult to see eye-to-eye with kids his own age. He doesn’t really seem concerned, but mom is worried that he has to deal with these kids every day.
She spoke with the teacher who immediately suggested that her son could try harder to get along with the other kids.
Victim blaming methinks. Needless to say, she was less than thrilled and shared her concern with the principal. Though seemingly troubled and attentive the first words out of his mouth were to suggest that she have her child tested for… drum roll, please… Yes, you guessed it ADD or ADHD
Now a few provisos… I do not know the principal. And, other than a few casual conversations, I do not know the child well. But, I do have my suspicions. First off, I highly doubt that the principal is a qualified psychologist or therapist, so making a recommendation like this without the background or really much understanding of the child is both unprofessional and unethical. It’s also far too common… especially with boys. The fact that a child who learns differently and has peer issues is immediately seen as the root cause for bullying and seen as having some sort of attention issue is beyond ludicrous. Furthermore, just because a child shows minor signs of the traditional signs of ADD or ADHD (Impulsiveness, Disorganization, and problems prioritizing, Poor time management skills, Problems focusing on a task, Trouble multitasking, Excessive activity or restlessness, Poor planning, Low frustration tolerance, Frequent mood swings, Problems following through and completing tasks, Hot temper, Trouble coping with stress) should not lead an unqualified (or even a qualified) individual to an ADD or ADHD diagnosis. Let’s be honest, what adult doesn’t have some of these symptoms these days in the midst of a pandemic?
The reality is that the school which, of course, professes zero tolerance for bullying and annually supports Pink Day initiatives is doing nothing to assist a bullied and ostracized child. Instead, a keen student with a thirst for knowledge beyond that of his peers is seen as the problem. A seasoned educator, I assume, is taking the easy way out. I mean it’s a lot easier to send an individual child off to a psychologist for testing than it is to address a culture that has identified him as a problem.
On the one hand, we have come a long way. In my thirty-plus years in education, I have seen huge improvements in the way we deal with kids who learn differently. Of course, we all learn differently, but that’s a bigger issue for another day). Kids used to be told to work harder and to pay attention or were smacked upside the head in order to motivate and encourage?! Where we once taught everyone the same way, we now understand and identify different learning styles and try, as best as possible, to deal with individual learners… or at least group them beyond top, middle and bottom. And yet, far too often we still deal in knee-jerk solutions and stereotypes. When a child (again, more frequently a boy) misbehaves, we jump to ADD/ADHD and Ritalin instead of understanding that the student is probably bored silly.
So my free advice to my dog walking friend/neighbour, was to go right back to both the teacher and the principal and ask what they intended to do to help her child. How do they plan to attend to the abuse he is receiving from the other children? I also told her to inform them that her child’s pediatrician laughed off the principal’s diagnosis. And, I also mentioned that if they didn’t have a plan that she should escalate to the superintendent. Although a little apprehensive, she agreed that this was the best course of action.
My final bit of advice concerned her suggestion that she is considering moving the child to another school.
Far too often the system gets away with things because parents decide to remove their child from a difficult situation. Of course, every scenario is different and I would have to really look into this one before advising a child be moved. More often than not it adds another layer of complexity to the issue, as the child wonders why me? Why do I have to move? Sometimes, it turns out that a fresh start is what is best, but more often than not what is needed is for the parents to truly advocate for their child and push for change. And, unfortunately, there is never a guarantee that the child won’t have to deal with the same or similar issues at a new school.
At the end of the day, my neighbour is doing her best to deal with a very unfortunate and difficult situation. Her child is being underserved by his teacher, his principal, and his school. She is asking the right questions and speaking to the right people. She is doing all that she can for her son. She is also doing all that she can for the other kids. There is no way that they deserve to learn that this time of behaviour is acceptable. She is doing more than the teacher and the principal combined to change the culture. I know it doesn’t make her feel that much better, but she needs to know that whatever the outcome, she’s a good parent and in the majority at that and any school. As I said at the outset, the fact she is asking questions underscores that she is doing the right thing. There are no easy answers to education questions, and they are so individualized that just trying to do the right thing inevitably ensures that you are on the right track. She also needs to know how far we have come. “Back in the day” the first word out of the mouth of most parents would have been “What did you do?” Just the fact that she wants to understand what is happening is a step in the right direction.