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Turning off the background noise

April 4, 2011

I was shocked by something I heard when I picked the kids up from their after-school program one evening last year. One of the teachers was helping my kid with math homework, and almost by way of a greeting the teacher looked at me and said that my child was “careless” with the math.

I didn’t know what to say.

Compounding this, was the fact that this comment was expressed in earshot of said child, and my immediate concern was not about how careless my child was with math homework but rather how it felt to hear such a comment from a teacher.

Fortunately, my kid appeared unaffected. It was obvious that, though physically present, the kid in question wasn’t paying the least bit of attention.

Though what this teacher said was completely tactless, potentially hurtful, and thoroughly unnecessary, the upshot of the sentiment expressed was true. And it wasn’t exactly news to me. The child we were talking about is a complete space cadet. With the biggest brightest smile you can imagine.

Two of my four kids walk about 3 feet off the ground with their heads in the clouds at any given time. One of them has an IEP at school. This kid didn’t read until age 10, and has faced constant challenges with any sort of focus and organization. Ditto the other kid. Completing tasks was challenging for both kids, and I often found myself repeating instructions several times, and always breaking things down into steps detailed one at a time. If I phrased a sentence that included two or more tasks to either of these kids, only the first in the list would get done–and not because these kids are willful or belligerent. In fact, they’re both my most easy going. Rather, they couldn’t keep tasks straight or remember more than one thing at a time.

School was a particular challenge for both of them. What seemed like “normal” kid disorganization (lost and/or incomplete work; complete disorganization of all school materials; remnants of sack lunches moldering, forgotten, in backpacks …) quickly became a handicap for both. Sure, they might get their work done (if offered a lot of assistance) but then they’d often forget to turn it in. Sometimes they didn’t have any idea what their homework even was, and unless I had a rubric from the teacher, I had no idea either! I distinctly recall looking into their eyes, asking about their homework, and seeing absolutely no recognition of the subject matter whatsoever. It sometimes felt as though they were going through some basic motions and forgetting everything ten minutes later, both at home and at school. Their grades and test scores reflected this.

Now, let me be clear about something, lest anyone think that I am some sort of champion for the current public school paradigm. I’m not. I think the public school system in the U.S. today functions on an aged foundation of maligned priorities–and No Child Left Behind, that ridiculous unfunded mandate still being lorded over our school districts, is only part of the problem. Our educational model hasn’t evolved. We’re still running our schools on an agrarian calendar, for goodness sake, though I personally know of nobody who needs their kids home to tend the fields in the summer. The model is also lagging technologically. As a friend of mine put it: We have an assembly-line educational model trying to function in a Microsoft world. Our schools aren’t teaching our kids to be critical thinkers in the ways they need to be in order to function successfully in this ever-changing world, and it’s a problem that has kept me up nights.

It’s a problem for which I don’t know a perfect solution, but certainly have some ideas (that tend to run toward bi- or trilingual language immersion programs starting in pre-K to year-round school with more frequent but shorter breaks, to name two).

But educational philosophy isn’t the intent of this post. Rather, my two sweet kids who are more often than not lost on Planet X.

I didn’t want to take them to a psychiatrist. Western medicine didn’t seem to be the missing link, but after watching these two kids struggle, and seeing the toll it was taking on our family, I decided to give it a try.

Flash forward, and two of my children are now under the care of a psychiatrist and on medication for what has been diagnosed a ADHD-Inattentive Type. This is a special identifier of attention deficit disorder/hyperactivity that doesn’t look like how we think about ADD or ADHD. Neither of my kids has an impulse control problem, and neither is hyper. They’re just perpetually out to lunch, and are generally unable to focus or organize past a very basic level. This explains the crumpled, forgotten homework in the bottoms of backpacks, and their shared inability to memorize times tables. In a nutshell, ADHD-Inattentive Type looks like this:

  • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities
  • Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions)
  • Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
  • Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort (such as schoolwork or homework)
  • Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities (e.g., toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools)
  • Is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
  • Is often forgetful in daily activities

This bulleted list describes both my kids to perfection.

Or at least, it used to.

They started the meds last summer, and filling that first prescription was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I reasoned that we were trying something new, where all else had basically failed, and that if it wasn’t the right choice we would change direction.

What happened after that was something I thought I could only wish for. One child entered a new school year and suddenly began turning in everything, with few reminders. Grades shot up and even more importantly the teacher told me that my kid was one of the most focused and organized in class (this comment, by the way, is almost verbatim and was delivered without any knowledge of the difficulties this kid had in every other school year previously). My child was described as a “leader.” A stellar student (who, by the way, recently received an honorable mention on a science fair project, for which we offered only basic assistance).

All the while, the child in question sat next to me at that parent-teacher conference with a big smile. I could tell that the pieces were finally making sense, and empowerment was setting in.

The other kid showed a similar improvement academically. This kid–the one who didn’t read until age 10, and consistently tested 3 or more grades lower in every single subject–is now taking college level classes and passing them…and has also recently scored in the 85th and 93rd percentile in math and writing, respectively. This kid has decided to become a writer, and considering a recent intensive placement test score that reflected post-graduate school level ability in writing, this kid will likely find success in the way most desired.

But most persuasive for me, as the mom to these two awesome people, is this–a comment made by one of these kids a week or so after starting the medication:

“Mom, it’s amazing…it’s like someone finally turned off all the background noise, and I can concentrate!”


I’d love to hear from other parents of ADHD-Inattentive Type kids. What has your experience been like?



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