For the first time, all three of my kids are in school fulltime. Our school year started just the way you would expect: meet-the-teacher night, first day photos, and parent information night. The kids were excited, I was excited, and it felt awesome. Until it didn’t.
Within the first week of school, I noticed some things that made me uncomfortable as a parent of a child with ADHD and dyslexia. The classroom policies sent home were less about classroom expectations and learning and more focused on negative consequences for undefined “bad” behaviors.
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Then, I started to see resistance to getting ready in the morning, highly emotional behavior at the end of the day, and finally, a tear-filled breakdown where my son revealed he hated his classes.
In his words, his teachers were “picking on” him, and he saw no reason to “be good” when there was no way to recover from “being bad.”
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It broke my heart. My son already lacked confidence in some of his academic abilities, and now he was feeling hopeless about his ability to control his own behavior as well. We had previously had a fantastic year of growth with very few behavioral concerns, so hearing this felt like a kick to the chest.
I want to say, my intention isn’t to speak badly of my child’s school or the staff. We love our school, and the teachers work hard. I do not believe they intended to single out my son. As a former teacher myself, I have a lot of guilt even thinking negative thoughts about the school environment, much less saying them out loud.
But I also have an obligation to protect my child and advocate for him. So I did. I voiced my concerns. Immediate steps were taken to build a more positive and engaging classroom with clear expectations and communication with parents.
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Things got better at school after that, truly. But for me, as the parent, the Pandora’s box of negative possibilities had been opened, and I couldn’t seem to get the lid closed again. I started to spiral down a hole of parental guilt and endless “what ifs.” And this isn’t the first time.
Every year tends to start like this for us. Every year, I fear overwhelmingly that my son is in the wrong spot. I wonder if his needs will really be understood. What if they label him a disruptive kid and brush him aside? What if he internalizes his academic frustrations and stops trying? What if every single year of his education is a struggle?
ADHD isn’t simply a box to check. The diagnosis isn’t the end of the road; it’s a total vehicle change. As a society, we often overuse or misuse the term ADHD and refer to anyone having a sporadic day or a child who appears off task or especially chatty to be “ADHD.”
But ADHD is much more than that. It’s a neurotype, a dopamine deficit, and a way of interpreting the world differently. And like ADHD, dyslexia is much more than just writing words backward or reading slowly. It also affects processing skills, interpreting input, and expressing oneself clearly. It’s a lot to take on when our teachers already have so much on their plate with so little support.
I mentioned I have three kids. Two are in traditional public schools, and one attends a specialized private school for children with developmental disabilities. That child is autistic and needs a smaller and more controlled environment. He receives a top-notch academic education and the behavioral support he needs to navigate a world full of neurotypical people. He is literally getting the best education we can provide him, and it’s not cheap. It’s a sacrifice for our family, but one we would make again and again.
My guilt comes from the fact that because we have chosen to give one of our children the best education we can provide him, we have by default chosen not to give our other children the best education we can provide them. We are choosing one child’s educational needs over the others.
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When everything is smooth sailing, this hardly seems like a compromise. Our autistic child needs more support. But when we hit rough patches, it feels like an intentional decision to put one child’s needs ahead of another, which is not a great feeling. In a perfect world, I would have all three of our kids in schools that fit their specific needs, no matter the cost. But this world is far from perfect; like any parent, all we can do is our best.
The school year likely feels pretty normal to my son by now. The kinks have been worked out, and for the most part, the day-to-day is fine. The kids are happy. I’m the one who is still struggling.
I’m not struggling with the school or the teachers. I’m frustrated with a school system that can’t possibly meet the needs of all learners well because the resources just aren’t there. As a system, it is unwilling to see the gravity of the situation and is not prioritizing learners who need more support. And I’m mostly frustrated with myself.
I am a solutions-focused kind of gal; I like to take charge and take action. But beyond advocating for my own child each year at the campus level, the rest feels largely out of my control. It hardly seems like enough for all the kids who need help.
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