What Having the “Wrong” Teacher Taught Me About My Son With ADHD

Over the years, my son’s ADHD caused him grief in school. But not every year.

One year could be a good, confidence-boosting experience, the next a difficult and demoralizing one. It didn’t take long to realize that the biggest factor was the type of teacher he had.

A flexible and accepting teacher equaled a good year. A rigid teacher who saw him as a disruption led to a bad one. The problem was that when my son had a bad year, he ended up feeling terrible about himself.

We saw this first in preschool, a few years before he was diagnosed.

One day toward the end of the year, I got a call at work from the school. My son, who had just turned 4, was being suspended for the rest of the day for biting a classmate during a fight over a building block.

He’d never done that before, and we didn’t make a huge deal out of it. But for days afterward, he repeatedly said, “I’m bad... I’m bad.”

I know now that I should have checked in with the teacher throughout the year. But it wasn’t until that incident that I asked for a meeting.

Sitting with the teacher, all I heard about was my son’s “bad” behavior. He’d get up during rest time and walk around. (Her response was to give him extra rest time.) He’d take his shoes off despite being told not to.

And just that day, he wouldn’t eat his lunch even though she had told him to. Instead, he got up and threw it away. This one, at least, I could explain: He’d eaten a huge breakfast that morning.

But instead of saying, “Oh, no wonder he wasn’t hungry,” she bluntly said, “I think you should have him evaluated.”

I was taken aback. But a few weeks later, I asked the preschool director for her opinion. She said the teacher was clearly a bad fit for my son, and to wait and see what happened the next year.

She was right about that. The next year of preschool was much better! My son’s new teacher loved him. She thought his energy and creativity were great, and that he was a unique and charming kid. Not once that year did we hear him say he was “bad.”

By first grade, however, his issues with attention and self-control were causing problems. He was also having trouble learning to read. His first-grade teacher (whom he adored) suggested that we get him evaluated. This time we did.

It turned out he has ADHD and . and specialized reading instruction helped. So did medication for ADHD. Still, what made the biggest difference in grade school was the teacher he had.

I never expected every year to be great, or every teacher to be a good fit. I think there’s a benefit to my son experiencing ups and downs and learning to adapt and cope. But every time he had a teacher who was critical of who he was, it took a toll. And the bad feelings he had about himself added up.

Things were better once he started getting services. We would sit with his case manager at the end of every school year to discuss what teacher might be a good fit for the next year. We were fortunate; the school always tried to work with us to find the right match.

I also learned how important it was to communicate with the teacher early and often. I tried to arrange a meeting for the first week of school so I could explain my son’s challenges and strengths. Once, a teacher who didn’t seem like a good fit turned out to be great for my son once we really started talking.

That didn’t entirely stop him from having bad teacher interactions. But as my son got older, a poor teacher fit became less of an issue. In middle and high school, he had more than one teacher each year. He also learned to adapt to different personalities and teaching styles.

Most important, he became a better and would explain his challenges to teachers on his own. We didn’t hear much about teacher issues after that.

I’m sure he still had negative experiences from time to time. And his self-esteem probably took a dip. But it was clear that he no longer blamed himself.

Get tips on how to improve your relationship with your child’s teacher. Use these sentence starters to help kick off the conversation. And read expert advice on changing teachers during the school year.

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