BACK TO SCHOOL DECISIONS: The Right School Has To Feel Safe

As parents of ADHDers we have all learned that we cannot get through to our kids when they are in crisis. Big emotions, let downs or negative perceptions – whether real or unfounded, are just some of the instances when there is no use trying to reason because they just won’t hear us through the noisy dialogue in their heads. Feeling unsafe ranks at the top of this list and we’ve probably each experienced how it sparks a shut down in our children.

Now, imagine that the very place that calls for trust, openness to learn and a level of comfort in sharing yourself feels risky. Potentially judgy. Sometimes ridiculing or shaming. Criticism in a harsh tone delivered in front of a roomful of peers could make a grown person squirm in their seat. Imagine how a child feels. Now imagine that you’re in this situation day after day for an entire school year. What walls are going up inside? What dreams are fading? How much self esteem can survive? Is learning even able to take place?

Nor’s Story: The right school has to feel safe and be safe. Where I have struggled with this is that I look around and see other people’s kids who feel safe and seem safe and I used to think, my kids will be safe here also. When it comes to safety, I have finally learned that the only two people I need to listen to are myself and my child. Because again, like Ali says, we have really complex kids and there is no magic formula.

I am in shock that there are professionals who still think the solution to school anxiety is using physical force to remove the child from the car or their parent. I’ve never let that happen to my child, but that solution was proposed at both public and private school. 

I know now that what makes my child feel safe at school is strong relationships with caring adults who understand him. It’s where I start every teacher conference, every IEP meeting, and every thank you note. When he feels safe, he thrives. Isn’t that what we all want? Why is it so difficult?   

Ali’s Story: This has been a major theme throughout the years for my ADHDer. First let me say we have had the privilege to have some talented and giving educators through the years. People who valued my son and cared about him as a person. They brought out his best. But there have also been some very unfortunate experiences with teachers. They brought out his worst – his worst fears, behaviors and coping strategies. These instances have been consistent and severe enough to leave a deep mark. Did you know that it’s actually possible to have PTSD from negative school experiences? Yeah, it’s a thing.

I could make a significant list of scenarios where my ADHDer has been shamed, pointed out, negatively referred to, ridiculed and made to feel he didn’t belong in just the last three years of high school. Even more horrifying is that I rarely know when its happened. I’ll find out through a tutor or counselor or he’ll mention something in passing months after the fact. He’s incredibly smart and creative. Yet he would rather be anywhere but a classroom.

What looks like a safe and nurturing environment for most students could easily be a minefield for a ADHDer. They need more and can create dynamics in the classroom that could push a teacher just far enough to go past safe and nurturing. Once the damage is done it’s there and it becomes part of the framework these ADHDers will use. We’ve learned that the only way to consider a school safe for our complex ADHDers is when we are ALL on the same page. A school can only address needs they’re aware of – that means full disclosure on our part. A place that values taking the time to listen and understand is a good start. Then it’s our job to make sure they want to work with our student and feel equipped to do so.

Norrine and I spend a good portion of time throughout the school year to continually assess if it’s working. We take a lot of time making sure communication is flowing and things are going well. It’s a continual process the whole school year through because we know things can change on a dime. We also know what happens once the line has been crossed and things don’t feel safe for our kids. We’ve learned not to take anything for granted and that it’s worth every bit of effort to make sure that school is a safe zone.

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