My son is five years old.
He’s not been formally diagnosed with ADHD yet. We hadn’t heard of any problems in class, and since we knew only one parent had ADHD (that’s me!), the chance of it being inherited was slightly smaller than if both parents had it, so we decided to wait and see. Those thoughts changed however, when two things happened:
My husband started recognising ADHD symptoms in himself and after reading his old report cards (which read like the calling card of an undiagnosed ADHD-inattentive kid) we began to realise that maybe there were two of us ADHDers in this marriage (which automatically brought the ‘ADHD through inheritance’ percentage up a lot higher).
My son got his first ever report card at the end of term last year and references to focus, attention, impulse and not meeting his potential were mentioned in EVERY area of his studies (some subjects had two separate symptoms alluding to ADHD).
I was immediately concerned. I know very well the plight of the undiagnosed ADHD inattentive kid. After all, I hadn’t been diagnosed until I was 40 years old and my husband was still working through trauma from his school years. But even as an educator myself, with lots of training and experience working with kids who have learning challenges or are neurodivergent, my first thought didn’t go directly to what my son might not be able to do in a classroom. In fact, for me it’s never been about what any kid I’ve ever taught can’t do in a classroom.
“I was terrified that his school would focus on his struggles with ADHD, forgetting that there’s still a little boy in there. A boy who is not separate from his ADHD, but which makes up part of who he is. Every negative comment about his ADHD symptoms, would also connect to him and how he’d learn to eventually see himself. He would never feel successful if school became a place focused on pointing out his weaknesses, while expecting him to similarly complete tasks when compared to his peers.
Without the right support that worked at developing my son’s strengths, furthered his interests and saw him as a whole child with his own unique capabilities, he would end his school years with as much trauma as me or his father.”
My kid is a fun, enthusiastic boy. He’s not always easy though, but like any other neurodivergent kid, he comes with a whole list of amazing characteristics that can be focused on to help him feel special, valued and talented in his own way. There are many qualities available for anyone to notice, appreciate and celebrate, but I’ll just limit myself to four things I’ve noticed so far:
Sensitive and empathetic: This is by far one of the things I love about my son most. He’s not one for so many kisses, but he loves his cuddles. He also wants to help others. He’s been found standing up for his friends, helping younger children put on their shoes, and playing so gently with those around him, despite the fact that he towers over all the kids he plays with. He genuinely wants the people around him to be happy, because he experiences the feelings of satisfaction so intensely. He’s a very sensitive kid. He doesn’t always like being so sensitive, but he’s learning that it is allowing him to understand how others might feel and being able to use his sensitive brain to understand others is actually a very strong character trait.
Endless curiosity: He’s an interest-driven kid and thoroughly loves school right now, because he is learning so many new things. He goes to an all boys school where they purposely choose topics based around things boys find interesting. He’s always been a lover of learning though. If he’s interested in something he’ll hyperfocus on it and learn it. He has no doubt in his ability to learn something that he wants to learn. As a toddler, he had no interest in speaking that often. He used lots of ways to communicate but speaking was not one of them. But the words he did use though? That’s the interesting part. By the time he was two years old, he knew: mama, dada, the colours of the rainbow (in order) and numbers to 10 (also, in order). Nothing else. Now we understand why. He just wasn’t interested. He’s five now and seems to expresses himself fine (for the most part). Fast forward to reading. One day he asked me how letters worked, so I told him. He decided to learn letter sounds right then and there. Once that interest was exhausted, he moved on to the next thing.
A strong sense of right and wrong: He genuinely wants to do the right thing and feels a sense of calm in places where the rules, routines and expectations are very clear. Having clear expectations of his own behaviour doesn’t always come without its struggles, but I have noticed that it is a lot easier for us to explain what is acceptable, and show how his behaviour can impact those around him. When he’s done something wrong, even though it can be hard for him to accept his mistake, he owns up to what he’s done. Since he’s so hyper focused on rules and expected behaviour, his desire to do better next time, enables us to have the tough conversations with him a lot easier (when he’s calmed down, of course!). Yes, we have to remind him, spend a lot of time talking things through with him, but his sense of right and wrong is what enables him to understand when he’s done something impulsive that’s unacceptable too. Then we can work through any incidents together.
Creativity and imagination that knows no bounds: I’ve never seen anything like the extent of his creativity. If there’s a problem with something, he’s got about ten ideas to fix it (only one idea might be effective, but it never stops him trying to find different and interesting ways to do things). He’s the kid that finds joy in being creative, values the power of his imagination and his ability to daydream so vividly. He’s created games from his imagination that have been played by his classmates throughout a whole school year. He values things like art, drama, music and dance as much as he values being creative in what he builds, designs or in solving maths problems. For him, he genuinely sees advantages in having a strong imagination, so he’s never afraid to use it in order to dream big.
We don’t always have the greatest days with our son. In fact, some days and many moments can be downright awful.
“I’m often reminded that with each one of these qualities I love so much, comes an opposite side that can be just as intense.”
We address those sides daily as well, we know he needs the extra guidance in those areas. But even when we are helping him self regulate, talking him through a problem or a learning challenge, more often than not by connecting the solution to a strength, interest, or dream we know he has. We’ve noticed that this helps him see the value in what he’s learning but more importantly, he sees he’s capable of getting the result because of the strengths and talents he already knows he possess.
“Quite often, our neurodivergent kids are seen through the lens of their deficits or their repeated mistakes.”
This erodes their confidence, creating limiting beliefs about their capabilities as learners and who they are as a person, which has such a huge impact on their lives. It is often what they can’t do, that drives us to meet with their teachers or has teachers finally contacting us. It’s important in these times to remember the positive qualities and strengths that come with our kids being neurodivergent, and see how schools and other environments they frequent, can create more opportunities for them to be successful.
“We need to work together to help them create an internal dialogue based around ability and assets, rather than one of inability and deficits. Focusing on their strengths in order to address their challenges, needs to play a huge role in any support they receive.”
The journey of being neurodivergent is never going to be an easy one. The earlier they can learn that they are so much more than what they struggle with, the better equipped they will be to handle whatever challenges might come their way.
Sandra draws upon her Masters of Ed. Psych and her background in education to coach kids with ADHD and ADHD women diagnosed later in life.
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