Parenting has been a bit of a challenge for me and my wife over the last several years, because both of our children have their own set of mental health issues. In addition to our older son's depression and addiction, our younger son has ADHD and anxiety, which created an incredibly difficult situation when it came to his education.
Our younger son's struggle with ADHD, anxiety and learning began late in middle school. Although he was super intelligent and tested off the charts, learning and comprehending in a mainstream environment just wasn't working for him. When it came time for high school, my wife and I really had no idea what to expect. But because we lived in one of the best school districts in our state, we were hopeful our son would get the help he needed.
Our son spent ninth and tenth grades at our local public high school. While this high school is consistently rated as one of the best high schools in the United States, it was not a good fit for our child and his circumstances. Even with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place, school was pretty much a disaster our son. The school would give him "accommodations" -- extra time to take tests, the ability to turn homework in late, etc. That all sounded good in theory, but he was still being taught in mainstream classrooms, often times with 30-plus other kids. He simply did not get the individualized attention he needed. As our son so eloquently put it one day, "What difference does it make if I get extra time to take tests if I don't know what I'm doing?"
After his sophomore year, my wife and I decided we did not want to send our son back to the same high school. We knew he was capable of performing so much better academically and felt we had to make a change. Sure, the local school is known for high test scores and having students go on to prestigious colleges and universities. But if you aren't a "normal" learner, none of that matters. In fact, if you're not a normal learner you tend to get lost in the shuffle and -- I hate to say it -- kind of forgotten. Not only were our son's grades suffering, but the whole experience was making him more anxious. It was incredibly frustrating for all of us.
To our delight, between our son's sophomore and junior years we found a little jewel of a boarding school that actually specializes in teaching kids with ADHD, ADD, dyslexia and other learning differences. A strength-based, experiential high school that offered what we thought would be the perfect alternative learning environment for our son. While we were driving home after touring the school, our son stated so eloquently: "I think this school could change my life."
And change his life it did.
Our son went from feeling "lost" in school to feeling welcome. From getting poor grades to getting excellent grades. And from not wanting to go to school at all to absolutely loving it. He blossomed into that student we knew he could be, developed lifelong friendships with fellow students from around the world, and did things he never would've done in public school, like performing in plays; playing music and singing in front of crowds; writing songs; and performing slam poetry for his senior project. He even dyed his hair blue at one point.
He did those things because he felt comfortable in the school's environment: An environment where young people with similar needs like and support each other, and teachers and administrators actually give students the individualized attention they need. Unlike the massive public high school, the smaller school is more like a large family where everyone can be themselves and learn in a way that makes sense to them.
On June 7th our son graduated from high school, and recently my wife and I dropped him off at college for the start of his freshman year. I can't even begin to tell you how proud we are of our son. I can also honestly say that this never would've happened if we hadn't taken a leap of faith and put our trust in a school we had good vibes about.
If you have a child who struggles in public school because of a learning difference, please don't give up. Explore other options. Find an alternative school that will recognize your child's potential, maximize it, and allow them to achieve great things. A school where the staff acknowledges that kids have different learning styles and work hard to bring out the best in your son or daughter. Those schools are out there, but you have to look for them.
Of course, private schools are not cheap. But don't let that deter you. You'd be surprised at how much financial aid might be provided to you based on your need. My wife and I are not wealthy people and never dreamed of being able to send a child to private school. Even so, with help we were able to make it work. And the money we spent was one of the greatest investments we've ever made: An investment in our son's future.
Two years ago, I couldn't even imagine our son being in the position he's in today. But it's really happening. My wife and I went from crying tears of hopelessness and frustration to crying tears of joy and gratitude. All because we stepped out of the comfort zone of public schools and took a chance on something different.
Your learning difference child doesn't have to be forgotten in a public school. There is something better waiting out there for him or her. If you feel like your child's education has reached a dead end, take a leap of faith like my wife and I did. If you do, chances are a net will appear and your child's life will be transformed forever.
"We must meet our students exactly where they are with exactly the brains they have right now. We must use all the tools we have available to us and not expect them to fit into a mold or all behave exactly the same." -- Dr. Gene R. Carter