Surviving ADHD in the Classroom - Jennifer Leary
When I was in second grade, I was held back and forced to repeat the grade because I was “too immature.”
Did you know that was even a thing?
It was, apparently. It was in answer to my undiagnosed ADHD. I was diagnosed the following year, but the damage had already been done.
Does that seem like a good reason to hold a child back? Now, as an adult, college professor, and parent of a child both on the spectrum and with ADHD and ODD, I sure don’t think so. But this was a parochial school in the 80s…
Well, this made seven-year-old Jen feel dumb—really dumb, and I felt that way for a very, very long time as a result. It took me many years to overcome all the ticks and insecurities I had developed as a result—long into adulthood. Still, to this day, I find myself saying something that I know stems from those early feelings of inadequacy.
Now, you are asking yourself. Did she have bad grades? Nope. I started reading early. I was probably a grade or two above my grade reading-wise. I wasn’t outstanding at math, but I wasn’t below average—no red flags besides my lack of focus and inability to sit still. Weird reasons to hold a child back, I know, but like I said… a parochial school in the 80s.
The worst thing about it was no one asked me what I wanted. Because if they had, I would have told them I was bored. I knew how to read, and the lessons didn’t interest me. Maybe that was why I lacked focus.
I also would have told them that after lunch, I felt like bouncy balls were slamming around my body, and I couldn’t sit still. (Fun Fact: Food coloring greatly affects people with ADHD, especially Red #4). That would explain my constant shifting in my seat.
Oh, and I was chatty. I talked a lot. I mean, a lot, a lot. But I had a ton of stuff going on in my head at all times, so of course, I wanted to talk about it; who wouldn’t? All you ADD and ADHD silent suffers know what I’m talking about!
So, I was held back. Nothing changed, surprise, surprise. Even worse, it was second grade. All of you Catholic school alumni know what that means…Holy Communion. If you don’t know what that means, let’s just say that I had a lot of free time. Since I had already received Holy Communion the year before, I didn’t have to take part in the endless practices every second-grade Catholic school student has to sit through, but I had to go, and (get this) I had to sit in the back of the church and quietly watch.
Now, how crazy does that sound? This 8-year-old outcast with no friends because I was older than everyone else felt extremely dumb and inadequate and was a raging ball of hyperactivity because, of course, practices were right after lunch. I was bored due to having to sit quietly and still while my classmates practiced walking up and down the aisle and listening to the priest talk endlessly about a sacrament I had already received and knew all about.
How am I not more damaged psychologically damaged than I am? (Wait a moment. I’m going to give myself a hug and speak a few positive affirmations—Ok, I’m back.) Let’s just say things got worse before they got better.
Do you remember the super quiet straight lines you had to keep walking around school back in the day? Yeah, well, I wasn’t very good at those either, especially on the way back from Holy Communion practice. I had so much to get out; I had just sat still and quiet for an hour, Red #4 was coursing through my veins, and I had to get it out. So I talked. I was compelled to talk. I had to move something, or I would explode.
One day, walking back from practice, I was chatting with a girl in line, and I got caught. The teacher, Sister Christine, I’ll never forget her face. It is still burnt into my mind, grabbed me by the pigtail and yanked me out of line and pinned me to the chalkboard, and growled in my face. It was terrifying, and it scarred me for life.
A month or two later, a doctor diagnosed me with ADHD, and I was put on a special diet and given some support in handling my symptoms, but the damage was already done.
Over the years, I have sought out techniques and coping mechanisms to help me control my symptoms. Are they perfect? No. But they got me where I am today without medication.
Now, wait, I am not slamming Adderall or whatever medicine you or your loved one is on. I love Adderall. My son would not be able to get through school without it. But my parents never gave me the option, and I didn’t realize it was an option until I was an adult, and by then, I already knew how to deal with it, so I don’t feel the need now. However, if I ever did, I would be calling my doctor. But medicine alone doesn’t work either. I have taught my son, students, and anyone that will listen to my techniques because I believe in them and know they work. They got me through my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and Dean’s list a few times as well. They also got me through twenty years of teaching writing in college.
For the sake of brevity, I will share one with you now and the rest at my upcoming workshop, ClassroomYoga &MeditationFor Education, on Tuesday, March 7th, from 6:30-8p. You can attend in person or virtually. I hope to see you there.
My tip—Lists. Tons and tons of lists. I get distracted easily and often forget things I shouldn’t, which makes me feel bad about myself, so I write it down, so I can’t forget, stopping that bad feeling in its tracks.
Now how detailed are these lists, you ask? Very. And Specific. Here’s an example, I have a whiteboard on the fridge where we keep the grocery list. When it is time to go to the store, I take a picture of the list. Then, using the editing function, I can cross out items as I shop. How does this help? I feel satisfied that I accomplished a task because the list and the crossing out keep my attention focused.
Why not a paper list, you ask? Well, simply said, I’d lose it. I have lost so many lists in my life. I think I put it in a pocket, but I get distracted and forget, leave it somewhere, then I get to the market and have to shop blind—which never goes well. I’m less likely to lose my phone. Have I lost it? OH, daily, but I always find it!
Having ADHD makes you very forgetful because your brain is moving so quickly; the thought is usually gone by the time you process it, which makes retention tough. But you learn ways to cope—like making lists.
A special thank you to my parents. They fought for me. My mom did endless research on natural methods to help me manage my symptoms. She discovered the Feingold diet, which was annoying because I had to give up Kool-aid, Cheetos, and Skittles, but I was so much calmer. The bouncy balls slowed and gave me the space to discover other skills to help me hold hands with my ADHD rather than be bullied by it. Thank you to both of my parents for always telling me my dreams were possible. There was a clear message in my household—I was going to college. Neither of my parents was told this when they were young and didn’t have the opportunity, so they were determined that I would go. It was never in doubt. Without knowing it, they were chipping away at my feelings of inadequacy that the dreadful two consecutive years of second grade had caused. Oh, and a nun or teacher never laid a hand on me again after that.
Thank you for listening to me babble about my experiences. I hope they made you feel validated. Because I know there are many of us licking the wounds of our childhood over issues like this. Growing up is hard, and we should be thankful we all made it out alive.
Jennifer Leary graduated from Temple University with a Bachelor's in English and a Master’s degree in English Literature, specializing in Cultural Studies. She also received a Technical Writing Certificate from the University of Washington. She has worked as a writing professor at Bucks County Community College for twenty years and as a technical writer for two years. This writing experience, coupled with a wild imagination, has led to the writing of her first novel, Next Morrow, which is a love story to her family, who has always surrounded her with love and support, and endless amounts of inspiration.