Back to School Daze: Undiagnosed learning challenges and mental well being

“If only he was motivated…”

“She’s lazy.”

“If only he cared at all about his work.”

This is what parents of kids who have difficulties focusing on schoolwork hear from teachers.[1] Or what the parents of students who have mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, hear because the noise in their child’s head is distracting.

These things are said to parents during that inevitable meeting scheduled because the student hasn’t handed in assignments, often forgets or loses required worksheets, acts out in class, and even though the student is quite capable of the work, is barely passing the class. Sometimes this kid is the class clown. In this meeting, the parent feels frustrated and guilty because she had no idea it’d gotten so bad and why is it so difficult for her child to hand in finished work? And the teacher sighs because the rules are simple. Assignments are clearly written on the board and class is structured such that students can succeed. And there are all these different times for tutoring (as if this student will remember those tutoring times, or where those times are written down, and when they go to tutoring, they think they’ve got it down only to come home and forget what they were supposed to focus on).

Then the teacher says, “You are completely capable of this work.” Because they are bright enough to master the material, and when they contribute in class, their ideas are thoughtful and articulate, which always takes the teacher by surprise because what this student says during class discussions is not reflected in submitted work.

The student slumps in his chair and says, “Yeah, I’ll try harder. Yeah. I’ll get the work done. I’ll keep my binder organized. I won’t talk in class.” And they mean it. They really do want to do well in school.

But really, they can’t help it. They try but cannot do it like the other kids. It takes him longer to settle into the work, to shut down the interior noise to focus on the lesson. These students are distracted by the waving flag outside, a girl’s tinkling bracelets and the awesome skate shoes Jason is wearing. Or maybe they are worried about being away from their home, wondering if their parents are safe, and thinking about all the bad things that could happen. Or maybe the student takes longer than others to understand what was just said while the rest of the class has moved on to another topic. It’s always something. This kind of student needs a little extra help.

Maybe you’ve been the parent in this meeting?

One mother tells a story to which many of us can relate. Most afternoons, she’d watch her bright child, who struggles to focus,[2] open his math book only to stare blankly at the pages. For an hour. She’d prod, “C’mon, hon. Focus. One problem at a time.” But because of the way his brain works, the number of problems—two sides of a sheet or often several pages— felt overwhelming, which often made him feel anxious about getting through it, which also paralyzed him to even get started. He knew how to do the problems but is a slow worker and would lose momentum after two problems. For these kinds of students, knowing that they will be spending hours each night getting through just one subject crushes any joy of learning. It’s depressing. Anxiety provoking. Often they don’t finish. Or do it at all. Then there’s the act of actually handing in the work.

Students with these types of learning challenges need support to develop workaround strategies and accommodations to prevent the student from shutting down altogether due to feeling overwhelmed. For some, it’s too much information coming at them at once. Accommodations may be as simple (for teachers) as requiring less homework, providing copies of class notes, giving gentle class-time reminders to pay attention and a dedicated front-row seat. Others require more assistance (formal specialized curriculum known as IEP) and skill development for success. Medication prescribed by a qualified medical professional may help. Success is achievable.

Offering accommodations is not about lowering standards. It’s leveling the playing field and providing an opportunity for each student to develop learning strategies specific to his or her challenges in order to reach success. Identifying what motivates a student provides a pathway to learning that is otherwise seemingly inaccessible.

In elementary grades, teachers spend most of the school day with their students and become well acquainted with each child’s learning style. In my children’s elementary school, teachers are well trained in presenting each lesson in different ways so that each student has the ability to grasp the material and develop skills at their own pace. For example, by the end of fifth grade, all those students were writing several paragraph essays. Later, students’ challenges are exacerbated in middle school where there is less time for individual attention and work is more rigorous.


…I was the parent in the meeting being told, “If your child only cared more,” a comment that made me want to leap across those uncomfortable desks and nearly strangle that well-meaning teacher.


By middle school, I was the parent in the meeting being told, “If your child only cared more,” a comment that made me want to leap across those uncomfortable desks and nearly strangle that well-meaning teacher. Because watching my child struggle every afternoon is not what a kid does if he doesn’t care. I requested that my student be tested (standard academic/psychological test) to identify root causes so we could better develop strategies and skills. I knew we needed to find solutions and I had made that exact promise to my child. I wasn’t expecting a solution that would make schoolwork a breeze. Challenge is good, but feeling constantly overwhelmed in a school setting can lead to deeper long-term issues that impact a person’s well being, including mental health.

Public school districts are legally required to provide to struggling students the testing that can identify how a student processes information and other specific challenges and strengths. This valuable information enables teachers and parents to provide workaround tools for success in school and life. We cannot change the way our brain works, but that doesn’t mean the brain isn’t powerful. It should be incumbent upon educators to offer the appropriate learning tools and teach the skills that truly enable a student to learn, no matter his process.

But our school district didn’t honor my request at first. Instead, there was a preliminary report to determine if testing was necessary. One reason cited for not initially providing testing was that my child was well supported at home. Our school district doesn’t have a lot of money. They need to avoid unnecessary costs where possible and testing is expensive. They set up barriers for parents. But how can a district do its job, that is, educate students, if issues impeding learning are not addressed?

I respect that the testing is time-consuming to already overworked district educators. Still, what concerns me as a parent and member of a wonderfully diverse district is that not all parents are aware of the ways learning differences can manifest and may feel uncomfortable about fighting for their child’s learning needs, especially when a language barrier exists. Not all parents are as pushy as I am.

Fortunately, in the end, and after several requests, our school district provided the testing (and a thorough analysis of it) which yielded valuable insights on how best to support my child’s learning.
I am keenly aware of the prevailing belief that brain differences such as ADHD are over-diagnosed, that especially boys simply cannot sit still and that there are some students who are less motivated in a school setting. Maybe some fidgety kids don’t have a diagnosable condition and some others need time to mature. Perhaps our education system is designed for uncommonly sedate children. I believe that some people are innately more ambitious than others and don’t require a parental push. Some other students absolutely do. All of this can be true, while still acknowledging that a student who exhibits problems focusing, whatever the root cause, needs to be supported. Immediately.

Whether or not a student has a diagnosis is irrelevant to the salient fact that our public education system is required to meet the needs and learning challenges of every student. To do so is to understand the specific challenge. And, for a struggling student to find success, teachers’ efforts need parental support at home.

One mother[3] told me how she makes a concerted effort at the beginning of each school year to explain her child’s specific learning challenges to each teacher. Her child is very bright, an avid reader and always scores exceptionally well on standardized tests. Every year, teachers assure her that they understand issues around her child’s ADHD diagnosis. But without fail, by the first quarter of every semester, her child becomes overwhelmed largely due to organizational challenges. Her child loses track of assignments, and if completed, fails to turn them in. The teachers infrequently accommodate this student’s needs by allotting extensions or any other assistance. Even after this mother explains her child’s diagnosis, the teachers insist that “requirements are very clearly outlined,” and “your child is capable of the work.” As good as our district teachers are, public schools have more workload than any person should be required to manage including providing accommodations. As a result, this mother’s student becomes depressed and experiences anxiety symptoms resulting from the stress of school, despite an obvious aptitude registered in testing, in-class discussions and for in-class essays. This mother has come to realize that despite all good intentions, most teachers and the public school system don’t understand ADHD or how to help a struggling student overcome challenges the unfocused brain presents.

Let’s be clear: a person who has challenges focusing is not doomed. In fact, these types of thinkers excel in many fields, often careers requiring creativity. Michael Phelps’s mother put him on a swim team to address his high energy and inability to focus. Exercise calmed him and helped him focus. Other well-known successes include Olympian Simone Biles, actor Woody Harrelson and businessman billionaire Richard Branson.

Why does the education system need to improve accommodations for atypical learners? Because students who struggle to focus and stay on-task often fall behind in their work. A student with slow processing speed is still thinking about the first idea a teacher presented while the class has moved on to other more complex ideas.[4] These students begin to feel lost and incapable when in fact they simply lack support and tools. They begin to believe they are “lazy” because this is what they hear from teachers and sometimes their uninformed parents. Feeling “dumb” in the classroom of peers can lead to low self-esteem and later depression and risk-taking behavior.

The education system shouldn’t damage those learners too inconvenient to serve.

Tips for parents of students with learning and focusing challenges:

  • Make sure the student has a workspace that is quiet, organized and with minimal distractions. Also, work with your child to block out time for homework each night. This is the best way to support a students’ education.
  • Insist on appropriate testing by your school district to determine the root of a student’s learning challenges. Or, have the testing done privately by a licensed professional if this is affordable. Seek recommendations from trusted professionals.
  • Seek out the many credible resources available online that provide valuable tips for students diagnosed with ADHD (such as taking mini-breaks between tasks, for example).
  • Advocate for your child by communicating with each teacher and more importantly, advise your child how to advocate for her own needs with her teachers.
  • Help your child to learn what she needs to do for herself to be successful in school. This may mean to take frequent breaks while working on homework, such as after one side of a worksheet is complete.
  • Consider getting a tutor who specializes in working with students who have issues focusing.
  • Always bring attention to your student’s strengths. If your student is a good soccer player, make sure to support this interest. If your student excels in art, consider enrollment in after school art classes.
  • Some private schools support students with learning styles that are not easily accommodated in a public school setting. If this is a financial possibility, consider this option as an investment in your child’s academic and psychological well being. However, not all private schools truly accommodate these differences.
  • Encourage physical activities the student truly enjoys.
  • Continue to learn about your child’s specific challenges from evidence based resources and accredited professionals.

[1] “Difficulties focusing” refers to diagnosed or undiagnosed learning differences or brain disorders that include symptoms similar to those experienced by those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder (ADD) and/or any other mental health that causes difficulties focusing or slow processing.

[2] You may find basic information about ADHD and ADD at http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/adhd/home/ovc-20196177

Proper evaluation and testing by a trained medical professional are required to confirm a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD.

There are many evidence-based resources available. We found the following resource, which contains a list of credible resources for further reading about helping a student manage challenges focusing:

Cheyette, Sarah, MD, Peter Johnson and Ben Cheyette, MD, PHD. ADHD & The Focused Mind: A Guide to Giving Your ADHD Child Focus, Discipline & Self-Confidence. Garden City, NJ: Square One Publisher, 2016.

[3] Names of parent and student are changed to protect privacy.

[4] For more information about processing speed differences as well as other learning differences: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/information-processing-issues/how-can-i-get-my-childs-teachers-to-recognize-processing-speed-as-a-real-issue

We appreciate any and all comments.

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