What’s Wrong With Your Good Kid?

I hated school. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I liked being with my friends and playing on the basketball team and being in the band and recess and talking to girls. I liked learning too. I liked learning just about anything. Math, reading history and science-especially science. I liked all of it. I just hated class.

From about the time that I was ten to the time I reached high school, the most common thing that happened to me in a classroom was that I was thrown out of it. It happened at least once a day. There were days when I was thrown out of every class that I was in. That’s not easy to do. I was told to wait outside in the hall until class was over or sent to the principal’s office. I had my own desk there. I never got a detention. I was never suspended. I never got in a fight. And I never picked on or bullied anyone. Even my teachers, the ones that threw me out of class everyday would have admitted, I was a pretty good kid. So what was the problem?

Me in a classroom was the problem. I never shut up. And I could never keep still. And I was a nightmare for every teacher I ever had who tried to get through a lesson with a couple dozen other kids to tend to. I drove them crazy. I called out. I cracked jokes, usually on the subject. I talked to the people around me. It never stopped. If you ever taught me, and if you’re still with us and if I didn’t send you to an early grave, I’m sorry.

Things eventually turned out OK for me. But not until I pretty much quit on school.

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That’s my high school freshmen year report card. Notice the hand written notes from my mother, God bless her. Mostly F’s,  a few C’s. Because after years of getting thrown out of class, I just stopped going. Which is why I’m writing this now. Because there’s no reason it has to end the way it did for me. But you also need to know, that even if it does and even if your kid is as big a nightmare as I was in the classroom, it’s probably going to be OK. But there’s a few things you need to know that can help.

There actually is something wrong with your kid.

I know that’s a taboo thing to say these days. But there’s something wrong with everyone’s kids. It’s just that the something wrong with your kid, the same thing that was wrong with me, makes classrooms and then school a disaster. If you’re interested in helping though, it’s an important thing to come to terms with. It doesn’t mean he or she is a bad kid. Or that you’re a bad parent. Or that they’ll be labeled for life with a stigma. It just means there’s a cause here. And causes are good. Because you can usually do something about them. Chances are, if your kid is like I was, he or she  has some function of neurological developmental disorder, likely Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder or ADHD.  ADHD is not an excuse or something people these days say because we are allergic to discipline. It’s a real live disorder that’s always been around. And it makes it really hard for your kid to handle the classroom environment.

Just like any other part of the body, the brain develops as your kids grow up. In kids with ADHD, the parts that manage impulse control, focus and executive planning are underdeveloped. The good news is, eventually they get somewhat or completely better just by growing up a bit. The bad news is that pretty much no matter what you do, your kids often literally can’t control themselves. Which makes it near impossible to exist in class. And maddening to be their teacher.

There are tons of treatments and therapies and even medications that can help. There’s lots of options. But it starts with coming to terms with what’s going on with your child. It’s not going away. And “getting tough” alone won’t cut it.

The classroom is a miserable place

If I jumped into my time machine and traveled back a hundred and fifty years, grabbed someone off the street and jumped back to today, there’s not much that person would recognize about the world we live in. Cars, plains, electricity, internet…radio. Everything is different. The one thing that would make sense to them, would be the classroom. Because it really hasn’t changed that much. There’s a teacher and a lot of people sitting there watching them talk or point to things. It’s a lousy way to spend your day, especially if you’re a ten year old boy. And if you’re a ten year old boy whose brain is developing differently than others, its a miserable experience. I’m 40, and the times when I’ve had to jump back into learning environments like that for training at work or other projects, I’ve wanted to stab myself in the eye with my number two pencil. We’re overdue for massive changes in the modern classroom. But that revolution probably isn’t going to help your kid. Because it’s not getting here fast enough. So, try this instead:

Talk to your child’s teacher, and see how you might be able to adapt the classroom to help. If he has a diagnosis related to his issues, use an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to ensure that it’s formalized and constant. For me, either sitting in the very front of the classroom or very far in the back was actually effective. Simple geography took away most of the temptation to act because my issue was my inability not to engage those around me in conversations. If your kid can’t sit still, maybe he doesn’t need to during lectures. Maybe she can stand or pace in the back. There’s lots to do in that space that can help. There’s lots of new project based schools that are starting to spring up too. See what you can do to break the cycle of acting out, punishment, diminished learning and then acting out. Because if you don’t, the teacher can’t teach, and your kid can’t learn. It’s a partnership with the teacher, who hopefully by 2016 gets it that is the key to adapting to the classroom.

Punishment isn’t going to work.

The science behind punishment is pretty clear. In order to punish your kids out of impulsive behaviors, you have to punish them so severely, you create trauma. And unless you’re interested in sending your kids to rehab before they get their drivers license, you don’t want to mix impulse control issues with childhood trauma. It’s not pretty. All that throwing me out of class ever did was make me feel like a misfit. And it never stopped me. And at the end of the year when everyone went on a class trip, and I wasn’t allowed to go because of my poor conduct grades, I was left behind with a handful of kids who felt the same way. That group of a half a dozen kids included me, someone who is now a convicted serial murder and another kid who eventually killed himself in a hostage standoff with police. I’m not saying things would have turned out better if we got to go on the trip. But holding them out of it clearly wasn’t the “tough lesson” they needed to straighten themselves out. As for me, I felt like I was a bad kid for a long time. And it never made me better. So just skip it.

Stop telling your kid and yourself that they’re just too smart for the material.

I was told over and over again that I was too smart and that the curriculum just wasn’t challenging enough. If only there were a way to make it more challenging, I would be forced to pay attention and would therefore behave. They’d point to my test scores as proof. And both myself and my mom would feel better, no longer burdened with the accountability of my actions. It seemed like a fair explanation. But it was nonsense. There were scary smart kids in my class who played a half a dozen instruments, spoke French and could do sixth grade math when they were in preschool. And none of them were getting thrown out of class because they couldn’t behave. Because none of them had the problem I had.

Do keep your kid engaged at school

This is probably the only part that matters. It matters more than keeping up skills at grade level. It matters more than their “citizenship” grades. And it matters more than their test scores. You really don’t get anything for winning 7th grade. The world doesn’t care what your fifth grade report card was. None of it matters. What matters is that when you get to high school, that you wake up in the morning and you don’t look at the day ahead of you with a sense of horror and dread because school has been a miserable experience for you. That’s where 15 year old me was. But a change of environment and some mentoring fixed it pretty quickly, because I didn’t hate school. I just hated the classroom.But I stayed engaged outside the classroom and when I got in the right environment, it was a quick turnaround. The classroom was always going to be hard for me. It was all the way through grad school. But school wasn’t. I went to dances and played in the band and played sports and participated in the gifted and talented program. And all of that eventually saved me. Put your parenting energy there. And do what you can to manage the rest.

There are actually good things about how your kid is different.

I have more ideas than any two people I know-more good ideas, more bad ideas, more average ideas. It never stops. It’s a constant flow. And as I got older, it got easier to focus that mental energy. Part of it was because, just like my body,  my brain filled out. The other part was because I’ve learned tools to help like meditation and mindfulness. But that focus just sits on top of a basic mental energy that is really powerful in many environments but disastrous in a classroom. When I worked in the Navy’s branch of the Special Forces, I was surrounded by crazy ADHD adults, moving at a million miles a minute, full of creativity and energy, capable of intense situational focus. Now, I run a team at a world class software company and write a blog that over a million people read last year. At work, I’m surrounded by weirdos that exist on a different mental plane than anyone I know. None of them could sit in a classroom for five minutes. And they make amazing things and more money than you can imagine. Because there’s value in the dynamic mind. I don’t know how any of them were in fourth grade. I don’t even know where most of them went to college-if they went at all.

Here’s the truth. Your kids are going to live most of their lives outside of school and outside of your direct protection. We tend to evaluate our whole parental experience on how they work in the classroom. It’s not fair to them. And it’s not fair to us. So take a deep breath, work with your kid’s teacher and keep them engaged and feeling as good about their experience as they can. Because it matters a whole lot more that you don’t get it wrong than it does that you get it exactly right.

Liking school is more important than being good at it. And it’s not close.


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