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Olympics Star Fought ADHD

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The New York Times (registration required) recently ran an article about Deborah Phelps, the mother of Olympics swimming sensation Michael Phelps, and some of the academic challenges her son faced.

Deborah Phelps is currently the principal of Windsor Mill Middle School in Baltimore County, Md. She's been an educator for more than 30 years. But what strikes me, in this article, is some of the stinging comments that she got from teachers when her son was young:

As he entered public school, he displayed what his teachers called “immature” behavior. “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus,’ ” recalled Ms. Phelps, who was herself a teacher for 22 years. The family had recently moved, and she felt Michael might be frustrated because the kindergarten curriculum he was getting in the new district was similar to the pre-K curriculum in their old district.

“I said, maybe he’s bored,” Ms. Phelps recalled saying to his teacher. “Her comment to me — ‘Oh, he’s not gifted.’ I told her I didn’t say that, and she didn’t like that much. I was a teacher myself so I didn’t challenge her, I just said, ‘What are you going to do to help him?’ ”

In the elementary grades at their suburban Baltimore school, Ms. Phelps said, Michael excelled in things he loved — gym and hands-on lessons, like science experiments. “He read on time, but didn’t like to read,” she said. “So I gave him the Baltimore Sun sports pages, even if he just read the pictures and captions.”

She will never forget one teacher’s comment: “This woman says to me, ‘Your son will never be able to focus on anything.’ ”

I've read and heard genuine concerns from teachers who feel that they're mistreated and misunderstood by parents. But I've also heard from plenty of parents who have the same thing to say about teachers and school administrators. And I don't think any parent would take kindly to being told their child will "never" be able to focus.

Parents, teachers, readers -- what do you think?

(Deborah Phelps has back-to-school tips for parents on the Facebook page ADHDMoms. You can download the article as a pdf here.)

5 Comments

My pre-school report card said I socialized too much. In pre-school! Isn't that what you're supposed to do?

Then again, I never really outgrew that phase... :)

With respect to Michael Phelps, I think that many traits of ADHD can been adaptive. I often wish I had their energy! The key is finding a place for channelling all the energy in a positive way in the classroom.

I was just thinking about poor Michael Phelps today. Stuck in a profession where all you do is swim back and forth in a pool all day. And at the end, it's always the same thing: gold medal, new world record, ho hum. I don't know how he does it :)

He does make it seem routine, doesn't he? I'm such an Olympics fanatic; I'm surprised that I just learned through that article that his mother is an educator.

In my experience, parents tend to be experts on their child's disability. And certainly experts on their child, being the only ones who see their child across time, settings, people. That said, parents are often going through grief and loss issues regarding their child's emotional/learning/social differences. Grief and loss is a process, and is not linear. Sometimes this manifests as seeming unreasonableness. Grief and loss is painful, and parents need support and respect. They also need to be acknowledged, validated, and listened to regarding the important insights they have concerning their child's strengths and needs. Too often, parents are belittled and excluded. This is not only totally oppressive, but it is profoundly destructive when modeled to children. It perpetuates the cycle of abuse, and spirals out into our world. Respect goes a long way in turning around this negative momentum.

It's hard enough to come to terms with a child's academic struggles without callous comments from a teacher. As the parent of a special needs child, I've found that you have to spend a great deal of time advocating on his/her behalf, and assuring teachers that your kid isn't just a willful, undisciplined brat. Teachers have a tough job, but the road to mutual respect runs two ways.

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