what i told her

A friend called the other day to talk about some concerns that she had about her daughter’s schooling.

She told me that her kiddo is in third grade, and explained that she was particularly concerned given that she has been told that third-grade is the most crucial of the elementary years. It was, she told me, a vital building block for pretty much everything that follows. Essentially, she had been told that if her daughter fails to learn what she needs to learn in third grade, the rest of her education will be doomed. I could almost hear the Jaws music as she spoke.

My voice dripping with sarcasm, I told her that she was absolutely right. That it was a well-known fact that the trajectory of all of our lives can be traced back to third grade. I mean, we all know that if a girl doesn’t have her fractions down by the end of the year, her parents might as well just order her a pair of Perspex heels because little Sally’s gonna need them when she’s grinding up against a pole at 18. Right?

Um no.

I told her that I had heard that third grade was critical too. One and two years after hearing how critical first and second were and one and two years before hearing how critical fourth and fifth are, because apparently every one of them is THE critical building block for all future learning.

Listen, I said, the skills that one hopes their child will attain in all of those grades help to form a basis for what follows, clearly.

But ..

Turn off the Jaws music and nod and smile when the drama queens in town tell you that (gasp!) THIS year is THE ONE that matters. That kind of pressure isn’t helping you OR your kid. Oh, and it’s just kind of a waste of energy. And by kind of, I mean it is. By the way, my dad, who you might remember was a middle school principal for 45 years, said later when I brought this up that kindergarten is the most critical. Because, and I quote, “that’s when they learn to flush.”

But all of this was incidental to the conversation we were having, which was about how to approach her daughter’s teacher about some concerns regarding her development.

She explained that her kiddo had a rough year last year. That she seems to have difficulty sitting still and an even harder time paying attention, especially for the ever-increasing periods of time that are demanded of her as she grows. She told me that she gets into trouble for not listening and not following directions. That she is struggling to keep up even though she is extremely bright and capable of doing the work. She told me that they’re looking to pursue an evaluation, but that in the meantime, she wants to figure out how to approach the teacher. She was particularly concerned about not limiting her kid’s potential based on the teacher’s perspective of her and not stigmatizing her in the eyes of her peers. And she told me that she feels awful that she didn’t pursue it earlier.

This is what I told her.

Take off the hair shirt. It does neither you nor your kid a whit of good, so take it off. You’ll have plenty of time to wallow in the rear view mirror during the evaluation process, which is about as much fun as an enema, so save it. Spend your time and energy looking forward, for both of you.

Talk to the teacher openly and honestly about your concerns. They will not come as news to her. She is the one who has pointed out the behavioral difficulties, after all, so she sees something. But what does she see? Or more to the point, what do you want her to see? A kid who doesn’t sit still and doesn’t listen when she’s told to? One who appears to be defiant because she doesn’t follow instructions? One who won’t focus on her work? One who is creating a disturbance with other kids?

– OR –

A kid who is having a lot of internal trouble sitting still. A kid who desperately wants to follow instructions, but struggles because her attention wanders and then she doesn’t know what the instructions are. One who has no intention of disrupting class but sometimes doesn’t know how not to.

Or, wait, how about this … A really bright, great kid who needs some help figuring out how to navigate through some challenges in order to live up to her potential. Yeah, let’s go with that.

When you talk to her, tell her that you are worried because you never, ever want anyone to put limits on what they think your kid can do because you know that there are no limits. Tell her that you just want to explore ways to support her so that she can reach her potential. Tell her that you want to work with her (the teacher) to do that. That you know that you’ll need to rely on her expertise, but that so too, she can rely on you – that she can always talk to you, brainstorm with you, ask questions. Tell her that you are pursuing an evaluation toward the end of helping everyone to get the tools they need to support your daughter, which will, in turn, make her job a whole lot easier.

As far as the kids, I said. they’re third graders. They care both more and far, far less than you think. They see other students being pulled out of the room for services all the time. Extra adults coming in and out of the classroom to observe your kiddo? Yeah, they might ask who they are. And the teacher will say, “They’re just here to watch our class today,” and they will be on to the next thing. Ooh, something shiny. They’re third graders.

And the label, if there is one? DON’T BE AFRAID OF IT. First and foremost, know that YOUR attitude about your child’s challenges is what she is going to breathe in and internalize more than anything else. If you are afraid, she will feel fear. If you speak in hushed tones about “things that we keep secret,” she will learn shame. The label is a good thing. It’s the key to the toolbox and the knowledge that she’s not the only one.

Whatever you find out, tell her. If you make it a matter-of-fact, developmentally appropriate discussion about strengths and challenges, explaining that all kids – and adults – all have a set of both that makes us the nifty and fabulous people that we are … well, that’s what it will be.

I offered a framework for the conversation. Never mention a challenge without a strength to offset it. You know how it can be hard for you to sit still in class, honey? I know that can be tough, but it’s also why you have so much energy and why you’re so great at kickball! You know how it can be really hard to pay attention sometimes because your mind wanders? Well, that’s part of what makes you so creative! It’s why you tell those amazing stories! I told her to include herself in the conversation. Start a sentence with, “I remember how that felt when I was a kid ..”

I told her that if there’s a label for it all, she could say, “And, as it turns out, the particular group of strengths and challenges that you have has a name. And lots and lots (and LOTS!) of other people have it too.” I told her that that part is important. That kids tend to think they’re alone, that everything comes easy to everyone but them. It’s human nature, isn’t it? Think of the comfort that we find in those whose challenges we recognize as our own. It’s a gift to know that there are people out there who feel like we do. The label can give her that, I said.

I told her not to worry about saying this stuff out loud. That kids are far more self-aware than we think they are. That even if she doesn’t compare herself to other kids, her daughter knows that she’s getting in trouble in class. She knows that she’s having a hard time paying attention. She’s frustrated when she loses the thread. All of that takes its toll on a kid’s psyche. A label doesn’t create the issues, it just helps to describe them.

Feel her out, I said, but know that she already knows.

And the kids? Dear God, they’ve all got something going on these days. I overheard a conversation once among a group of “typical” fifth grade girls. One of them was telling the others that she’d just found out she had ADHD. Every other kid in the group piped up with, “I have …” or “I am …” or “I take ..” Every. Other. One.

I told her how I feel about the big old looming fear (cue the Jaws music again, please) among educators and parents about stigmatization in the land of autism. I told her that I can’t help but laugh when people worry about Brooke being stigmatized by the tools that she uses in school, be it a bungee cord across her chair for her feet or a fidget in class or a book about Dora the Explorer when everyone around her has moved onto whatever the heck they’ve moved onto. I laugh, I explained, because my kid will stand out a hell of a lot more when she’s screaming in frustration or hitting her head because she’s overwhelmed or picking at her skin until it bleeds because she’s anxious than she will reading a Dora book.

I told her that a kid who is getting in trouble for being disruptive is already standing out.

So let’s review, I said. Not blending without the tools … so give her the tools. I even did my impression of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny for good measure. “Oh, and you BLEND?”

I told her the story that I think illustrates it best. If your kid could only walk with crutches, I said, what would you do? I mean, crutches are pretty stigmatizing, huh? Can’t miss em. So perhaps we should leave them home. She’ll be fine at recess. Just put her on the swing! No one will be the wiser. It’s brilliant, no? Hullo? NO. Because as soon as the bell rings and it’s time to go back inside, your kid is on the swing with no way to get inside. Is a child crawling into the building less conspicuous than one using crutches?


So that’s what I told her.

This stuff isn’t easy. I speak about it in matter-of-fact terms because I’ve had ten years to figure it out. But it’s not easy. Whether it’s attention difficulties or executive functioning challenges or social / emotional issues, it’s hard to say, “My kid is having trouble,” and it can be even harder to act on it. But she is. Because it’s the right thing to do for her kid.

And in case she’s reading this (after so generously allowing me to share the story with you, for which I am grateful), I’ll add this:

Don’t worry, my sweet friend. Third grade is not the end-all-be-all, but even if it were, she will do just fine. Because she has a mama who turns to others for help when she needs it, who asks the right questions, and who loves her so fiercely that, well, there’s really no choice. You’ll find your way through this, and you’ll find the keys.

Love you, friend. I’m always here.


Further reading

Welcome to the Club

D Day

24 thoughts on “what i told her

  1. Great stuff here, as usual. Not only abandoning the timelines that don’t fit our kids, but terrific advice about how to hold the conversations that need to be held.

    Oh, and I never knew that “clear stripper heels” actually had a brand name. So I’ve already learned something today and I haven’t even finished my coffee.

  2. And after he has this wonderful talk you laid out with the teacher please please tell her to “formally put it in writing that she is requesting and evaluation for the school and her concerns and sign and date it and present it” This is my two years of working as an advocate speaking. It’s very very important!

    • She is actually pursuing the evaluation privately, so that wasn’t relevant in this case. But, it is extremely important advice. So thank you very much for bringing it up! Put EVERYTHING in writing!!!!

      • Argh stupid laptop. It suddenly posted my comment.

        I know a dad who’s busy being his 13 y/o son’s advocate at school. I’m helping him with the practical “what’s it like to be autistic” stuff but this is something that he needs to know as well and which I wasn’t aware of, never having had a diagnosis in school. Great advice!

      • at least in Michigan once they receive it in writing the clock starts and they have a certain number of days to start the process. No matter what. Even if they don’t want to. 🙂 There is no question of when it was or no miscommunication. If you have a talk with someone then write it back as “confirming our conversation, I’m requesting…” also in Michigan a school does not have to accept a private diagnosis. They have to do their own. I realize that is probably different state to state.

  3. I love this. I always told my boy he had autism diagnosis. It helped him have reason for difficulties and helped him self advocate for his needs. 2nd grade and he doesn’t feel stigmatized but feels empowered. Thanks for this great blog today.

  4. I think it’s great that she reached out to you and you gave her really wonderful advice – If I could just add one thing though.
    I think it would be a good idea for her to also reach out to (or read about or whatever) other people whose kids are having similar issues to hers. I have gotten so many great ideas from hearing about and seeing what other parents did and what their kids get. I have 2 kids – 1 who is autistic and 1 who has ADHD. In a lot of ways, the way I work with teachers/schools and the things I ask for and what’s avail etc for my 2 is similar but so too, they are not at all.
    Good luck to her!

    • Very good advice. One more thing that a label helps with – finding a community for parents seeking to do exactly what you describe. At this point, I think she’s still unsure of what community would be appropriate. 😉

  5. Such an excellent response! I heard many of the same things about (dun, dun, DUH…..) THIRD. GRADE. And had many of the same worries. But you know what I’m realizing this year? Fourth grade is the same, and so is fifth (and for my younger son, so was kindergarten, first, and now second). Every year there is a *big* (and yet really, not so big) transition that they make to prepare them for *the rest of their lives* (scratch that…the next grade).

    As always, Jess, your advice here is so helpful. Although we still don’t have the label yet for our fourth grade son, we’re not afraid of it either. But we could take a cue from you about including him in the conversation anyway. We don’t mean to, but we talk a lot about what to do about this behavior or that…and yet, we struggle with effective ways to talk to *him* about it. That and brainstorming with his teacher will be my goals on how to best help him navigate through daily life this year. Thank you!

  6. You are so great at putting into words the things that I feel and know to be true. I also heard throughout my sons’ school years that THIS was the most important, defining year. Now my middle son is a senior, and I know that THIS is the most important year for his development. Unless it’s next year.

    I also was told that he would have to learn to take notes, that he wouldn’t be able to do everything by memory forever. He still doesn’t take notes and still gets A’s on tests. I was told that he would have to learn to show his work in math, he wouldn’t always be able to do it in his head. He’s in Algebra III/ Trig and he still does it in his head. I just love when people try to impose arbitrary limits on our children. 😉

    • “I also was told that he would have to learn to take notes, that he wouldn’t be able to do everything by memory forever. He still doesn’t take notes and still gets A’s on tests. I was told that he would have to learn to show his work in math, he wouldn’t always be able to do it in his head. He’s in Algebra III/ Trig and he still does it in his head. I just love when people try to impose arbitrary limits on our children.”

      Gonna have to take issue with this.

      There is nothing good about doing maths in one’s head. If one is, for example, working in a team of people (as usually happens in the workplace) … the working out has to be there to show others how the answer was arrived at. Showing working out is ALWAYS a good practice, because it allows others to check on the process leading to the result. But – this next bit is why I’m chipping in here.

      Before training as an educational psychologist, I was a mathematics teacher. When we assess students’ performance in mathematics, the working out must be present. Know why? Because we’re assessing the student’s ability to use processes to arrive at answers. Let’s say that we’re at the end of a unit on solving simultaneous linear equations, and I want to make sure that the student knows how to solve them by the elimination-substitution method. So I set a number of problems to solve, in a series of increasing difficulty, in order to check the student’s understanding of the process and how it is used to get the solutions to the problems. I honestly don’t give a rat’s back end if the answer is correct: that is not the purpose of my assessment – I’m trying to find out if the student can use the method s/he has been taught. So I set 20 problems, each one carrying 5 marks. I give one mark for setting the problem out neatly and stating the aim of the exercise. I give one mark for the answer being correct. I give two marks for the process being used correctly, and I give one mark for using the process itself. If an error is made in calculation, and the answer is correct based on calculations done after the error, then I give half a mark for that. Notice that there’s three whole marks set aside for the use of the process being taught. This is not an arbitrary limit. It’s a check on learning.

      And, if I see that no working out has been done on the test paper, I cannot vouch for that student having learned what the process was and how it is used to solve problems. Because I have no actual behavioural evidence of it. And it is all about evidence of learning. Not getting correct answers. That can be done by chance – even 20 times out of 20 (admittedly, the probability of that is low… but it is not trivial, and nor is it ignorable).

      • I get where you are coming from. I do. But with him, it often comes down to a choice between letting him do it in his head, or having him refuse to do the work at all. His teacher regularly asks him how he came up with his answers to check to make sure he has the process down. He can state how he came to his answer, but the process of getting it down on paper is just so difficult for him that he balks at doing it.

      • Has anyone assessed the process f getting the working out on paper to see what can be done to help? The problem is that – even if the regular teacher queries him on how he arrived at his answer – that isn’t really going to help him in any examination that is assessed externally. If there is an issue with doing working out that has a neurological basis, then an assessment for dyscalculia is warranted ….

        That would be useful for allowing an amenuensis in standardised exams.

  7. This is such a great talk. I’m so grateful that people like you exist to help parents navigate this emotional and, well let’s face it, bureaucratic minefield. Well done to your friend for reaching out and awesome job giving her the information she needs. And giving it to us as well. 😀

  8. “The label is a good thing. It’s the key to the toolbox and the knowledge that she’s not the only one.” This is so true. My guy is 6, so he hasn’t found the need for community just yet, but I’ve seen how it has helped me find support, information, courage. And it has helped him/us find the tools.

    Because of you sharing your journey, we’ll be talking to his class about his autism and how his brain works, encouraging inclusion – and his ARD support team thought it was a great idea that I initiated it (THANKS TO YOU!). I don’t want to “speak in hushed tones” because it helps no one and changes nothing, except building a wall of shame. Honesty is power, it’s a strong foundation.

    Unfortunately, I have extended family who has chosen the “hushed tone” approach – I don’t even know if their kids know the word for their condition, and they are in their tweens. I can’t even talk to them about it – it makes me sad for all of them, especially for the kids who have no choice.

  9. “I laugh, I explained, because my kid will stand out a hell of a lot more when she’s screaming in frustration or hitting her head because she’s overwhelmed or picking at her skin until it bleeds because she’s anxious than she will reading a Dora book.”

    Thanks for this, I needed to hear this today.

  10. Everybody has been saying ‘yes, great advice there!’ so I’m assuming you don’t need to hear it from me, however much I agree with the people saying it and however much I agree with what you said. So I’m going to say something different:

    I wish that my alleged ‘colleagues’ in pycho-educational services (ed-psychs, etc) would get into that mode of thinking that you have shown in your article here, instead of brushing difficulties under the carpet because ‘we can’t be arsed to spend money on this sort of kid and his/her needs’. It would save a lot of people a lot of crap later on in their lives. And it would also save money.

    Excellent post. Thank you for sharing it. I hope your friend got/gets some high quality support for her daughter. I live and occasionally get to work in Finland, where I’m always told ‘we have everything sorted out right in Finland’. We don’t. My daughter is Asperger-autistic and trying to get the right support for her has been a nightmare from day one. But, as they say, that’s another story.

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