Two weeks after my son entered 3rd grade, his teacher called to express concern about his progress. He would hold up his hand to answer questions and then couldn’t remember the question. He had trouble comprehending and focusing on classroom activities. If he returned to 2nd grade, she said, he might be better prepared for the challenging 3rd grade curriculum the following year. The conversation was frustrating. What could she know about him in such a short time?

Problems in the Classroom

If I had been honest with myself, I would have realized that I wasn’t all that surprised. My husband and I had noticed the same issues at home, but like most parents, we rationalized our child’s behavior. When he failed state testing in 2nd grade, we reasoned that it was because we had just moved to a new community and a different school. After all, in our previous school system, his teachers had never mentioned problems with focus and attention.

Our son’s background is vastly different from his classmates. He was born in Guatemala, and his birth mother gave him up for adoption at 10 months. He was in foster care until we adopted him at 33 months old. He was a bright boy, and his physical development was amazing. At 28 months, he could run and kick a small ball like a soccer player without falling down.

We didn’t receive any information about his past during the adoption process. We had never witnessed his care in the foster home. His mother’s and father’s health histories were a complete mystery. Along with major dental problems, we believed he had some malnutrition issues. We couldn’t help but consider all these factors after his teacher called.

But we weren’t convinced that returning our son to 2nd grade would address the issues his teacher had raised. Studies on the effectiveness of grade retention are mixed, and we didn’t think it would work for someone as social as our son. Retaining him, we believed, would be devastating to his self-esteem and could eventually negatively affect his studies. We consulted with some teachers who knew our son, and they agreed.

A week later we met with our son’s teacher, and she outlined the problems he was having in class. Although I respected her as a teacher, I realized that she didn’t really know him. I felt strongly that I had to be my son’s advocate. I told her about the adoption and all the things that he had gone through, hoping she’d have more perspective once she knew his history. And she did.

As a result of that meeting, my husband and I decided not to wait for the school to begin testing for learning disabilities, which can take months. Instead, we arranged to have our son tested at a local private medical practice. We also made sure to involve our pediatrician in our decisionmaking. The test report confirmed that our son had ADHD as well as a nonverbal learning disability: he couldn’t visualize abstract concepts like math. Our pediatrician prescribed a low dose of an ADHD drug our son now takes at the beginning of each school day.

Working With the School

In our next step, we met with our son’s teachers, special education teachers, speech and language therapist, and school counselor to develop an individualized education plan. The IEP would describe our son’s learning issues and the special education services and accommodations he would receive at school. His accommodations included small group instruction, extended time for test-taking, and continued speech and language therapy. We agreed to have him tutored in reading twice a week and in math once a week.

To work on his weakest area, writing, he worked with other students in a small language arts group. His special education teacher reported that he was never terribly off task but that he struggled with thinking through an entire thought and then writing it. At home, we worked on writing in a journal each night.

The small group also concentrated on reading decoding and fluency. Most of our son’s classmates were working on comprehension while he was still learning these basic skills.

The IEP emphasized greater organization in the classroom with the use of a daily planner and a folder system. In 4th grade, our son had significant trouble getting his homework organized, so we included a daily visit with his resource teacher who checked his planner, initialed homework assignments, and made sure he was organized when he went home. In 5th grade, he was also in a guided study hall, which meant that he had a designated time during the school day to do homework and study with the help of a special education teacher.

Multi-step directions have also been a problem. We work hard at breaking down tasks into simple steps to avoid frustration and increase focus. A whiteboard calendar in his room helps him remember upcoming tests, projects, and important dates. When tests or projects are assigned, we work over the course of several days using notes, flash cards, and picture cards. For an added reminder, we have a “don’t forget” whiteboard on the refrigerator.

Support at Home

Since his initial IEP conference, my son has attended summer school and continued tutoring. My husband has taken on math tutoring at home, and our son’s math grade has risen by one letter grade. Breaking down the concepts into basic units, they use visuals wherever they can. The math tutoring prepares our son for upcoming math lessons so he knows what to expect. His grades have risen one letter grade in his other subjects, too.

Our son still has bouts of frustration with school and homework. At home he sometimes gets angry, shouts, and slams doors. Often, these tantrums are like a storm. They gather strength but do not last long. When my son gets upset, he often tells me that he is dumb. So we talk about what it means to be smart in real life. I tell him that in real life, no one wants to know what grade you got in 4th grade math. I tell him that I have known really smart people who got good grades but still made bad choices. More than anything, I want him to know that being smart really means making thoughtful decisions and working hard and that a grade can never measure these abilities.

Finally, we emphasize lots of physical activity. He plays sports and is an outdoor kind of boy, so ongoing exercise keeps him healthy as well as helps him sleep well at night. We also limit his electronic game playing time, urging him to spend his free time outdoors.

While ADHD has been challenging, it has also been a blessing. Our son has had to learn basic life skills like working hard, staying organized, and managing his time, all of which will serve him well later in life. But most important, he has retained his buoyancy of spirit. At parent conference this year, both of his teachers told me that he is a hard worker, increasing his standardized tests scores and earning average grades. Most notably, he was class leader, a quiet leader whom other kids turned to for help and advice. These are attributes that we believe far outweigh any learning disability or ADHD.

Rebecca A. Hill is a freelance writer who crafts articles on education, literacy, and reading issues. She has been published in a variety of national education magazines and holds a master’s degree in library and information sciences from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She lives in Zionsville, Ind., with her two boys and husband.