What I learned from Teachers, Parents, and Myself

Perspectives on My Life as an AD/HD Student

November 2011

By Amos GewirtzAmos Gewirtz

We all struggle in ways that cannot be completely understood by others. Our struggles are unavoidable because problems, even when diagnosed, are ultimately personal and individual. In whatever I attempt, however, I try to convey my views to others. I try to share my vantage point as a student, as a Minnesotan, and as a high-potential youth with attentional challenges (to name just a few perspectives). I hope that my life, as well as others’ lives, can be enriched if people understand something of my joys and challenges. I hope that, by explaining my history with teachers, parents, and myself as a twice-exceptional person, I might help those around me as well as myself.

What Worked in School in the Early Years

Teachers who help gifted students with disabilities are invaluable. As one of those students, I have been blessed with some educators who truly understood how to help twice-exceptional learners. Undoubtedly, the most valuable trait of my talented “2e” teachers was their ability to teach students with varying learning styles.
I am a visual learner, and many of my teachers were really able to understand my style. Thank goodness for their skills because, as a young student, I sometimes seemed to view myself as the only student in my class! At any rate, I hoped for and relied on a manner of teaching that appealed to my specific learning preferences. I preferred to see things in pictures as well as in words; I preferred discussion to directions; and I preferred to be talked to, not talked at.

What Didn’t Work

While I had many highly effective teachers, it was inevitable that, at times, I encountered some who acted in ways that were unhelpful or even hurtful to twice-exceptional students. For instance, there was the teacher who remarked that I ask too many questions. “You know,” this curmudgeonly educator noted, “you’re not the only one in the class.” This remark was hardly accepting of my thoughtful questions. It did serve, however, as a negative example of how a critical teacher can make a special-needs student feel far less than special. Conversely, her comment reminded me once more of my several great high school educators who employed their positive power to help me, as a student with attention deficit, feel that I could shine — if only for a moment — as “the only one in class.”

Then there was an incident in second grade that I remember vividly. My teacher told me to “keep my AD/HD under control.” Not only was this vague and unhelpful advice, but it also hurled at me a painful critique of a problem that I had some understanding of and was struggling with. I was humiliated by the remark.
Such moments, publicizing and personalizing my lifetime struggle, arose again and again. I now hope that teachers who read this piece will see that telling excitable children to “control themselves” is not nearly as effective as trying to channel their excitement into productive, intellectual formats.

My School Experiences Now

I have come a long way since those early days. I am now on a par with the highest achievers in my high school class. Despite my success, though, I still encounter problems with educators, often concerning several of my long-standing AD/HD-related problems: impulsivity, focus, and self-discipline. I have not asked as much from teachers as I did in grades K-8, mostly because I do not need as much from them. I do, however, still have a 504 Plan to help me deal with my classroom challenges. (I recommend all students who struggle with AD/HD talk to their counselors about receiving one.)

My 504 Plan allows me time-and-a-half on my teachers’ tests, and I have used this extended time to truly show what I have learned in the classroom. Although I feel incredibly thankful that the extended-time provision exists, I have often felt ashamed of it. Indeed, throughout my high school career, teachers often asked if I thought it was really fair that I got more time than other students. On one occasion, an Advanced Placement educator complained to my guidance counselor, “He doesn’t need more time. He just needs to focus better in class and work harder at home!” I still do not attribute this teacher’s opinions to personal malice on the validity of my 504 Plan or on the reality of my AD/HD — I see them as simple ignorance. The distinction between those teachers who are good for 2e students like me and those who are not is often the degree to which they can empathize with my struggles in the classroom.

My Home Experiences

If teachers were a generally helpful but spotty group in my academic growth, I never lacked for help on the home front. As the son of two psychologists, I was bombarded during my elementary and middle school years with new organizational strategies, biofeedback, and mindful meditation. I wish I could say that I eagerly heeded my parents’ advice, but that would be untrue. I hated most of it.

Luckily, hindsight is 20/20; and I’m glad I eventually agreed to sample their “strange brew.” All of their approaches, except for the occasionally disastrous yoga lesson, were helpful. As an incredibly excitable fourth grader, biofeedback was the salve to an agitated mind. It helped me relax and learn to control my mind much better. (By the end of my biofeedback program, I could actually raise the temperature of my index finger three degrees!) Mindful meditation had much the same calming effect, with the added benefit of enhanced introspection and respiration.

As someone who was innately disorganized, organizational strategies were, without a doubt, the most valuable skills that I learned. To many young people, the hours spent learning these skills seem excessive. I, however, equate them to other sorts of self-improvement in which young children engage: reading Roald Dahl, practicing the cello, or playing on a little league soccer team. While I may still be skeptical of some self-help tips, the ones my parents taught have stayed with me until now and will continue to enrich my life for many years.
As I became a high school student, my parents continued to teach me. Although they no longer play as large a role in forming my identity, they continue to guide me as I become a twice-exceptional adult. They have stepped up their efforts to encourage organization. Planners and calendars, in fact, are now hot commodities in my household.

My parents have also encouraged my artistic development. From age 11, they suggested that I take art lessons, which I soon began attending willingly and regularly. Since I was a young child, I had skill with oil paints; but I would have never pursued painting if it had not been for my parents. They have always had the strong conviction that you should try new things and then pursue those you love. As I followed their conviction, and enmeshed myself in art, I learned another valuable lesson: when you are doing something you are passionate about, struggles at school and home fade away.

Despite their great strategies and passions, though, my parents were not without their own challenges. At times, during my elementary years, I felt that they could have pushed me harder academically. I really could have spent more time studying and organizing if I had been made to. Conversely, from time to time as an older student, I have sometimes felt a bit “shrunken” by my parents’ attempts to help me with scholastic organization. Sometimes their attempts at organizing me seemed too intrusive and thus counterproductive, causing me to reject their well-intended help.

My Role in All of This

If my parents and teachers were prime factors in my growth, I have probably helped myself, too. I realized early in elementary school that I was slightly different from other kids. I knew it was far more difficult for me than for my peers to stay attentive for extended periods of time. I could clearly see that I was more disorganized and excitable than they were. (I did not learn until recently that overexcitability can actually be a good thing!) So, I realized that I had to help myself toward better schoolwork efficiency.

Beginning in fourth grade, I tried to begin my homework as soon as I got home. Then, as I grew older, I took fewer and fewer breaks, which enabled me to get more homework done. I also asked my parents for help and often sought assistance from teachers in difficult subjects. They were generally more than happy to help, and their re-explanations sometimes made a big difference in my understanding of the subject at hand. In sixth grade, I began to take notes and use a planner, which enabled me to  complete rough drafts for teachers to correct. As I got more effective at taking notes and in using planners, my performance at school gradually improved.

As a senior in high school, my problems with attention and organization can still rear their ugly heads. However, when I do experience trouble in these areas, I use these demons as challenges to improve. As a result, I now have time to pursue extracurricular activities, like the Minnesota State Department of Education’s Scholars of Distinction program. I was proud to be recognized as a state History Scholar. Then last summer, I undertook an internship in the British House of Lords so that I could learn more about two of my passions, Western government and law.

In the future, I hope to reach for higher academic goals and continue to pursue my interests; but to do that, I know I must be even more focused and organized, and must stop bad habits of the past. I have an unfortunate affection for TV and video games, which can leave me feeling lethargic and uninterested in other things. Facebook has its place; but, just like my video enemies of the past, it can be a harmful distractor. It simply drains away my time. On the whole, though, my TV-, video-, and computer-related distractibility is less prevalent than it used to be. Perhaps, with such a busy schedule, I just don’t have enough time for these distracters. Or maybe — just maybe — these things simply do not interest me much anymore.

Although my  AD/HD  has gotten me into trouble with both teachers and parents, I know with certainty that these problems have been and will be addressable, by talented teachers, by insightful parents, and by a certain college-bound senior. As I have done increasingly in my life, I intend to take my challenges as opportunities for future creative and scholarly output. I hope to better myself in school and in life; but, more than that, in my daily conversations and scholarly work, I hope to convey to others that twice-exceptional young people are very, very capable of turning problems into assets.

Amos Gewirtz is a 17-year-old senior at Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights, Minnesota. He’s eagerly awaiting word on whether he’s been accepted at his first-choice school.