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September 2016 | Volume 74 | Number 1
The one student who challenges us the most may be a gift in disguise.
This kid is going to ruin my reputation and my career. What if I actually lose control and start screaming incoherently at him? All that time and money for grad school down the drain. What other jobs could I possibly do? Will I have to move back in with my parents at this age? These thoughts ran through my mind every time I met Baxter for our twice-weekly sessions. It took every iota of mental energy I had to push them away and concentrate on working with this 4th-grade boy on strategies for managing his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
I dreaded those sessions. And I knew that Baxter hated working with me. He told me so often, in a variety of creative and sometime hurtful ways. It was understandable—after working hard all day at school to pay attention, he was simply wiped out, and now he had to spend extra time with some strange lady who was trying to get him to do even more work. Not only that, but she was also making him work on the things that were hardest for him—organizing, planning ahead, checking details, handwriting, reading, and writing essays. Even cleaning out his backpack was a major chore for both of us. It was so full of crumpled papers, dirty clothes, sticks, and food wrappers that I was amazed that any folders and books could even fit in there.
Baxter pushed me away every moment that we worked together. He was rude, sarcastic, and often downright mean. He got up and walked away every time I asked him to do something he didn't want to do, which was … everything. When his mother asked me whether adding a third session a week would be beneficial, everything in me cried out to respond that I thought I should refer him to someone else, for both our sakes.
At that crossroads, however, I pushed myself to remember what I say to my college students when I talk about the kids I work with: "They're so used to being rejected, pushed away, and made to feel bad about themselves, especially when it comes to school, that the number one strategy I have for helping them is that I really like them, and I see their strengths." So I challenged myself to really, really like Baxter.
It wasn't easy. I worked harder with Baxter than with any other student I've ever worked with. In the car on the way to the appointment, I would tell myself, "Smile. Feel happy. You like this kid. This will be a fun hour." I listened to music that would charge up my energy and put me in a good mood before I saw him. I focused my thoughts on being present with him, not on how much time was left before the session ended. I made bad jokes to try to entertain both of us. If he told me he liked something, I spent time researching it so that I could talk to him about it. I worked hard to find materials he was interested in so that we could practice skills while exploring topics that were fun for him. If he got up and walked away, instead of saying, "Come back and sit down," I would say, "Looks like you need a break. Let's go outside and walk and talk." We developed inside jokes—about both him and me, but mostly about me.
I was honest with Baxter, telling him when I was feeling frustrated, but explaining that I was frustrated because I believed in him. I asked him for suggestions about how I could change my own behavior to help him more. He was honest with me, telling me things like, "When you interrupt my reading to correct a word, it throws me off. Can you wait until the end of the page to tell me the words I got wrong?" I listened, and we joked about how hard it was for me not to jump in.
I worked so hard to like him that I actually kind of started looking forward to seeing him. I started to really like him. And because of this change in me, he started to really like me. This change didn't happen quickly. In fact, it happened painfully slowly, with a lot of setbacks and mistakes on my part. I tried to be honest with him about these mistakes, saying things like, "I don't like how that sentence came out of my mouth. Let me try it again."
I know that most teachers don't have the luxury of working one-on-one with students like I do, and they don't have extended lengths of time to patiently connect with kids. But I also know, from years of working with students who struggle in school, that even one positive, authentic comment from a teacher can resonate for years, changing the feelings students have about themselves and about school.
For students with ADHD, finding this connection and changing the way they think teachers see them is incredibly important. There are many fine books and online resources that deal with helping students with ADHD learn academic material or manage their behavior, and I urge readers to check them out, but I want to focus here on strategies for connecting with these students. Try some of the following ideas for at least a few weeks without giving up, and see which ones improve your relationship with a student whom you're having trouble connecting with.
My rough relationship with 4th-grade Baxter gave me a gift. It allowed me to practice patience and taught me how to repair the times when I let that patience wear thin. I'm both a better practitioner and a better person for having him in my life.
I changed Baxter's name for this article, but I didn't have to; Baxter knows exactly how I felt about him. I talked about it in a speech I gave at his high school graduation dinner two years ago, to which he responded, "Yeah, I hated you when we first met. Hated you!"
These days, I usually hear from Baxter when he is begging me to proofread an essay for a pre-med class (at his first-choice college) that's due in a few hours. "Did I teach you nothing about planning ahead?" I write. "This time, I'm not reading it at the last minute." And then I do it anyway. Because I adore this kid.
Lisa Medoff is the learning specialist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. She is the author of Resilience in the Classroom: Helping Students with Special Needs (Kaplan, 2010).
Copyright © 2016 by ASCD
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