When a child is born the first thing a parent does is check that everything is “normal”- five fingers, five toes, two ears, and then the parent hugs the child. This makes it seem to me like acceptance and love are dependent on the child appearing normal. I hope not.

But what if at the moment of birth, the child appears “normal” and a few years down the lane things don’t go as expected. Now, this “normal” looking child is not “behaving normally” -  there is something different in the way the child behaves at home and in school. Will the parent love the child less? I think not.

However, if a parent misunderstands the reason for the child’s different behavior then it will likely affect acceptance for said child.

This child is everything that a parent dreamed of – he (lets assume that it’s a boy) is physically balanced, is learning to talk, walk, play, laugh – is well-deserving of the love and acceptance that is bestowed on him.

A few years down the road and the child is struggling. He is unable to form complete sentences when other kids his age can. He is confused when he has to read – a ‘p’ looks like a ‘b’ or a ‘b’ looks like a ‘p’. He can’t recall the spellings he memorized yesterday. He can’t focus on what the teacher is writing on the board. His mind wanders and he thinks of the lunchbox in his school bag, of the fish in the pond, of a pencil that he lost a week ago – he thinks… about everything. He doesn’t want to but he does. His mind wanders.

Add a few more years and he is trying to control his tears in class, he feels that his teacher doesn’t like him like other students and says mean things to him, and other kids make fun of him. Why is he not liked? Why is he always singled out and in distress?

Well, he is a bad boy! He moves a lot in his seat and just can’t sit still! His hands fidget constantly and just can’t stop touching things! He asks questions, too many - he wants to know why things are the the way they are. He asks why he has to learn subtraction, why he must sit and write his essay and why he can’t stand and write it or type it on a word-processor – his questions and the fact that he asks them make him even more “different.” What a bad little boy he is! Interrupting the teacher to ask questions when questions only hinder learning – “badtameez” his teacher calls him.

His mom and dad are always upset with him – don’t hug him as they used to - because he is such a problem at school. There are so many complaints but he doesn’t change. His parents love him, but along with his teachers, they don’t ‘like’ him much because of his bad behavior. Maybe, he feels, they don’t love him like before because he is just too different from other kids. He hears the phrase ‘Why can’t you just be normal?’ a lot. He begins to ask himself the same question.

ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – is a clinical condition that is marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

Children begin displaying signs of ADHD by grade 1. These children, through no fault of their own, are easily distracted, inattentive, forgetful, impulsive, fidgety, can’t follow instructions, can’t wait for their turn, interrupt others, and seem to daydream and live in their own world. Sounds a lot like our resident ‘bad boy’, right?

Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia – words that sound like diseases but in fact are not. Our ‘bad boy’ may just have a learning disability and his parents and teachers have no idea. A learning disability (LD) is a neurological disorder where the brain is differently ‘wired’ and so children have trouble learning and using skills such as reading, writing, reasoning, recalling and organizing information when taught in conventional ways.

The Learning Disabilities Association of America estimates that in the US, between 3 and 5 percent of children have ADHD. What this means is that in a classroom of 24 to 30 children it is likely that at least one will have it. Moreover, according to the National Institute of Health fifteen percent of Americans or one in seven has some form of LD.

Yet, in our country we as parents and educators remain unaware and label these children as disruptive, poorly-behaved, lazy, and even dumb. We marginalize them and cause serious psychological damage just because they stand out and don’t blend in effectively enough. A parent whose child is diagnosed with ADHD or an LD must remember that the child is normal – behavioral and learning disabilities are not synonymous with any intellectual deficiency. In fact, research shows that most children with ADHD & LDs have above average IQs. The lack of attention and targeted teaching approaches to cater to such pupils is a result of our education system’s collective apathy and ignorance not the merit of the child in question.

The teacher who has a child with ADHD or an LD in his/her class must remember that it is her job to be aware of these issues and be careful not to label the child as disruptive or slow. This is not a ‘problem child’ but is simply a ‘child with a problem’. S/he must learn strategies to help connect with this child instead of alienating him.

Ignacio Estrada once said, “if a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn” – this is the essence behind numerous strategies that teachers and parents can use to reach and teach children with ADHD and learning disabilities.

The purpose of this article is to begin a conversation about individual differences in learning and the resultant gaps in our educational environment. In a series of articles, I intend to help parents and educators understand that acceptance is unconditional – there is no “normal” in a classroom, there is simply “different” and being different is not something bad, something to be ashamed of, something to hide or something to ridicule.

So remember: when children are born, hug them first, before you count their fingers – because even if they are physically different I know that you won’t love them any less. So why not simply hug first – unconditionally. Similarly, if your child has ADHD or a learning disability -accept it, embrace it and help his or her teachers understand and accept the child for who they are. Because in a successful, humane society someone who is different IS someone who is normal.

 

The writer is an educationist with over 17 years of experience developing and teaching undergraduate, MBA, and executive development programs at LUMS and other organizations.