High Achievement Requires High Expectations: My Family’s Story

Candice Crissinger and children

Candice Crissinger and children

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month


“High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”

Charles Kettering, American inventor, engineer and businessman.


As parents, we all want to see our children reach their full potential. Our visions of their successes and accomplishments may vary, but we all yearn to guide our children to greatness. How do we set them up to fulfill their potential? What foundations are we building for them? What roadmaps can we provide to help them navigate on their journey?

I am the proud mother of three terrific children (Biased? Yes!). While each of them is unique and inspiring in their own abilities and qualities, my sons have some very distinct similarities.

In the early school years, both began showing similar behaviors: high impulsivity, defiance, acting out, disruption, the inability to follow direction and under-developed social skills.

Both were bright and strong willed and insisted on doing things their own way in their own time.

Both were identified by educators as “challenging and difficult” and by peers as a “bad kid.”

They were both evaluated at five years old, 10 years apart. That’s where the similarities ended.

Let’s start with my older son’s journey.

In 2007, at age five, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), pervasive development disorder otherwise non specified (PDD-NOS) and anxiety. His individualized education program (IEP) team, despite all good intent, viewed my son through a deficiency lens. We let the troublesome behavior take the driver’s seat. His aptitude for learning did not seem to align with his behaviors. The behaviors escalated. The suspensions began. His progress regressed, and his growth stalled. We changed schools often. Even though we began as advocates, we soon became adversaries in IEP meetings.

On the other hand, my youngest son has had a very different experience. At age five, he was diagnosed with anxiety and showed a high likelihood of having ADHD. He was also identified as gifted. We worked closely with his school to find a teacher who was a good fit and we collaborated with the occupational therapist, the talented and gifted team, and the area education team, just to name a few.

We first took a close look at youngest son’s evaluation and began the work of identifying supports and developing a plan for acceleration. His problem behaviors were seen in the context of his aptitude and understood as a part of his development as a twice-exceptional student. His IEP centers around his strengths. And yet, we have only just begun to build the foundation of his future achievements. There is still far to go.

If you ask me, the major difference between my two children is in the way that we view them. After all, children with learning and attention issues have a unique set of challenges, and my children are not alone.

Children with learning and attention issues make up 1 in 5 students in our nation’s public schools.

Kids with learning and attention issues account for two-thirds of the children with IEPs who are suspended or expelled. They are 31 percent more likely to be bullied than kids without disabilities. They are three times as likely to drop out of high school as kids without disabilities, and half of all kids with learning disabilities are involved in the juvenile justice system by young adulthood.

These numbers could describe my oldest son, and that is alarming for me.

What drives these numbers? And what can be done?

We must set high standards and expectations for our kids. We must encourage and support our kids to meet the same expectations as their peers, and make sure they are engaged and feel a sense of ownership of their learning. We must encourage our students to view a wrong answer as a learning opportunity, rather than a shortcoming.

We expect insight and reflection to instill a lifelong journey of learning. Our expectations should likewise remain lofty.

When we have low expectations of our students, we allow for minimal effort. Student engagement, self-advocacy and achievement will most definitely stall when the bar is set too low. Self-esteem and gaining a sense of confidence in one’s abilities are lifelong benefits with roots in meeting high expectations.

We can make high expectations real for so many more kids if we focus on their strengths. Using strengths as a framework for educational support and structure will allow for children to use their natural abilities and talents to reach their highest potential.

Across the country, school districts are taking a new approach with Strengths Based IEPs. The move to this type of IEP will certainly require greater professional development for educators in each district. Parents can go to school board meetings and demonstrate their value, but there are great resources for anyone who wants to begin this process within your school or community.

Using a strengths-based approach made an incredible, positive difference for my younger son. Setting high expectations and focusing on strengths allows parents and educators to view our students through a mindset of competence and high achievement. The tools are available and my family has seen the impact firsthand. So let us begin the work to build the foundations of an exceptional educational experience for every child!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Candice Crissinger
Posted by
Understood Parent Fellow with the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Medical Assistant in Pediatric Specialties, University of Iowa.

Rethinking Special Education

Douglas, an 11-year-old 6th grader from Massachusetts, has dyslexia and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He struggled in school from kindergarten through 4th grade, feeling frustrated in a learning environment that did not meet his individual needs and caused him to question his ability to succeed.

Douglas recently wrote President Trump and asked, “How can you as our president help kids like me get the right tools so they don’t get left behind?”

I met with Douglas and his parents on behalf of the president and the U.S. Department of Education this spring when his family visited Washington. We discussed his previous struggles and frustrations as well as his parents’ determination to get Douglas the help he needed to succeed in school.

We must rethink special education in America for students like Douglas. “Rethink” means everyone questions everything to ensure nothing limits any student from being prepared for what comes next. That begins with acknowledging the unique needs of each child and then finding the best ways to prepare each individual for successful careers and a meaningful life.

As a former high school special education teacher and state special education director, I have learned that delivering on the promises we have made to children and parents will not be achieved by merely tinkering around the edges.

Rethinking special education will require an unwavering commitment to address barriers that stand in the way of improving opportunities and outcomes for each child, and to make needed changes at the federal, state, and local levels. We must be willing to confront anything that does not facilitate needed improvement. That includes structures that limit opportunities for children with disabilities; practices that put the needs of “the system” over the individual needs of a child; policies that, no matter how well-intentioned, do not have the impact of improving outcomes for students; or laws and regulations that constrain innovation. We cannot ignore the challenges that students, parents, teachers and schools face.

Any policy that could deny education services to a student who needs them would be a failed policy. So we must root out anything that separates students from the individualized education they deserve.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is committed to confronting these—and any other issues—that stand in the way of a child’s success. We will partner with parents and families, individuals with disabilities—anyone and everyone who is focused on raising expectations and improving outcomes for individuals with disabilities.

This commitment means acknowledging that states, school districts, and parents know the needs of their students better than we do. Our goal is to provide them with as much flexibility and support as possible so that they can ensure their students’ needs are being met.

Douglas’ parents told me it wasn’t until Douglas was tested, properly diagnosed, and enrolled in a school that understood his unique traits and addressed his needs that things began to get better for him. In a different school, Douglas told me he feels comfortable and confident. He said, “I’m getting the right tools I need and learning how my brain works.”

Every student deserves the same opportunity and the same individualized attention that Douglas has. To be sure, this is and will continue to be hard work. However, it’s not just about working hard. It’s about working differently and more collaboratively, because meaningful and effective collaboration with all those who have a stake in the success of individuals with disabilities is critical to improving the outcomes that we envision.

The changes we need won’t happen overnight or only through the commitment of a few; but the work is worth it, because at the heart of all our efforts are the individuals we serve and their futures.

It is unacceptable for us to watch another generation of kids fail to achieve the outcomes they could have achieved just because the adults around them would not commit to solving difficult issues. We must demonstrate the courage and persistence necessary to achieve the goals that we, and most importantly the individuals we serve, envision.

No two children are the same, so no two children’s learning experiences should look the same. A personalized, student-centered education empowers students with disabilities and gives them the hope of living successful, independent lives, while a one-size-fits-all approach to education only limits students’ potential. Each child’s education should embrace his or her diverse traits and aspirations.

As we start this school year, I ask you to join me in rethinking special education in our country. While we all have a stake in the success of children with disabilities, no one has more of a stake in their success than they do.

The work is too important, the need is too urgent, and the stakes are too high for us to settle for anything less than whatever it takes to deliver on the promises we have made to children and families in our country.


 

Posted by
Assistant Secretary Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services United States Department of Education

How Having ADHD Made Me a Better Advocate for My Daughters

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Jessica-Gordon

Jessica Gordon

A guest blog by Jessica Gordon, a parent of children with learning and attention issues and Regional Manager for Understood at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.


“She is smart, but she just needs to apply herself.”

If you looked back at my report cards in elementary school, every single one would say that. Even after recognizing that I struggled to pay attention, my family assured me that I didn’t have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because I was able to watch television for long periods of time.

My experience isn’t as unique as I would hope. In fact, according to The State of Learning Disabilities report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 78% of parents believe that any child can do well in school if he or she just tries hard enough. And 33% of educators believe that sometimes what people call a learning or attention issue is really just laziness.

For me—and probably for many kids struggling in school—that wasn’t the case. I was applying myself and doing the best I could, but I wasn’t able to focus or pay attention. My teachers were frustrated that I would score in the 90th percentile on standardized tests but fail to turn in spelling tests and math worksheets. Through trial and error, I found strategies to keep myself organized in school. But by the time I went to college, I sought an evaluation and was told that I do, in fact, have ADHD.

Thanks to advances in research and more experts exploring these issues, our understanding of ADHD has grown tremendously over the past few decades. According to Understood.org, girls are not identified with ADHD as often as boys, and they are often identified much later. The signs can look significantly different in girls and boys. For example, girls may not display the behavior challenges that boys do and might, instead, be chatty, disorganized, or emotional. And, much like me, because girls work hard to compensate for their challenges, it can often be overlooked.

Now, as a mother of three girls, nothing is more important to me than knowing my children’s strengths and challenges and advocating for what they need. When my oldest daughter was in second grade, she began to exhibit the same signs I did at that age. Recognizing those familiar signs, I knew I had to take action. I wanted her to have the same understanding of herself it took me decades to develop.

We went through with an evaluation, and my oldest daughter was diagnosed with ADHD—just like me, but much sooner. My middle daughter was also diagnosed when she reached second grade. And my youngest, who struggles with reading and writing as well as attention, is in the process of being evaluated right now.

When I was younger, I became an advocate for myself only after the system failed to recognize my struggles. But I don’t want that to happen to my children. Instead of making assumptions about what their future might look like with learning and attention issues, I make a point to consider their strengths, their interests, and their ideas about themselves. I want to ensure that my children—and all children—are on a path to understanding themselves and harnessing their strengths and talents.

Having ADHD myself and raising three children with ADHD is a unique challenge, and one I think many parents can relate to when learning and attention issues run in the family. But it is true that parents are their child’s best advocate. When your instincts tell you that something is going on under the surface, it’s important to trust that. It’s critical to seek out professionals who will listen and help you support your child in the way you know you need to.

I often wonder how different my life would have been if my parents and teachers had recognized my ADHD earlier and provided the accommodation and supports I needed all those years ago. Fortunately, my children won’t have to wonder about that. And I hope other parents trust their instincts, listen to their children, and follow a path that gets them and their child the supports they need.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Jessica Gordon
Posted by
Regional Manager for Understood, National Center for Learning Disabilities