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.

A New School Year and New Opportunities

Map of U.S.

This is a repost of a Disability.Gov Blog post by Carmen Sánchez, Education Program Specialist, Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education and Debra Jennings, Executive Co-Director, SPAN.


A new school year is a new opportunity to build the relationships that strengthen the foundations of support that are so important for our students with disabilities. As one parent engagement professional stated, “Parents and schools should reach out and open lines of communication in a time of peace before that first poor grade or behavior issue. Find out how people would like to be addressed and their preferred method of communication.”

But how does a parent start the conversation in a way that is focused on strengths just as much as need? A Positive Student Profile is a great way to introduce a child to teachers at the beginning of the school year. Here’s an example of one way to introduce the profile, which can be customized to fit your student:

Dear Mr. Rogers,

Alex and I are excited about this new school year! I am writing to share some things I believe will help make this successful year for him. You likely received Alex’s individualized education program and are thinking about how to implement the supports and accommodations listed in his IEP. But while the IEP does a good job of describing Alex’s learning and needs, it doesn’t fully describe him or who he is. I am including a profile (http://www.parentcenterhub.org/repository/pbp-student-profile/) that Alex prepared that tells about his interests, his strengths, and what works best for him to help him learn.

Our family has high expectations for Alex, just as we have for his sister. And we know that he requires some supports and accommodations to meet these expectations. We are always looking for information about Alex’s abilities and challenges. We have come across several resources that have really helped us and Alex’s teachers work together to help Alex learn. Here are some that might be of interest…

Want more tips on how to make the best of the new school year? The Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) or Community Parent Resource Center (CPRC) in an area or state is an excellent source of resources, materials, support and connections for families of children with disabilities. PTIs and CPRCs can help families understand student’s education rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. They can also help families understand more about their child’s disability and needs as well as promising practices in education. In addition, they can help families learn how to effectively communicate and work with school personnel and other providers in meeting their child’s needs. PTIs and CPRCs provide information on the phone, through workshops (in-person, on-line, live and pre-recorded) and through a treasure trove of materials and resources that are shared on their websites and social media. They may also provide these materials in other languages based upon the needs of families in the community.

Centers are run by well-trained and knowledgeable staff, most of whom have children with disabilities themselves. PTIs and CPRCs answer families’ questions with practical advice or refer families to other organizations in the families’ community that can help. Most centers also extend their training and information services to professionals who work with children with disabilities and their families. And through the PTIs and CPRCs, families can also connect with other families and professionals for support and problem solving.

Many families can feel overwhelmed dealing with multiple issues raised by their child’s needs. PTIs and CPRCs help families sort through the issues and provide strategies to help parents and professionals address them together.

In addition to the PTIs and CPRCs, the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services funds a network of technical assistance and dissemination centers that can connect parents and professionals to best practices in special education and early intervention services. Some of these centers include:

And, check out ED’s Early Learning site full of information.

Finally, the new school year is an excellent time for students, no matter what their age, to learn how to advocate for themselves. Whether it’s focusing on using a communication device to indicate what they want or need, or leading their own individualized education plans, parents and teachers can work together to include self-advocacy skills in all that they do with students with disabilities. One good resource is the RAISE Center, Resources for Access, Independence, Self-Advocacy and Employment, also funded by the Department of Education, and the National Resource Center for Supported Decision-Making, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Here’s to a positive, productive new school year for all students!

About the Guest Bloggers

Carmen Sánchez

Carmen Sánchez

Carmen Sánchez is an Education Program Specialist in the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education. She is the program lead for the Parent Center Program, which consists of grants for Parent Training and Information (PTIs) and Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs) to train, inform, and engage families of children with disabilities throughout the country; and a national, six regional, and two topical technical assistance centers that support the PTIs and CPRCs. She is also the mother of a young adult with disabilities.

Debra Jennings

Debra Jennings

Debra Jennings is the Executive Co-Director of SPAN, a parent-led non-profit organization that empowers families as advocates and partners in improving education, health, and mental health outcomes for infants, toddlers, children and youth. Debra leads SPAN’s parent leadership development activities and also directs SPAN’s national technical assistance centers that are funded by the U.S. Department of Education to provide information, resources and support for the almost 90 Parent Training and Information Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers serving families of children with disabilities and also youth/young adults with disabilities across the U.S. and its territories.

Posted by
Education Program Specialist, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education
Posted by
Executive Co-Director of SPAN