The Keeper of the Keys has an apprentice

There is an image from childhood in my head that I identify with. It is the silhouette of a custodian walking down the light-filled hall of my elementary school with a big, jangly bunch of keys on a ring at his hip. He stops at a locked door, fumbling on the ring and trying key after key.

Joe is a twice exceptional kid. He qualifies as gifted and he has ADHD. These labels often coexist, but the marriage can be rocky. Characteristics of one can make life with the other more challenging. Joe can grasp highly complicated concepts and apply them academically with ease. That is, if he can sustain his attention long enough to organize his thoughts and express them in an effective way in the prescribed period of time. Forgotten books and lost worksheets, illegible handwriting, missing pencils and supplies, and other obstacles of organization—like an incomplete understanding of expectations because he only heard half the instructions—have presented recurring roadblocks to success.
On paper, Joe’s potential is mind boggling. I can remember six years ago reading the first of many test results and being certain there had been a mistake. The child the data reflected wasn’t the one I knew.
“Are you sure this is right?” I asked the psychologist who had administered the assessment.
She assured me the results were indeed Joe’s, but with a caveat. Getting him through the process wasn’t easy. She recognized his need for more prompting to stay on task and his need for more breaks. She had stayed within the bounds of the testing requirements, but Joe had exacted more of her skill than most youngsters to allow us to see his true picture.
Thus began my life as the mother of an ADHD child, one in which I am the custodian carrying the weighty collection of keys on my belt. I’ve been trying key after key for what feels a very long time, looking for the one that will unlock Joe’s access to his potential.
Last month marked the end of his first semester in a new school that like his old school is designed specifically for kids with learning differences. Unlike his old school, a private school in Maryland outside Washington, D.C., this private school outside Atlanta in Georgia operates on an unusual concept—one that right now seems effective in providing a critical component to the key.
The Cottage School operates as a business at which students are employees who earn an “hourly wage.” The centerpiece of the program is teaching students basic work skills “that are essential in adult life,” according to the school’s website. For us, they are proving key to a more successful school life, which translates to an easier and happier home life, too.
The system not only provides students positive motivation but also consistent feedback on an hour-to-hour basis. Academic classes are held Monday through Thursday and Fridays are “payout” days during which students “buy” their participation in fun bonus activities with the money they’ve earned during the week. There are seven periods in a school day and students are expected to meet specific criteria each period such as being on time, being prepared with necessary materials and not creating disruptions—or suffer a deduction in their wage for that period. The wages exist only on paper, but are managed daily by the students who maintain their own checkbook and savings accounts.
Joe has struggled to accept that while his ADHD presents him with some behavioral and organizational challenges, he and only he is responsible for managing them. Last year Joe was late to school on a regular basis. Granted, he struggled more to get sleep but even on mornings he was rested, getting him to move through the routine of the getting ready and out the door could be excruciating. We started this school year with some of the same struggles (See My Math: 1 Morning + 1 Son = 3 Days) but literally punching a time clock at TCS that results in a pay deduction if he’s late motivated Joe from the inside out. Miraculously I was removed from the motivation-and-consequence equation, and Joe was late no more than three or four times first semester.
TCS is a school for kids who haven’t been successful in more traditional classrooms. It is a small program with a broad range of students. Academically, I don’t think Joe is being challenged to his full potential right now and that is a major concern for me. In the beginning of the school year I would find myself crying over whether the placement was a good one. Then I reached an awareness that settled my worry.
It doesn’t matter how brilliant Joe is. If he can’t manage basic life skills he’ll never be able to access his aptitude. And that’s what Joe’s focus needs to be about right now, learning to manage himself and his responsibilities so that he has the opportunity to reach his potential. I’m trading away higher level academics for the time being.
Yesterday Joe was home sick. No pay for a sick day unless you complete the day’s homework. We struggled, as always, to get the work done last night, but he did it. He wanted to at least earn half pay for the missed day by turning in the assignments. At 6 a.m. this morning when I walked into his room to rouse him for a shower, his light was on and he was already up, sitting on the edge of his bed wearing a big grin waiting to surprise me.
And that he did. I realize he’s carrying his own key ring now and already has a couple of keys on it.

Tammy Murphy

Tammy Murphy is a journalist on hiatus. She’s the mother of two—a 14-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son whose ADHD and related symptoms were evident practically from the womb. Tammy is a native of Maryland and a recent Georgia transplant. She started blogging about her up-and-down experiences with Joe—and life in general—as much-needed therapy.

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adhd and school, adhd behavior problems, attention/focus, behavior modification, General ADHD, gifted and adhd, homework, middle school, parenting/FAMILY, Tammy Murphy, Tammy Time ·

About the author

Tammy Murphy is a journalist on hiatus. She’s the mother of two—a 14-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son whose ADHD and related symptoms were evident practically from the womb. Tammy is a native of Maryland and a recent Georgia transplant. She started blogging about her up-and-down experiences with Joe—and life in general—as much-needed therapy.

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The "ADHD Mommas" are not medical or mental health professionals, nor an ADHD coach. Any opinions shared here are just that, opinions. I, and the other "ADHD Mommas," are sharing our experiences with our own ADHD children. Please do not re-post or publish any content or photos without a link back to {a mom's view of ADHD}. Have the courtesy to give credit where credit is due. Copyright protected. All rights reserved.

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