A Question A Day

If you have been listening along over at #AmWriting with Jess & KJ, the podcast I host with my friend, former boss, and New York Times writer K.J. Dell'Antonia, you heard that I get a fair number of questions from readers and the lovely people who attend my speaking events. I try to answer a question a day, in the order I receive them, via email. I was pretty proud of all that work, and said as much to K.J. during a recent podcast. To my dismay, K.J. failed to pat me on the head for being a good little writer and went on to scold me for not making some of that content available here, for the benefit of other parents and teachers.

She's right, of course. I hate that about her. 

From here on out, I will answer those questions here, while editing for clarity and brevity, and taking great care to preserve the letter writer's anonymity. 

So keep 'em coming, and I promise to keep on answering! Now, on to today's question. 

Dear Ms. Lahey, 

My tween has pretty severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and left to his own devices will miss most of his homework, forget to turn in what he does do. I have been helping him a lot, but after recent meetings with his school counselor and teachers, we decided to back off and see how he would do with some more support in school. Unfortunately, he is now missing numerous assignments and we are concerned about how well he’ll do on his upcoming tests. I am at a loss with what to do. Do you have any suggestions? 


Dear C, 

One of the most common questions I get after my speaking gigs is, "Yes, yes, all this autonomy-supportive parenting stuff is fine for most kids, but my kid has ADD [or ADHD, or NVLD...] and needs more support than the average student. How can I best help my child while supporting his autonomy and helping him feel confident?"

Every child is different, and yes, kids with learning or developmental delays, or gaps in their executive function skills do need extra support. However, we all tend to underestimate our kids' abilities, and I think we should all err on the side of overestimating our kids rather than underestimating them. 

If I were you, I'd ask your son's teachers to hold him fully accountable for the homework that's not being turned in. Those consequences should not be unrelated penalties, such as taking away electronics, or grounding, or that sort of thing. Rather, the consequences should be the sort of repercussions that would naturally flow from not handing in his work. In our house, that means that the kid has to arrange and conduct a student-led conference with the parent and teacher, in which everyone, but mainly the child, comes up with a strategy for getting homework done in a way that works for him and for his teachers. 

Now, regarding his ADD: when I asked psychotherapist and author Katie Hurley to comment on learned helplessness for the New York Times article "When Children Say 'I Can't, But They Can, and Adults Know It," she specifically addressed the fact that parents of kids with learning disabilities can go overboard in their attempts to shield kids from frustration and failure. From the article:

Ms. Hurley says that she sees learned incompetence in her clients who have recently been told they have learning disabilities, and this can be a real challenge for their teachers. “Their parents go to great lengths to ‘help’ their kids and let them off the hook for age-appropriate chores, tasks and responsibilities because they want to protect them,” she said. “The urge to shield and rescue can be strong, but it’s important to empower children with learning disabilities so they can internalize the fact that they can overcome challenges.”

Until our children can do for themselves, until they have fully developed frontal lobes and fully functioning executive function skills, our job as parents and teachers is to support that development while giving them opportunities to learn from their mistakes. To that end, support, encourage, offer up strategies, and focus on the process of learning to do better. 

Because one day, when you least expect it, they will.