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A Mother's Tale of Middle School Transitions

By: A School Psychologist

To say that I was profoundly disappointed and upset with the service my daughter received in her middle school would be a great understatement. As a high school teacher for the previous 2 decades I was well acquainted with the modifications she should have received, as well as the procedures in place for the identification and tracking of her difficulties. However I was not at all prepared for the difficulties I would encounter with the roadblocks of the system and in particular with the lack of cooperation we received from individual teachers - indeed I was totally surprised by it. As early as second grade I was vaguely aware that there might be differences between her learning style and that of the average student - despite being highly intelligent and capable of abstracting at an early age she was constantly getting behind with her work. She verbalized extremely well, but little was being put on paper. Math posed particular difficulties; yet with an adult there beside her - or an older sibling - she found it easy. We played catch-up constantly because nothing was ever done in the allotted time either in school or out.

Being a teacher at the High School level I bowed to the supposedly superior knowledge of my colleagues in the lower grades whose diagnosis of my daughter told me she was "just lazy". Every year I asked for her to be tested, only to receive the response that it was not necessary - she just needed more discipline. By the time she was in the 6th grade I too was almost convinced that she was by nature a procrastinator par excellence who needed to be cajoled into most tasks and I took her to counseling.

After her initial diagnosis of OCD I had countless 'team-meetings' where only half the teachers would deign to show up; the teachers who did show up had heard of OCD but didn't know anything other than the stereotypical hand-washing and lock-checking aspects of the disease. The fact that she was completely unable to organize any aspect of her life did not match their pre-conceived notions of what the disease was, so they dismissed me as an indulgent parent looking to make excuses for her child. In fact I was helping her every day with all her homework - when I could find out what it was - and it was not being handed in. It would disappear into a void somewhere between home and school and she could not keep track of it. Inside her head was a chaos she could not unravel.

I gave them pamphlets to read which I had received from her psychologist to help them understand her problem - I doubt that more than a couple ever read them. When the psychologist offered to come and speak to them only 2 teachers came. I remember in particular the biology teacher who would smile benevolently at me in meetings as if he sympathized greatly with my struggle to get my daughter 'on track', but would then go away and do none of the things the psychologist or I had recommended. I later found out that he was the union representative for the school and had urged the teachers not to attend meetings if it was not during the contracted school day - no wonder they never showed up; my meetings were usually at 7.15am or 3.30pm. I made arrangements with the school whereby the teachers would notify me if she got more than 3 assignments behind - only one teacher ever did so. Indeed her math teacher let her get 40 assignments behind and never told me until I called in unexpectedly to see how things were going. I asked teachers to notify me by e-mail when work wasn't being done - I only ever received one e-mail yet she was failing every subject due to lack of work handed in. She stopped eating regular meals and began claiming she felt ill all the time although her pediatrician could find nothing wrong. Her behavior was becoming increasingly difficult and she was beginning to talk back to her teachers. Her behavior at home was almost intolerable. She began to skip classes - nobody told me about it, and she was afraid to. She began to skip school - the school didn't tell me for 4 days that she wasn't there because they assumed she was sick and that I knew she was absent.

I cannot tell you how much I wish I had trusted my own intuition and gone elsewhere for help earlier in her school career; instead I did as I was advised by her teachers - I disciplined her. The result was that I nearly ruined my relationship with her, and certainly lowered the self-esteem of a child who was struggling to please me but never could. One guidance counselor at her school finally went so far as to admit to me that she would not be sent for testing because if she was identified as 'special needs' it would cost the school district more money to educate her and they were trying to keep the number of 'special needs' students down. I was horrified and angry to say the least.

I immediately took her for assessment by an independent psychologist. By this time she was in the throes of adolescence and so the power-struggle between us became the focus of the sessions with her counselor and the learning issues were in the background as we tried to deal with her behavioral issues. Had we not waited as long I'm sure we would have narrowed-in on her underlying problems far more quickly - she did not have OCD, but was suffering from body dysmorphic disorder and severe attention deficit without hyperactivity. It was not until the 3rd quarter of the 8th grade that she was finally identified as 'special needs' and an IEP was put in place whereby she was not penalized for late work (which motivated her to look for work misplaced because it would still 'count'), she was not penalized for being tardy (which enabled her to wait until the hallway cleared to figure her way through the chaos in her head and find the right books for class), and she was allowed to do all her work in the special needs room where it was quiet and where the Special Needs Aids were available to help her keep her mind focused and her work organized. Despite being labeled a failure in every subject for the first 3 quarters of the year, I was able to persuade the school to pass her with D's for the year in every subject in order to get her accepted to the private High School where I teach. Her guidance counselor agreed this would be for the best since she was highly intelligent and staying back was the last thing she needed - it would have exacerbated her depression and been yet another blow to her self image.

When she was finally diagnosed with BDD and ADD, it was as if the weight of the world was lifted off her shoulders; now she could begin to move forward - it wasn't all HER fault. In terms of behavior things improved almost immediately as we became a team in search of the answers to her problems and she undoubtedly felt less alone. Slowly but surely the relationship between us improved as she realized I was there to help - not just to discipline and penalize her. Problems with anorexia and BDD subsided significantly as a result of medication, and with the addition of other medication her focus has improved. Today she is a sophomore in a college preparatory school. She still struggles with her problems, but is no longer depressed or badly behaved and is passing every subject with relative ease. Her IEP is still in place, and she still relies on the time-extensions though does not need the special needs room. She is also in lower level classes for some subjects because the pace of work is more than her limited organizational skills can handle. She has goals, knows she can achieve them and is on the road to college - no thanks to her middle school who were only too happy to see the back of her - and her annoying squeaky wheel of a mother.

The author is a mother and High School teacher.

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