I have spent 20 years trying to help my children “get through” the education system. I “got” myself through college. My children and I love learning. We all pretty much hate school.
For a time, I became an advocate for gifted education, sat on the Board of Trustees of an independent school for the gifted, sponsored underprivileged students to travel to the state capitol to lobby for funding, and I work on occasion as an educational advocate. I have been a room mom countless times, volunteered for every position possible, and dedicated endless hours of unpaid time to supporting all kinds of schools.
Today, I listen to families tell me the same story over and over. School isn’t helping. In fact, school is one of our biggest problems. Even if the school and teachers are trying to help, the student is required to function in a way that is unsustainable. They may be able to function for a couple of months, but eventually the exhaustion sets in, and they start to crumble. The grades are no reflection of their intelligence. Some of them, despite their intelligence, drop out of school all together. These children are suffering. My children suffered and my client’s children are suffering. I suffered.
One of our many psychiatrists we have worked with over the years said to me, “Being a kid shouldn’t be this hard.”
So what do you do when you have an intelligent child who cannot do school?
I don’t know.
I have investigated endless resources and possibilities and all I have learned is what not to do. There are a couple schools in the country who specialize in twice exceptional students. I don’t know if they would have been better for me or my children or my clients. Maybe. But can you afford $40,000, $50,000 or even $60,000 a year for high school? Can you up and move? Most people can’t.
I once believed that if I just got these kids to college, they would be ok. I now know that isn’t true. My oldest son lasted 2 weeks…part time…and didn’t even attempt an assignment. And this was after a gap year. He is chronically ill, but the fact is, he wants nothing to do with anything that resembles traditional schooling any more. I don’t blame him.
My husband, who is classic AD/HD, and I did a little experiment. We sent my husband (a life coach who specializes in AD/HD) back to college to finish his undergrad degree in psychology with all of our collective expertise at hand. Now given he is a master life coach and has done more training than most people in the field, there couldn’t be anything they could teach him that would make him a better “therapist.” But getting his college degree had a deeper meaning to him. He wanted to replace the old beliefs about himself with new ones.
We decided to go to Penn State online (one of the best online universities around). I would support him because after all, I am an expert in how to get challenged, bright kids through school. I would coach him on how to do school. I would be his safety net and in some cases, show him how to write research papers by doing them for him, so he could see what they were looking for and have a shot at it the next time around. Seemed like we couldn’t fail.
He was enthusiastic. We made it through about 2 years of college. We hired tutors for Spanish. He got straight A’s. I worked very hard. He struggled enormously with constant deadlines and a mountain of work. It became our way of life. Get through the work week and managing children, then spend every spare hour and all weekend catching up and taking tests, writing papers.
Then, one evening, I had to take him to the hospital. We spent the next year recovering from not one but two heart ablations. He was exhausted and burnt out.
Fast forward almost 2 years and he decided to try again by taking one photography class (something he really enjoyed). The class involved a lot of writing, reading and quiz taking. Sadly, there was very little picture taking involved. He got about two weeks into the course and got incredibly sick.
I knew. He knew. School, even with all the support, was not working for him. The cost was too high. His brain is not designed for deadlines and transitions and task initiation on command. He is not an output person. He is a thinker, philosopher, and a people person. He is successful as a life coach. He is a student of life. Not a student of semantic data, organization, or rhetoric.
I can say the same about many of my children and my client’s children. They are incredibly bright and have talents but traditional school is not one of them. Some of them could win on Jeopardy and most of their knowledge comes from their own investigation of what they are curious about – not what they learned in school.
I have a daughter who is a special needs child. She is not intelligent according to any test. So school for her is an opportunity to be with people and try to learn some life skills. If she doesn’t master something, no big deal. As a society we have decided that her participating in any way is better than nothing. She is not held to the same standards as normal children. She goes on lots of field trips, and they keep trying different ways to reach her. For the most part, she likes school. Ironic, isn’t it? The least intelligent of my children likes school the most because the school just does the best they can with her and whatever she does is ok. This is not the same for my intelligent children with challenges. They must complete all their work and are graded on everything they do whether they are in a state to perform or not.
So my husband gave up his quest for a degree from a traditional school because he proved he could get A’s and established the cost to his happiness and well-being was not worth it.
However, we all know those diplomas and letters after your name can be valuable…
Are the pieces of paper actually valuable though? I have a degree in economics. Because I graduated from college, I was able to land a higher paying first job in computers (nothing to do with my degree). I no longer work in that field. I am considered an expert by many in neuroscience, education, psychology, coaching, healing and metaphysics, none of which I learned in traditional school.
After lectures inevitably someone will ask me how I acquired so much knowledge even though I was dyslexic and had a number of other processing issues. I told them that my passion to understand how people learn is greater than any challenge I might have. Where there is a will, there is a way. How true.
I love the movie “Good Will Hunting.” Somewhere in the movie Matt Damon tells some Ivy League snob student he could get the same education for $1.75 in late fees at the library (or something like that). It’s kind of true. If you want the knowledge, it’s out there for the taking. We have just been told that it is necessary to go to “school” to be considered a success (minus the few billionaires who dropped out or never went – those people are ok because they are billionaires).
I still don’t have the answer to how my children are going to find their way in the world. It has been interesting and will continue to be. I have learned to step back, love them, support them as best I can, and let them find their own way.
Forcing a troubled, disabled, or sick child through school is postponing reality (and, in some cases, exacerbating existing problems). You may not agree with me. You may even think I am completely crazy. However, I have learned through years of study and even more years of failure that you need to stop fixing, stop interfering, stop enabling, and start energizing what is actually there. It doesn’t help the child to push them through school by over-helping or doing it for them. They never learn how to figure it out for themselves nor do they believe they are capable without help. It also doesn’t help to punish them. They only learn they are not loved for who they are but what they can do. Some kids drag themselves through out of shame or externally instilled obligation. They are not happy people.
If your child can’t do school well, let them crash and burn as young as possible. Then and only then will you start to pick up the pieces and make decisions that will help the child in real life (which looks nothing like school by the way).
Physical, mental and social well-being are more important than school or grades or getting into college. We have a lot of clients who last 3 months in college only to return with a self medication problem. Most of them are gifted. What’s the point?
Life skills are important. Self esteem is important. A sense of self worth is important. Funny that my special needs child is the only one who is learning life skills and has a strong sense of importance and self esteem.
School is not for everyone. The education system will evolve because it is not working well for everyone. It will take time because it is a slow moving beast. I can do nothing to speed this up for the sake of my children. The change will be and has been too late for them. It was too late for me.
I found my way back to learning when I found my passion and my need to know. I have found clever ways to learn. The information is out there. If you want to go to school, MIT offers many of its classes online for free. I love listening to Great Courses on Audible. You don’t get the piece of paper, but you can prove your worth in other ways. Khan Academy can teach you anything you really need to know about math. You can read literature and expert analyses online. Go see Hamilton if you want to understand US history. Start a business if you want to understand anything related to business (I am not sure my Bachelors of Business Administration helped me at all run my business – I should ask for my money back).
The world is evolving. It needs passionate people who are eager to learn. It does not need 5 paragraph essays and math that a computer can do. The world needs conscientious people who love and care about the world and its problems. Do you really need a piece a paper to be valuable? No. You need to care and believe you are capable of doing something important enough to make a difference. Also, know this, wealth is not a measure of value.
If you have helped people, you are rich.
If you have only served your bank account, you live in scarcity.
I didn’t learn that in a traditional school.