Speak and Be Heard

Special-education students are learning that their own best advocates may be themselves.

Before Chris Todd even started school, his mom knew there'd be trouble. The signs were all there. He was more rambunctious and aggressive than most boys his age, and he climbed on every piece of furniture in the house.

In preschool, he constantly vied for his teacher's attention by trying to hold her hand. In kindergarten, he bit the principal. In first grade, he was so out of control that his teacher wouldn't let him go to computer, music or art classes. When Chris was in second grade, his mother, Karen, a speech therapist, finally figured out what was behind his erratic behavior at a conference on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

When she heard a presentation about the symptoms of ADHD, she says, it was like listening to a description of Chris. Excessive climbing, for example, is typical of kids with the disorder. "I was like, 'Oh, my God, this is my son,'" Karen recalls. People used to tell her that kids like Chris were "just boys" and that there was nothing abnormal about their behavior. "Well, they're not just boys. They're extra loud and aggressive, and Chris didn't have many friends because of it."

Michael Hogue
Mary Anne Fleury teaches kids how to speak up; her son, Matt, has several learning disabilities.
Mark A. Manger
Mary Anne Fleury teaches kids how to speak up; her son, Matt, has several learning disabilities.

So Karen put her son on Ritalin, and for a while, it helped. But his progress on the medication was cyclical: He'd have a good year in school and then a bad one. Thinking that perhaps he had something in addition to the ADHD, Karen eventually took him off the prescription drug. While she tried to figure out what else was troubling him, Chris continued to have problems. Almost every day during middle school, he was given detention for not doing his homework.

He and his mother both knew he was bright enough to understand the material; he just couldn't stay focused long enough to complete it. He did well on tests, but because he wasn't completing his homework, he got failing grades.

In eighth grade, an understanding math teacher told Chris that if he could pass the exams, he didn't need to turn in his homework. "That worked great, but none of his other teachers would allow him to do that. They wanted him to learn how to do all of the steps," says Karen.

"The thought of sitting down and doing my homework is really hard," adds Chris, who is now sixteen and a high school sophomore. "It's like, hey, there's my computer; hey, there's TV. I get easily distracted."

As he talks, Chris's eyes dart around the common area at Littleton's Arapahoe High School. He is supposed to go to band practice, but he doesn't want to. He thinks his teachers hate him, even though his mom tells him that isn't true. Still, most of them have never understood his learning disability, he insists, or tried to help him. Back in sixth grade, a teacher once told him she didn't believe in ADHD. "She didn't think it existed," he says.

Although ADHD is a more common diagnosis now than it was then, Chris and his mother continue to battle misconceptions about the disorder. While some teachers give Chris extra time to complete his homework, most don't. Even though special treatment is precisely what special-education laws were designed to provide, Karen says accommodations frequently aren't made. "A lot of his teachers think his disability is just an excuse," she explains. "The big thing they say to him is, 'You chose not to do your homework.' But it's not a choice with an ADHD kid. For some reason, ADHD kids just can't get their homework started."

Chris does much better during summer school, when eighteen weeks of work are squeezed into six. He says he gets bored, particularly in math, when the pace doesn't move quickly enough for him: If he doesn't immediately move on to something new, he loses interest and focus. So this year, he and his mom asked to have a year's worth of math lessons condensed into one semester; they suggested that he take math as an independent study so that he could stay focused.

They asked to have that written into Chris's Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a federally mandated document for special-education students that spells out their academic goals and details what they need to do to achieve them. (This is the first year Chris has had an IEP; in the past, he had what's called a 504, a plan that protects special-ed students from discrimination by listing the accommodations they need.) But the team of special-education counselors and teachers working on his plan wouldn't allow it. "They didn't want to give me special treatment," Chris says.

Karen has been speaking up for Chris, trying to get teachers and administrators to make arrangements for him since he was little. When his eighth-grade teachers wanted to hold him back a year, she argued against that. When his high school counselors suggested that he might do better at an alternative school, she rejected that idea, too. "I didn't want him to be in a school with a bunch of other ADHD kids," she says.

Lately, however, Karen has been trying to step back and let Chris fight some of his own battles. Just a couple of weeks ago, for instance, he took the initiative to get out of a supervised study hall for special-ed students, because he didn't want to take it on the day it was offered. Although it was a small issue, Chris felt good about asking and was pleasantly surprised when the teacher honored his request for a meeting to discuss it. But since Chris's grades haven't improved, the teacher told him he still needed to attend the class.

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