A mother of young twin boys recently shared her frustrations with me about their school experience. Seems teachers are fast-tracking one of her sons to an ADHD diagnosis. This is busy season for diagnosing ADHD (between September and November). It starts in earnest in pre-k through 2nd/3rd grade when teachers suggest problems with “attention,” “impulsivity” and “motor activity.” Those are the three ADHD diagnostic symptom clusters.
What’s this experience like for kids? Everyday in my office they tell me. Kids go from freer movement and longer days of summer, to suddenly sitting long hours, in narrow curricula that are geared to maximize their test scores. They have few opportunities to learn through natural ways, using visual-motor play, exploration, and creativity.
Interestingly, many teachers I speak with secretly share their frustration. But they’re stuck and stressed. They tell me they went into teaching to bring their creativity and personal touch to the classroom. Many tell me they appreciate differences in how kids learn, but are forced to stick to an educational script.
Here’s good news. These younger grades are like a tunnel for many boys. Parents just have to get their kids through, acknowledge that school isn’t much fun right now. Hone in on the 1-2 things that are enjoyable (e.g., seeing your friends, recess, lunch, anything they identify as upbeat and positive). Hearing their complaints in my office (which have grown considerably since I started practicing mid 1980’s), I’m often reminded of what bad employment is like for adults. Many of us can relate to that.
Here’s what you do. Stay steady and lead. Be positive. Let your boys know things are ok, even if things right now aren’t great in their grade. Tell them (sternly) they have to go through it. They will learn and have to adjust. Better teachers are coming. More interesting ways to learn too. They won’t ever stop wanting to learn cool things because it’s part of how they are designed. Supplement with great things at your fingertips. Libraries. After-school programs. Lego play groups. Robot building teams. Theatre groups. Singing groups. The world is a big place, start exploring beyond the limited school experience.
I received a question from mom who sadly was recently widowed. Her third grade son gets so frustrated when he can’t do something like fold a paper airplane just right. He goes into a crying fit for about ten to fifteen minutes, then seems magically fine. What should she do? Hug him? Try to talk to him? Should she be more worried that something bigger is going on?
I told her it’s best not to intervene in these outbursts when they are happening. Walk off and ignore whenever possible – and while it sounds mean – don’t try to hug or console at that moment. Wait until the crying spell has passed. The brain is undergoing an intense emotional release. The frustrations are layered in this case. There’s the immediate reason (paper airplane folded wrong) that sets her son off, but having lost a parent, particularly a dad, there are deeper and more complicated feelings that rise to the surface. Crying becomes an opportunity to release everything else. In my experience, it’s quite natural – healthy in fact – for boys to briefly “lose it/overreact” when they don’t accomplish typical “guy stuff” well (e.g., airplane folding or learning to skateboard, etc.). Not to worry, despite the seriousness of their crying, it’s a normal and healthy release.
Boys who have lost a parent will likely show more over-the-top reactions to simple frustrations. Again, it’s their way of letting out the emotional steam building under the surface. We all can appreciate that. And consider this… there will come a day very soon when most young boys stop crying altogether – or very rarely shed a tear. As boys grow they tend to express sad feelings and frustrations mostly through anger. So what can you do now? Better to teach them early on that channeling that anger into more productive positive ways is the better route – like getting outdoors for a run or shooting hoops. Talking about it alone won’t do much but frustrate them further. Telling them to move in some way and identifying it as “too much adrenaline” helps. For boys who aren’t around a dad regularly, get trusted guys to show your son the emotional ropes. A tutor, coach, boy baby-sitter, uncles. When good male role models show boys how to handle strong emotions, boys listen. They watch and learn, they imitate, wanting to please – and be like – these older, stronger men they will soon become.