My middle child was diagnosed with leukemia as a toddler. She was on chemotherapy for three years. From ages two to five, she received a regular IV and oral chemotherapy regimen with monthly spinal injections of methotrexate to keep cancer cells out of her brain and spine.
The good, wonderful, fabulous news is that all those chemotherapy drugs did their job. She was a cancer survivor by age six, and the worst was behind us. We had our daughter, and that was the biggest answer to prayer we could ask for. We would figure out the rest.
Going through chemo during formative years led to my daughter struggling in school
We didn’t know that undergoing chemotherapy during those formative preschool years can wreak havoc on the developing brain. All the other students learned their sight words in kindergarten, but my daughter struggled.
In first grade, other students learned to read, but my daughter continued to struggle. The reading gap grew in second grade, and we knew we had to do something. We took our daughter to a neuropsychologist who specialized in post-chemo learning. She tested her for a wide range of learning issues. The findings were not earth-shattering. My daughter had ADD and a delayed processing speed.
The doctor explained that not only were these two diagnoses in line with what they see for children treated with the type of cancer that my daughter had, but also that they weren’t uncommon at all. We went home with a list of recommended accommodations and modifications and an uneasy feeling about her potential to keep up with her classmates. This little girl had already been through so much. It didn’t feel fair for her to continue struggling and falling behind.
We worked with her school to create a support team
We worked hard with the school to develop a support team and plan to help her bridge the gap and gain some of the skills that she was lacking. We paid extra for daily learning support and tutoring. We were diligent in our at-home practice of math facts and sight words. It was exhausting. And sometimes, it felt like we weren’t making any progress.
I can’t tell you how often our homework sessions would end up in tears. It was so hard to continue to be encouraging when she studied for a test for hours and still did not do well. She couldn’t see the progress. She couldn’t see the payoff, and sometimes I couldn’t either. The improvement was slow.
She struggled through elementary school. And I worried about sending her to middle school. Middle school wasn’t easy. C’s were the norm, and she worked hard to get those. But she didn’t give up. She continued to persevere. She displayed an extraordinary amount of stamina. But there were never any rewards: no A’s, no honor roll certificates, no recognition at assemblies, no awards.
I kept telling her the payoff would come, but it made me angry. She survived cancer. She worked her tail off to maintain average work with a processing delay and ADD. She deserved recognition. But I smiled and clapped for her high-achieving classmates, and she persevered.
The first year of high school was really challenging
The first year of high school almost did us both in. The work was hard. Her medication was wrong. I was sure it was all just too much, and she’d have to leave our beloved school where both of her siblings attended. We increased the hours of tutoring and learning support. We tried and tried again until we got her medication correct. We argued constantly.
She didn’t want my help with schoolwork. I didn’t know how else to help her. My continual questioning about schoolwork was increasing her anxiety. After a difficult first semester, one of her teachers encouraged me to back off. She said she would serve as a “coach” so I no longer had to. She encouraged me to let her learn to handle it. She encouraged me to let her struggle. And when she did, the teacher assured me that she would jump in and not let her get too far behind.
So, I backed off. After all, it was her life. My daughter was the one in the game. I needed to get off the field and let the coach do her job. It was scary, and freshman year continued to be difficult.
Sophomore year of high school, everything clicked
But miraculously, during her sophomore year, something changed. With the support of her teachers, it all clicked. She knew how to work hard. She was going to extra help before and after school. She knew how to advocate by reminding her teachers about her accommodations and meeting with them when she wasn’t offered those accommodations.
She was writing assignments in her agenda book and completing them. She used the study tools we practiced all those years to prepare for exams. She was doing it! And not only was she doing it, she was doing it well! The C’s slowly became B’s, and a few even became A’s. I could barely believe how independent I was! She still wasn’t winning awards, but we didn’t care. She was achieving. She was thriving. Years of hard work were finally paying off.
Next year my girl will be a senior in high school. She’s already taken the SAT with accommodations and rocked it on the first try. She has excellent study habits. She knows how to advocate for herself. And she has a fantastic work ethic. She knows that she can do hard things. And I know that she can too. And I can’t wait to cheer her on from the sidelines.
Middle school moms of students with ADD, take heart. It’s coming. The payoff is coming. It will click. And one day, you’ll get to stop coaching and start cheering. There’s rest for the weary. Until then, persevere. Your child is watching.
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