School has ironically never been an area that my son’s ADHD and anxiety has caused him major struggles. Instead, he held it together all day, and then fell apart all night in the safety net of my home. Still, I called a 504 meeting for several reasons. First, I wanted it on the record that he had these diagnoses and was being treated for them. My son is not his diagnoses by any means, but there are some very real struggles that he has that he shares with others who have the same diagnoses and it is important for those who are with him much of the day to know this. Second, in the event that he should struggle, I want those who are with him to recognize it, understand what he needs, and give it to him when possible. These struggles are generally emotional, but impede his academics.
On the day of the 504 meeting, we spent an hour discussing my son’s symptoms and needs. Because his ADHD symptoms are well-controlled on medication, a main focus of the meeting was his anxiety. I tried to clearly articulate how his anxiety might look to others, and how it could be easily misunderstood. When our sympathetic nervous system senses danger—real or perceived (anxiety)—it generally goes into fight or flight. Most children with anxiety appear nervous in their avoidance of tasks or tantrum and act out to signify that something is wrong. My son, on the other hand, goes into the third response: freeze. He completely shuts down. He becomes oppositional and outright refuses to do the task at hand, all while on the inside working through very big feelings. This can be very frustrating to adults who perceive this as disrespectful and unmotivated.
My son’s classroom teacher noted that she had seen this before when she moved him to a lower math group based on pre-test scores. Two days in a row, when the class broke for math, he shut down and did not participate. She finally pulled him into the hallway and asked what was wrong. He broke down into tears and told her that he thought she moved him because he was “stupid.” For two days, he had been anxiously perseverating over the idea that he was not smart enough. A brief talk from his teacher, and he was able to move on and complete his work. Now, his 504 plan includes recognizing these signs and talking to him privately. His teacher has found this tremendously helpful.
So imagine my frustration this week when I received a call from a specials teacher about an interaction that did not go so well. My son had been quiet and not participating in a group assignment for two classes, but because the teacher was unaware of the 504 plan, she did not recognize this as anxiety and did not talk with him privately. Instead, she scolded him in front of his peers which only heightened his anxiety. By the end of the exchange, he had become tearful, escalated, and threatened to run away.
I spent some time on the phone educating the specials teacher, and then contacted the school to ensure the plan is now disseminated to everyone. I also spent some time that night doing damage control with my son who was crying that he no longer wanted to go to school. I had to remind him that he did not fail. The system failed him. But just this one time. Sometimes even the best made plans have kinks we need to iron out. And there were teachable moments for everyone involved.
And so we press on.