Being the parent of a child with significant learning differences means regularly relearning everything you have ever said as an educator. I constantly think, “Oh, THAT’S what ADHD looks like” when you live with it. Now, when a father tells me in overwhelming bewilderment and frustration that he does not know how to cope with his son’s temper, his sloppiness, his inability to remember anything 20 minutes after being told something, I not only nod in commiseration I also nod in understanding. I hear him in every cell of my body. Sometimes, it’s not “just being a teenager.” When you live it, you know it.
I was a teacher and administrator long before I was a parent. Yet during those years, I worked closely with parents. As a drama teacher, speech and debate coach, class dean, and Lower School Head, a large part of my professional life was working in partnership with families. I was not a counselor, but I counseled. I never felt I needed to be a parent to appreciate concerns; indeed, I felt my neutrality allowed me a greater insight. I was also convinced this work and this experience would make me a better parent.
By the time I was Head of School, I had been a parent for 12 years, and I often crossed an unspoken line; I would share my own parental experience with families experiencing temper tantrums, homework challenges, or friendship dynamics to let them know I understood their perspective as a Special Ed parent. As Head of a special education school that my daughter graduated from, this helped build an instant connection. I had been where they were. I realize now, that whether it was before or after I became a parent, my work with families started with my perspective as an educator, someone who was there to guide.
I thought I was prepared. I had adopted my daughter from China when she was three years old, and I knew the data and research, and my eyes were wide open. Or so I thought.
I enrolled her in a great preschool almost immediately, and she acclimated well and worked hard by playing hard. She separated quickly and made age-appropriate friendships. She transitioned well to Kindergarten and was focused on assimilating and pleasing her teachers. And yet. I worried from the start. It seemed as if I were concerned in ways that other parents were not, but I could not quite put my finger on why. She seemed not to be making certain connections, either academically or socially. She wanted to, but I felt I was looking at something different, something I had seen as an educator, but could not quite identify as a parent.
I assumed I could not separate my educator hat from my parent hat; I just needed to relax. I needed to practice my own advice and remember that children develop at different times. I was told over and over to give her time, that she was still making a terrifically large transition. After all, just months ago she had been in an orphanage. Right. But still, the voice in me, whether it was a parent or educator, told me that there were struggles ahead.
By first grade, she was slow in learning to read and often seemed uncertain about expressing herself. She came to the English language late, and I was still encouraged to “give it time.” By second grade, she struggled to keep up socially and academically, and we both struggled with how it felt to start to feel different, both as a parent and a student. It sneaks up on you. We had already started an unending cycle of support, from OT to tutoring to a neuropsychological evaluation. It is a subtle process — first one support or accommodation, then another, each accompanied by the hope that this magic trick will turn an uncertain but happy child into a perfectly competent and confident student. You do not see the toll it is taking on the child because, like a new driver, you are looking at the road directly in front of you and not focusing farther down the highway.
Eventually, by third grade, my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. The following year, I placed her in a school that taught bright students with language-based learning differences.
Over the next five years, supported by medication and tutoring, she thrived. We got what few families experience — a blissful middle school experience. When your child is in the right school, the typical milestones of navigating friendships and studies and life may not be easy, but they are seen for what they are, part of the path from childhood to independence.
As she transitioned back to mainstream in high school, the pandemic was in full bloom, and families, educators, and students struggled nationwide. It was a hard transition, and every time I wanted to call her school, I worried about whether I would be that parent all teachers and administrators struggle with. The one I had worked with for so long. So I kept silent. And all the while I tried to calm and reassure parents who called me at my school.
Sometimes, advocating for your child when you are an administrator is challenging. You adjust your relationship with colleagues and self-reflect more than you need to. Or should have to. As Head of a school, too often, I end up not speaking up for my own child. I try to support her teachers, colleagues at a different school.
As a teacher, I was constantly told that my view of parents would change when I became a mom. That was not true. My perspective and vision of working with parents had developed over decades. What did change was my appreciation of what I had always said. While I always understood challenges, intellectually, experiencing them etched a whole new level of understanding. My empathy level has changed. I understood precisely how families felt when I had to share difficult, sometimes heartbreaking, news. I understood more deeply what it feels like to see a child struggle with anxiety, with learning, and sometimes, just with life. When a mother says to me, “There were years I thought she would never know how to learn, never read, never navigate friendships because of how she expresses herself,” I used to nod in genuine empathy and understanding. Now, I hear her differently, having once said the same thing and had the same worry.
At work, I often refer to my three lenses. I know my school as head of school, I know my school as an educator who has worked in New York City for almost 40 years, and I know my school as the parent of an alum. She is now in 11th grade. She graduated from my school three years ago, and while we were never at Gateway at the same time, I can feel her presence.
While I know my school, its parents, and its students, every morning, I remember anew what it means to be the parent of a teenager who struggles with dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety. My lenses have not always helped me see what is right in front of me day in and day out. Now, more than ever, I appreciate the importance of a school specialized for children’s needs, with teachers specifically trained to meet the school’s mission and the children’s needs. Parenting a child who struggles with these challenges and who requires an approach beyond what is typically offered gives me a unique vantage point as an educator, and one I would not trade for the world. It has made me a better educator. It has made me a better parent. It has made me a better person.