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Setting goals key for teens with ADHD

Published on: September 01, 2009

Mack has his own video business. Sally babysits and plans to become a criminal lawyer. Willie works in a factory and wants to play in the NFL and earn a degree in business administration. The three teens all do well at their public high schools, keep busy with work and friends, and are carefully planning their futures.

But what they also have in common is a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) -- also sometimes referred to as attention-deficit disorder, or ADD -- and many past struggles.

In the teenage years, the academic, behavioral and social problems are heightened; especially for students with ADHD. Failed classes must be made up in order to graduate; fighting or reckless driving can land a kid in jail or worse, and poor social skills can lead to depression.

But the flip side is the ability of older children with ADHD to take charge of their situations. "At a high school age, you can actually sit down and go through this cognitive process with them," says Sheila Espinosa, special-education teacher at Chief Sealth High School, in West Seattle. "They're becoming aware of themselves and their behaviors, what's working and what's not."

Not all students diagnosed with ADHD are in special-education programs. However, the advantage of giving these students specially designed instruction is the opportunity to meet individual needs and build on existing strengths -- whether those lie in music, math or other subjects.

Missed assignments, poor writing skills and lack of organization can result in low or failing grades for students with ADHD. Because academic difficulties often cause battles at home and trouble at school, addressing them can have benefits beyond the classroom. "Succeeding in school is one of the most therapeutic things for a child," says Chris Dendy, author and national speaker on managing ADHD in teenagers. "For the child with ADHD, academic interventions improve behavior, but the converse is not true."

When Mack Fisher was in fifth grade, the school counselor told his parents their son was destined to lead a life of crime and recommended that he leave the Bellevue elementary school he attended. "Mack was bored, antsy, mouthy and smart," says his mom, Deborah Fisher, "and I didn't raise a compliant child." The positive outcome of this difficult time was the Fishers' referral to a family therapist who educated both family and school about ADHD and how it affected Mack's brain and school performance.

Sally (who preferred her last name not be used in this article) spent her middle school years fighting with her mom, bouncing between schools and seeing juvenile detention facilities from the inside. Still only 16, Sally already speaks about her "behavior issues" in the past tense. "It just hit me," she says, "I needed to get stuff done in order to go to college."

Willie (who also requested his first name only be used) credits his parents' "riding him" and pushing involvement in sports for his staying in school and out of trouble. Willie was still in elementary school when his ADHD was diagnosed and Ritalin recommended. But Willie's parents decided to manage his impairment without medication. As is typical of kids with ADHD, Willie didn't cope well with the greater workload and responsibilities he encountered in middle school, and then got distracted by the social scene during his freshman year at Seattle's Garfield High School.

As a result, Willie transferred to Chief Sealth, a smaller school with fewer distractions. Although the move was against his mother's wishes, it proved to be a wise choice: 18-year-old Willie graduated this spring and is off to college in California on a football scholarship.

"I think school is what you make of it, it's not what school makes of you," Willie says. To challenge himself, Willie chose to take general education classes for all but one subject, even though it meant lower grades.

As with Willie, 10th grade was also a turning point for Mack. Now a 17-year-old junior at Sammamish High School, Mack takes general education classes and had a GPA of 3.75 on his last report card. "What helped me was doing it for myself rather than doing it for my parents as I did all through middle school," says Mack, referring to his schoolwork.

Deborah Fisher confesses to having been a "homework cop" until a major battle with her son led her to finally let go. Self-managing proved the key for Mack, who is now off medication and will finish his senior year without the safety net of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Sally has a 3.7 GPA in her special-education classes at Chief Sealth, but she doesn't find school easy. "I don't apply myself," she admits, "because school is stressful, one big stress." Nonetheless, she plans to attend South Seattle Community College in order to fulfill prerequisites and ease into university life.

Sally was introduced to SSCC through Chief Sealth's special-education program. Sheila Espinosa teaches and manages services for up to 30 students who have IEPs at the school. Regular field trips to career fairs and community colleges, as well as life-skills training, help students like Sally get and stay on track. In what is known in special education as the "transition process," Espinosa helps her students set goals and plan for their futures.

Deborah Fisher also speaks highly of the career planning offered in Mack's study skills class, the only special-education class he's taken. "It was very helpful to analyze his learning style and learn what he needed to know about himself to move forward."

While Mack, Sally and Willie are nonchalant about their turnarounds and successes in school, they do offer advice to other teens with learning or behavioral challenges.

"Get into counseling (with a good counselor), find a support system and set goals early," Sally says.

Procrastination is Mack's biggest weakness: "I used to think homework was a waste of time, but now I realize that I have to do it sooner or later, so why not sooner for full credit than later for half credit?" Mack also confesses that he'd be lost without his PDA, which he uses to keep track of his school assignments and work schedule.

For Willie, involvement in sports has provided discipline and life lessons. Willie's advice to fellow teens: "Put your mind to something and stick with it; don't just give up and drop out. Separate yourself from friends if necessary, do what you need to do. Apply yourself."

Freelance writer Melinda Tsuchiya lives in West Seattle with her husband and two sons (one of whom has attention-deficit disorder). She can be reached at


Originally published in the September, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

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