Lessons From My Journey With ADHD and Learning Issues

I’ve spent my entire life dealing with my learning and thinking differences. They include and problems with reading, spelling and short-term memory. That’s why I can identify with students and youth who have learning and thinking differences. Perhaps more importantly, they can identify with me.

When I was in high school, my mother was called into the school guidance counselor’s office. There, she was told that she needed to understand that I would never go to college. The best career I could hope for, she was told, was to be a cab driver.

My mom never accepted this verdict about me. After all, my father, who passed away when I was in seventh grade, had been a well-known doctor. My brother, who was a year ahead of me in school, was an A student who went on to Harvard and Harvard Medical School.

Fortunately, I was very good at kicking a soccer ball, and was recruited by colleges—more for my right foot than for my left or right brain. I went on to graduate from both college and graduate school. Then I became a college dean.

Sometime later, I had the chance to speak to a staff member who knew me when I was in high school. As the conversation started, I couldn’t resist saying, “This is Dean Rein calling.”

There was a long pause. I assumed it was because she was surprised and impressed that someone who was in remedial classes had come so far. Finally, she asked me why I changed my name from “Jim” to “Dean.” I then realized that perceptions are very, very hard to change.

I was very fortunate to be a good athlete. Not only was it a factor in getting into college, but it meant if I could get through the humiliation of the classroom on a daily basis and get to soccer, basketball or track practice, I could have some success at school.

The good news is that I’ve never worked with a young person who didn’t have an area of real talent or strength. Sadly, these skills were often not recognized.

When I started working in the field of learning and thinking differences, I was relieved to learn that my issues were not my fault. The labels I grew up with—like “lazy,” “stupid” and even “retarded”—didn’t apply to me.

Perhaps the most painful part was people telling me I could do it if I tried, and my telling them I was trying.

But much of that is behind me now. My school grades didn’t predict the full story. Even though I got C’s and D’s in English class, I’ve gone on to write popular songs (“Walk Tall” was my best seller) and a feature film (Dynamite Brothers). I’ve even written a few articles for Understood.org.

My biggest hope for you is that your kids will also one day look back like I can, having experienced success. Here are a few of my thoughts for how you can get there:

  1. Find your child’s strengths; put him in activities and settings that recognize and develop those strengths.

  2. Advocate for the right academic environment for your child; seek out effective instruction and whole child education.

  3. Tell your child that grades are important and you expect good effort, but that grades aren’t everything.

  4. Expose your child to successful role models who face the same challenges he does.

  5. Help your child take pride in his accomplishments.

  6. Remember that, for all kids, it’s great to feel special, but not so great to feel different.

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