What I tell Black parents who worry about labels like “ADHD” for their child

Raj Michaels was failing out of high school. He was certainly bright enough; everybody said so. But he was always either interrupting teachers and classmates or falling asleep, and his parents couldn’t understand why.

Raj’s mother Janice is a respected lawyer, and his father Drew is a successful architect. The two met at a historically Black college known for its high-achieving graduates. They had two children, Kayla and Raj, who they thought would be just as successful — at least when it came to school.

Janice and Drew Michaels (not their real names) came to me to ask for advice. I’ve been a headmaster and principal at several schools, and I have worked with many struggling Black students — especially boys. They thought I could help.

Drew and Janice had high expectations for the family and big goals for their children. Their daughter, Kayla, who was finishing up a graduate degree at UCLA, seemed to be on her way to meeting those goals.

But Raj was different.

After he struggled in grade school and middle school, his parents sent him to a mainstream private school that gave him individual attention. But he was barely hanging on. In fact, he’d just been placed on academic probation for the second time in two years for bad grades. And he and wasn’t on track to graduate, much less go to college.

For years, Drew and Janice had been reluctant to have Raj evaluated for learning and thinking differences. But when he got D’s and F’s in his sophomore year English and math, I finally convinced them to do so. That’s when they learned Raj has ADHD.

Why did they wait so long to have Raj evaluated?

Their reluctance is something I’ve seen often as an educator. For some African American parents, it’s not easy to accept that a child might have a learning or thinking difference. In my experience, that’s especially true of those who have done extremely well in their lives and careers. They most often come to me for help when their child is a boy, but they’re most concerned about their sons being labeled.

In their experience, being Black and successful meant that you had pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps. They thought, you were disadvantaged and no one else was going to help you. So you buckled down, you didn’t make excuses, and you did what you had to do to succeed. That’s what their daughter, Kayla, had done, and they expected the same from Raj.

At first they thought that handling Raj’s issues came down to discipline. It didn’t matter that he “couldn’t focus” in class. He had to focus or else he would have things taken away from him: cell phone, video games and free time. Yet none of those punishments worked.

As an educator (and a parent) I believe it’s good to have high expectations. But with Raj’s parents, I tried to show them how those high expectations can get in the way of seeing why their son might be struggling.

They also worried that having a label would make Raj seem “less than” in other people’s eyes. Like many African American parents I work with, they feel they are raising their kids in the shadow of history. They’ve heard stories from other families about how labels like “ADHD” and “hyperactive” have been used to stereotype kids of color.

My message to them: It’s our job as educators to partner with you. We want your child to be seen, known and valued for who he is and what he can be. The labels are there only if they help.

Janice and Drew are just beginning to learn what it means to be parents of a child with a learning or thinking difference. This is a difficult process. They are trying hard to see and understand the child they have rather than the child they thought Raj would be. And it only happened after Raj and his parents hit a wall in high school.

Raj’s parents are also starting to understand that having learning and thinking differences isn’t about making excuses. It’s about seeing that a child learns differently. And about addressing his unique needs.

I think Janice and Drew can help Raj by taking one last, big step. They can shatter the mirror they look into every time they see him. A child isn’t an extension of a parent. Looking at him as a reflection of themselves, especially in how he does or doesn’t learn, isn’t a way to understand him. Raj needs to be accepted as his own person.

Ultimately, what will make Raj successful is that he owns how he learns — what works for him and what doesn’t. He must create his own image in the mirror that is different from the image others have of him. And his parents can help by giving him the support and freedom to do so.

Read FAQs about evaluations for learning and thinking differences. You can also learn about common myths about ADHD.

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