First Conference

Wednesday was my first time on the parent side of the conference table. All week, and especially that day, the parent-teacher conference — an event I’ve led as a teacher countless times with minimal anxiety — loomed like a hellish nightmare. I was horribly nervous.

Now, my son is a darling child. He’s fully loaded with creativity, curiosity, and intelligence. He’s bright and articulate. He’s kind and generally obedient. Helpfulness is metaphorically his middle name. In short, he’s a joy. And his teacher is gentle, empathetic, filled with enthusiasm, and knows just how to deal with Niko and his idiosyncrasies. I couldn’t have made a better teacher-student match if I’d drafted a list of desirable qualities and conducted a search with background checks and in-depth interviews.

But. But, I’ve seen Niko with other kids, on the playground as well as instructional settings. I’ve watched as he turns in circles on his bottom while other kids gather to hear the soccer coach’s instructions. I’ve seen him rummaging through the coach’s bag while the other kids chase enthusiastically after the soccer ball. Watched him bounce eagerly up to a startled child on a playground, expecting to be welcomed into a private game.

At home, I see him make baffling switches between calmness and manic silliness. He forgets instructions halfway across the room on his way to doing what he was told. His impulsiveness can be startling and disturbing.

And I’ve listened as his teacher praises him at pickup time. “He sat quietly all the way through meeting time!” she’ll exclaim with pride. Or, “Niko lined up calmly!” Or, “He sat and did an art activity – and FINISHED it!” “He did such a good job keeping his body calm!”

What I hear as she gives this good news is, This is not typical. Usually he’s running around like a crazy wild thing. Isn’t it wonderful that he managed to have a normal moment? Now, she’s never said anything to suggest that this might be the case. But, still. I worry.

At the beginning of the year, I shared some concerns — these, and others –with Niko’s teacher. She listened and promised to watch for signs of problems. I know this is why she makes such a point of giving me a good report. But, still — I worry.

At conference time, we sit at the table as she shows me examples of his work. She discusses his academic prowess. Describes how he loves meeting time. (He does?!) Tells how adept he is with letters and sounds. How he always knows the answer whenever there’s a question. How great he is at touch-counting, and how he loves using her pointer to count objects in the room. He excels at following pictured instructions — the only child in the class with this ability.

And there’s more. I learn that he likes to stand at the whiteboard scribbling and drawing while narrating what he’s doing to the children who gather to watch. He likes to assemble objects into person or animal shapes on the floor — although when the others flock to first watch in fascination, then to contribute to the shape, he quietly walks away. (I know which parent that comes from. Not me.) He helps other children and has learned to ask before hugging.

I’m a bit puzzled. This description of an engaging, cooperative (except for the shape thing), almost charismatic child isn’t really what I expected. I think back to a day closer to the beginning of school, when I saw him throw a ball directly at another child’s chest, almost knocking him down. Then he rushed to another child and pushed her tricycle. Flung his arms around a third child unexpectedly, triggering startled tears.

“Have you seen any more of that aggressive behavior?” I ask tentatively, reminding her of the ball incident.

“Aggressive? No, never!” She’s shocked. Then ponders. “There was another little boy here at that time.” Her lips tighten, and an unfamiliar expression flits across her face — could it be a frown? It looks out of place on her cheerful, calmly-smiling face, but it’s gone almost instantly. “He’s not with us any more,” she adds. “He did a lot of hitting and pushing. Niko saw that and tried it out that day. He was just learning how to interact, and when he saw that it wasn’t a useful method, he stopped.”

Actually, I’ve been seeing changes myself: welcoming calls from other children when he arrives, sweet good-bye hugs when he leaves. He’s been bringing completed work home, telling us what he learned each day. Generally speaking, he’s acting like a typical preschooler. Not like a child with concerning problems of focus and attention. I’ve chalked this up to his teacher being an excellent manager, helping to smooth his way in the classroom. But maybe — just possibly — it’s him? Could it be that, all on his own, he’s learning to interact with others and function in a classroom? I’m not downplaying his teacher’s influence — I’ve watched her explicitly teach him how to approach others, help him find words to use. And it seems that he is learning what she’s teaching.

Why have I been so worked up about this? Well, I was diagnosed with ADHD around the age of thirty. I’ve always thought that an earlier diagnosis would have made my life a bit easier. The strategies I’ve learned as an adult to deal with my difficulties would have saved so much trouble if I’d had them when I was younger. And I’ve taught children with ADHD — many with a far more extreme case than my own. Their passage through school is not easy. A diagnosis makes it easier, because even the most hardnosed teacher is expected to help a diagnosed child by explicitly teaching time management, focus, and impulse control strategies. If all else fails, there’s medication — the approach that saved me my job and, I’m pretty sure, my sanity.

Our son just turned four. It is, to speak plainly, ridiculous to attempt a diagnosis of ADHD with a child this age. I know this. I’ve taken the requisite classes in child development and have both observed and worked with this age group. I know that inattentiveness and impulsivity are par for the course. But my anxiety about myself, combined with my realization that his behaviors were at the high end of the scale for kids in his age group, made me think the worst. I didn’t trust our brilliant, unique child to learn and adapt on his own.

Here’s what I’m now reminding myself. Niko is himself. He is not me. Even if it turns out, someday, that he has ADHD, there’s no reason to think he’ll experience it like I do. And I should know, better than anybody, that ADHD does not have to be crippling. In many cases, people with ADHD are extremely successful once they learn to channel their energy and manage their impulses. It’s unfair to project my insecurities and fears onto Niko.

Now I have a simple goal. Let Niko be Niko. Let him learn for himself what his strengths and weaknesses are, and learn how to improve his weak areas and maximize his strengths.

For all my pre-event anxiety, I guess that terrifying parent-teacher conference was a excellent use of thirty minutes.