Jay Blogs – A New (Dis)Order

I remember it like it was yesterday.  I was in fourth grade, standing in front of the whole class; my teacher, Mrs. Thomas, roasting me for not having completed one of my SRAs for the whole year (these were self-guided reading labs, kind of like Accelerated Reader). As it was already February, and I was supposed to have done about 40 of these by now, managing to have avoided them all year was quite a dubious accomplishment. Mrs. Thomas had been on me to get them done, and on this day, she lost it. Mrs. Thomas told me I was lazy, to go downstairs to the principal’s office and call my mother, and tell Mom that I would be staying after school for an hour, every single day for the next three months, the rest of the school year, doing SRAs.  And, that’s exactly what happened. Detention. For. Three. Months.

Although I feel sorry for this lady who was just trying to do her job, the episode obviously left an indelible impression on me.  The reality is that I wasn’t lazy; I had what we now know as Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity-Disorder (ADHD). We didn’t call it that back then. We said kids were hyper, or overly talkative, or spaced out, or unfocused, and almost always bad students.

Even now, when we know so much more, we still call it a “disorder,” which means, “something wrong with you.”  And, for years, it did feel like something was wrong. I thought in my gut that I was smart, that I caught onto things quickly, but I had trouble focusing for all the hours that studying required. School was hard for me, yet somehow I made it into Baylor. There I struggled for two more years, made more challenging by the allure and distractions of college life.

In my junior year, however, something clicked.  I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, and that meant law school, which meant certain grades. The brutal reality of law school bearing down on me (or not) meant that studying and grades now had meaning, a purpose- it mattered. And, I learned something else amazing: that, if I was focusing my attention on something that interested me, or something that mattered, something I cared about, I was capable of putting my tush in the chair and working for hours, often losing track of time, of how long I had been there (this is called hyperfocus, and people with ADHD often have periods where it manifests itself). I also developed systems and schemes to help me keep track of my schedule, and where I was supposed to be. Routines became really important to me, because body memory allowed me to get important things done while my thoughts were scattered.

When I became a lawyer, and then, later, the head of school at Grace, I made the greatest discovery of all: this ADHD, what I had thought all these years was a curse, turned out to be a great gift from the Lord. In my work, I have consistently have issues and problems coming at me from multiple directions and multiple people. These issues take many forms and are almost always complex. The ability to listen, address a problem, and then forget about it so I can move onto the next one, giving each concern my full attention for the brief time it takes to make a decision or come up with a solution, is amazingly helpful in leading a school (and, probably other businesses, as well).

In conversations with other head of school friends around the country, it turns out a disproportionate number of us have ADHD (wonder if their fourth-grade teachers kept them after school, too?). And, it’s not just about problem-solving. I’ve found that my ADHD helps me develop unique solutions to problems, broadens my vision and imagination, gives me greater empathy and compassion for others, and, of course, provides the ability to laser focus at times. Having to “figure out school” gave me a work ethic and perseverance that persists to this day, making it possible for someone who swore he’d never go back to school to get a masters of education and, eventually, a doctorate.

I know what it means to be a neurodiverse kid in a neurotypical world. School has traditionally been designed for neurotypical kids, and it’s hard for others to imagine why it should be designed any other way, kind of like it’s hard for someone who’s right-handed to imagine why anyone would need left-handed scissors or golf clubs, or why they would hold their pen in funny ways to make right-leaning slant. School is a challenge for anyone, but particularly for neurodiverse kids, those who have what are called learning “disorders” or “challenges,” or “differences,” but who really just have brains that are wired by God to learn differently. These kids aren’t broken (or any more broken than the rest of us); they just see life in unusual ways. And, it turns out those ways are pretty incredible once God connects them to their calling.

I’m so very grateful that neurodiverse kids these days have many more opportunities than I did (and I had more than a generation before me, like my mom, who is also ADHD). We know so much more now about how to intervene and engage with all kinds of neurodiverse learners, from ADHD, to language processing differences like dyslexia, to those who just need more executive functioning skills.

It turns out that as many as 30 percent of any body of students may be neurodiverse. This means that kids among the Body of Christ are neurodiverse, as well, which means that a Christian school that is going to be serious about equipping students to impact the world for Christ had better see as part of its mission asking God to give it the resources to engage with these kids. Because they’re also the pastors, and lawyers, and leaders of the Body of Christ tomorrow, and we need to get them ready, too.

I’m so proud of our Academic Success Center at Grace, and I’m proud of and grateful for the men and women God has assembled to populate it: talented teachers who understand the minds, and more importantly, the hearts of our neurodiverse kids, see the beautiful potential inside them, and work alongside our amazing classroom teachers to coax the greatness from their students. I’m also grateful for our families and friends who believe in the ASC and its work, and who have chosen to support it. Thanks to these people, God is unfolding and unveiling new possibilities in these kids, possibilities we never had. It gives me tremendous joy to see God’s hand at work, and to imagine how he will use these special kids to make disciples and build his Kingdom.

Finally, if you’re a mom or dad who feels discouraged because your kid struggles at school, hang in there. Chances are school is never going to be easy for them; that’s one of the ways God has chosen to grow and shape and mold them into kids who work hard and persevere. Don’t let them off the hook, no matter how much it wears you out. God gave them to you to make you stronger and holier, too. And, with the help of our awesome teachers and ASC personnel, God will give them a vision to become the speech therapists and business owners and entrepreneurs and CEOs and great, compassionate moms and dads that were just like them, and who now represent 20 years of alumni that I’ve seen leave these doors to be something spectacular God has for them to be, all for Jesus.

I hope Mrs. Thomas would be thankful to know her patient, persistent work with a hard-headed kid made it a little easier for a new generation of teachers and students, at least in one small corner of the world.  You’ll be thankful for your own work, too, so keep at it.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.