Technology that can change learning

My final blog,

I’ve used technology to create some videos, along with some helpful links. Technology has really been my wings in learning to fly free of my disabilities. There are so many great programs out there that no matter who you are, there’s an answer out there for you.

I think the first step to knowing what technology is right for you is to understand what needs you have and where do you excel.  Both through learning styles and types of intelligences, we can create a better undrestanding of ourselves.

VARK is a site that asses learning styles.  I subscribe to the VARK theory rather than the traditional Visual-Oral-Kinesthetic theory because it distinguishes differences between reading and visual and is a lot more intensive.  The acronym stands for Visual, Aural/Oral, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic.  I would suggest completing the questionnaire and reading up on the descriptions of the various learning styles.  If you find that you are more visual, than programs like Prezi, and SmartIdeas may be better suited to your abilities.  If you find that you are lower in the Reading/Writing learning styles than you may benefit from using programs like Premier.

Multiple Intelligences:  Here is a test to determine where you are likely to find the best skills.  When students struggle in subject/intelligence areas, they tend to lose motivation to complete tasks.  Knowing that a student mayy struggle with a certain subject area, teachers, parents, and students themselves can use technology to make studying easier and more enjoyable.

Once you have an idea of how you learn and you strengths, here are some programs that may help.  Each link will redirect you to a short video that walksthrough some of the functions of the program and how they may benefit your student.

Smart Ideas and Inspiration are brain storming/mapping software programs that help students with studying and writing.  These programs draw on visual learning.

Premier and Kurweil3000 are reading programs.  Both programs allow students to scan in text books, have them read back to them, create study notes, and even create MP3s of the scanned documents.  Premier has a few more tools, such as word predictor, word processor that reads back your work to you, and a summarizer.  It also has a lower price point.  For this point, I have focused mainly on the Premier software.  Both of these programs support aural learning.

Google Drive, Google Forms, and Google Sites are all part of Google’s version of “Office.”  They are all cloud based and allow for collaboration, revision histories, and strong communication venues for parents and students.  You can truly spend days trying to figure out all the possibilities that the Google suite can offer learning.  This suite focuses on Visual, Aural/Oral (you can dictate text through Google speech), and Reading/Writing.

Prezi is another free program that runs off of the cloud.  Prezi is a presentation alternative that many student prefer.  It is very visual and interactive, focusing on the Kinesthetic and Visual learning.

Now, some of these programs are free to use (Prezi, Google drive, Google forms, Google sites) while others can cost as little as $50 to as much as $3000.  It can’t be expect that every parent will be able to afford such luxuries and as such the government provides programs to increase accessibility to these programs.

IPRC is a program that is used at the primary and secondary levels.  Once a student is formally diagnosed, recommendations are made by a panel ofeducators, psychologists, and parents on which resources will be available for the student to use.  Being informed, parents can advocate for the proper technology so that their students can find the most success.  Often students may be assigned a personal computer along with access to many of these programs.

The Bursary for Students With a Disability (BSWD) is not advertised as well as it should be.  This program is available at the post-secondary level.  Students must report to the schools’  centre for students with a disability and request a form.  They usually are then given an appointment with a councillor to help fill out the information.  They will need a final approval from the councillor, and often the councillor will insist on an updated diagnosis.  The BSWD will cover for various resources up to $15,000 a year (from what I can remember.)  In the past, I have received approval for a video recorder, voice recorder, laptop, desktop, Kurzweil3000, Inspiration, a printer, and a scanner.  Approval is based off of financial (must qualify for OSAP) and educational needs.  Not everyone will get a new computer, however, this program is still something everyone should look into.

These bursaries are great for evening out the educational playing fields.  As teachers continue to adapt to DI, technology allows students to find success without having to wait for teachers to understand their personal needs.  By being informed, educated, and prepared, both students and parents alike will have the necessary tools to advocate for a strong and fair educational program.

As my blogging comes to an end, my work for students with disabilities continues.  I have been and will continue working as an advisor and tutor to many students with disabilities along with my daily work as a teacher.  I encourage any and all parents with any other questions regarding my personal experience, or my professional opinion to tweet me @followmrcasey.


Matt Wachna

(aka Mr. Casey)

Special Policies

I originally had planned a visually-stimulating video-hybrid blog featuring some of the technologies that I have been using, however, something very interesting has started.  Last month, Premiere Wynne declared the dissolution of the provincial government with elections to be held over the summer.  Then the Windsor Star published this article:  Windsor Star Article.

I read the article, and it struck home with me.  There were parts of this article that were real and I have already witnessed the effects on students with special needs.  I want to focus my attention on the topic of students with special needs, so I feel I need to reveal a few things in case I may present a biased view of these subjects.  I personally tend to lean left in policies, as the Windsor Star often leans right.  I work for the WECDSB, and was a student at the GECDSB.  I do not want to campaign or promote political agendas, but only wish to offer my personal insight on how special education teachers can/do help students and the roles they often play in schools.

The Windsor Star reported that:

Provincial funding for special education this year is $2.72 billion or just over 10 per cent of all education funding. However, about 17 per cent of elementary school students and 22 per cent of secondary students receive special education support, according to the survey.

This gap in funding has lead many schools to tough decisions.  Labour contracts restrict things, such as classroom size, and leave opportunities to manage funds in other areas.  One of those areas are the teachers that do not teach a grade-level class; specifically, special education teachers.  Ideally, these teachers work from a classroom where students may come and go as they need to receive help with tests, scribing, reading, assignments, etc.  These classrooms may have 1 or 2 students seeking help to 32 students writing tests, all at one time.  Special education teachers must be very versatile and able to adapt to a varying number of students.  Since these teachers do not teach an actual class, some boards have started to move them around the school.

Computer labs that were once localized to the special education department, may now be moved to a location where school administration may be able to supervise special education students when they need the resources.  The precious work time that special education teachers once had at “slow times” is now removed as some boards are using these teachers to teach French, reading, or other subjects.  Some boards have cut their programs all together, others are dipping into reserve funds to continue to fully fund their programs.  With each board finding their own solution, the article identifies that:

79 per cent of Ontario’s school boards spend more on special education than they get in grants from the Ministry of Education.

As a parent of a student with special needs, this should be a warning bell.  The boards that are continuing to fund their programs may eventually have to adjust their programs, and those that have already reduced their programs, the effects may already be felt.  The boards are still obligated to provide certain accommodations and modifications the Education Act, Bill 82 (for more information on this bill, click here.)

Secondary school programs tend to be more developed as both numbers and percentages are higher in high school then in grade school.  The Windsor Star identifies these numbers as:

The (GECDSB) has identified 2,200 special education students out of 23,000 elementary pupils. In the secondary school population of 11,900, there are 2,087 special education students identified…The WECDSB has 604 identified students and 885 non-identified pupils receiving special education at the secondary school level.  At the elementary level there are 129 identified and 2,328 non-identified students (of 22,000 total enrolled students in the board.)

The increase number in identified students at the secondary level is a reflection of the time lines in identifying those very students.  The striking figure is the increase in percentage of identified students from the elementary to the secondary levels.  As we continue to research special needs, we understand better how to identify students earlier.  As we continue to identify students we will see an increase on demand in special education teachers, with an actual decrease in availability of these teachers.

This is where you, the parent, comes in.  As resources become scarce, more will be demanded of you.  When I was in high school, the number of identified students were much lower, however, I still had a mother that was fighting tooth and nail to get the services that I required.  Today, there are more services available, but many more students that require them as well.  The results of this year’s election, could impact the resources of special education and it is important that parents are prepared to advocate for their students.  Here is a short list of what I have personally found to be successful strategies when advocating for your student:

1.  Keep a log book of everything

This is one of the most important pieces of advice that I could offer.  When I work with parents as an independent special education adviser, I keep a record of everything.  When we contact the school, when the student doesn’t receive proper accommodation, when a student is taught at a modified level, everything.  Teachers do their best to log as much as they can, however, the first shortcoming is often the specialized education component.  When teachers do maintain good records, some may only share them when a student is not completing their work.  Having your own log book empowers you as a parent.

2.  Involve the principal at every turn

Principals are very concerned with their school’s image.  They are in charge of creating a positive learning environment and special education is a huge influence on that image.  You do not need to harass the principal, but get to know her.  Tell her how your student is doing when you see her, ask her if they have any new programs in the works.  Its good to be “friends” with your principal as friends tend to take your side in a fight.

3.  Follow the chain of command, but keep everyone involved

This one follows with the second point.  You need to address the classroom teacher first, then the special education teacher, the department head (if applicable), then the principal.  This does not mean, however, that you cannot CC your ever email to everyone on your team.  By CCing your emails, other teachers and administration may jump in when they notice a problem that you haven’t even seen.  In addition, when the IPRC meeting comes around, everyone is already on the same page with little to no surprises.

4.  Don’t ignore small things

As a parent, you are not trained to know everything about education.  It is never expected of a parent to know what is important and what is not in the world of education.  With this in mind, when you see something wrong, ask about it.  Even if it is as small as your student did not get extra time on their 5 minute quiz worth 3 marks.  The extra time may not be needed, the extra time may have been ignored.  You never know when an underlying problem may begin, so it’s always best to record even the smallest troubles.

5.  Use email

Email, despite claims, is a very legit form of communication.  Each email is time stamped and can even be traced to when the recipient read the email.  Sending email aids you to document your communication.  Phone calls are great for lengthy conversations, and face to face meetings can be even more affective.  When you finish a meeting or call, make sure to send off an email thanking those involved and review what was discussed.  This also gives those other members an opportunity to clear up any conflicting reports you included in your email.

6.  Attend all meetings

Never skip a meeting, because they will continue without you.  IPRC meetings, handover meetings, and parent-teacher meetings are all opportunities for you to advocate for your child.  Should you miss those meetings, decisions will be made without you.  If you are unfamiliar or not confident with what to do, you can always bring in your own adviser.  Advise the principal that you wish to have an adviser with you and use that adviser to your benefit.  Advisers should have an AQ in special education along with first hand experience with the IPRC.

7.  File assessments

Keep a folder with all your student’s assessments.  You never know when there may be an issue with how or what your student is being taught.  Again, this is just another step in maintaining your documentation in case of an issue later on.

8.  Share your concerns and hunches

Parents are not educators, however, they know their child better than anyone.  When you notice anything, or feel like something is wrong, tell someone.  It may be nothing, but it may also help teachers consider new ideas or observe strange behaviour at school.

9.  Get a second opinion

Sometimes teachers can be a bit more human than we’d like them to be.  When a teacher makes a mistake, they may try to brush it off as nothing, or they may make the wrong choice for your student.  There is nothing wrong with asking another teacher, another student, or even using a great resource such as the LDAWE.  It’s just like using the internet in that you can’t just take everything at face value.  Sometimes, you need a second opinion to confirm your findings.  A second perspective may even reveal something that neither the parent nor the educator considered.

10. Keep your student involved

Finally, your student’s involvement.  Students that are involved with their own meetings, with the entire process, will not only be more interested in their personal success, but will more likely report when things are not going on according to plan.  Parents (especially those parents of multiple children) are very busy, and it can be difficult to play detective with what is going on at school.  By keeping your student involved in as much of the IPRC process as possible, they will know exactly what and why to report in relation to their accommodations and modifications.

With every provincial election that passes, new education policies are quickly followed.  They are not always as obvious as some changes, while others will jump up on you without notice.  By preparing yourself to meet these new policies, you will help to ensure that your students are receiving the accommodations and modifications that they are legally entitled to.

This summer, no matter what your choice, make sure your voice is heard!

Lazy Answers

Leaving the principal’s office, Steven looks at his new schedule; it all looks the same, sauf the second period class.  Steven was in his second week of school and had to be removed from his French class as the class reached its maximum numbers.  He didn’t think this would be that big of a deal, the only thing that changed was his classroom.  In fact, the new classroom was literally right below the old one.  Steven wondered as he wandered, “how will this change affect me?”  He decided it wouldn’t, it was a simple change, a singular variable.  The teacher was great (he heard that it was Mr. Casey 😉  ,)  and half his class was moved to this new room as well.

As the days start to pass, Mr. Casey notices that Steven has been late every day for class.  “What is wrong with this kid?!  Does he not like my class?  This is second period, how is he late when he’s been in school since 830a?,” Mr. Casey ponders frustratingly.  He follows the same basic routine as other teachers, that is, he asks Steven why he’s always late, calls home, assigns detentions; nothing seems to help.  When asked, Steven explains that “I try my very best to get here.  I promise, there’s just not enough time to get here.”

Finally, Mr. Casey decides he would investigate, hoping to catch Steven trying to grab a smoke between classes or something.  He checks with the office to get his period 1 class.  Steven’s classroom is surprisingly not far from his previous French classroom –just a couple doors down.  He waits in hiding as the period 1 bell rings.  Covertly, Mr. Casey follows Steven as he leaves his classroom.  Steven takes a quick right, which surprises Mr. Casey a little as the nearest staircase was a stone’s throw to the left.  Nonetheless, a simple detour to the main staircase should not make him late for class.  Mr. Casey continues to pursue as he starts making mental notes on how Steven can cut his travel time to class down.  Steven makes his way down to his locker, and again, Mr. Casey is shocked to find Steven’s lockers is steps away from his classroom door.  Steven switches out his books, shuts his locker, and heads back towards the main entrance of the school.  “Ah-HA!,” Mr. Casey mentally shouts.  “This is it!,” he thought, “Steven’s heading back to the entrance to get his smoke or something.  I knew it, I’ve got him!”  Mr. Casey follows Steven to the front doors with a sense of pride and excitement as a detective would walk on his way to the courthouse after making the plot turning discovery.  Then, Steven does something Mr. Casey would have never guessed, Steven didn’t leave the school.  Steven wasn’t smoking, doing drugs, selling smack, running tricks, or playing Pogs.  He turned to the staircase and walked back upstairs.  Puzzled, Mr. Casey followed Steven with caution.  Steven walked past his previous period’s class, past his old french room, and then down the north staircase.  “What?!,” Mr. Casey tried to deduce the rationality behind what he had just saw.  He hollered down the stairs to Steven.  Catching up with Steven, he asks “Steven, where are you going?!”

Steven, puzzled, replies “…to class…?”

“Where did you go, before class?

“…to my locker…?”

“Why did you go back upstairs?”

“…because I had to go to class…?”

“But your classroom and locker are both downstairs, why go back upstairs?”


Steven shrugs his shoulders and starts to search the floor for an answer with a math-induced puzzled expression on his face.  “I don’t know.  That’s how I’ve always got to class.”  Steven was right, it was.  The principal had taken special care to make sure Steven understood the class change, as she knew he had a disability and was not good with change.  She only told him, however, about the classroom change.  Steven never learned that his pathway to his locker would now change.  Mr. Casey started to see this pattern of behaviour unfold in front of him.  He would spend the next few days helping Steven change his routine to avoid walking all around the school to get his new classroom.

Everyday life situations can be very stressful for people with disabilities.  Whether it be someone with a wheelchair being unable to visit his new friend’s house because he can’t get his chair up to the front door, or someone with autism having to brush their teeth with a blue tooth brush instead of a pink one, barriers exist.  Steven’s obvious conflict with his chosen pathway was formulated from past behaviours that never changed.  Routines are one of the most important goals for success with many people that have disabilities.  Routines help us to overcome barriers consistently/automatically, to avoid forgetting things, or to just create a safe place for ourselves.  These routines, when left unchecked, can create some conflict.  In Steven’s example, his routine was a good habit prior to his classroom change, but became a bad habit once his situation changed.  His old habit was no longer accomplishing what it needed to (that is, getting Steven to class on time with all his books.)

My own life has seen many similar situations turn up.  We all will deal with change to our routines in different ways, depending on who we are.  Myself, I see change, I understand it, I just don’t like to adapt to it.  When I find a successful routine, I strive everyday to maintain my routine, tooth and nail.  When a variable changes, I get upset and frustrated.  No matter the situation, no matter how big, nor how small, it physically disturbs me.  I need that “Mr. Casey” to come and help me out of my “rut.”  My parents tried to be that help when I was young, but struck with a lack of information, they never cracked my code.

The most challenging part of these routine changes, is that they happened all the time.  It wasn’t the big, life altering changes that drove me nuts, but the little unimportant ones.  When I graduated high school, I was more disturbed with having to go back for a 6th year than I was when I finally started university.  I spend 5 years understanding and preparing to move on past high school, but a 6th year was a change to my plans more than actual university.  When my brother started high school at another school, I had to change my morning routines as my ride left earlier; still not that big of a problem.  My mom had the day off one day, and it was the end of the world for me.  Despite the fact that nothing was actually hindering my morning routine directly, having my mom home was enough of a change that I would shut down that morning and be unable to function properly.  Now that I think of it, this explains plenty why my mother and I were always at each others throats’ those mornings.  Man, change sucks!

But change is necessary.  Years later, and many research projects ago, I learned how these routines affect my life.  Today, I am able to articulate, understand, even predict when these changes will disturb my life.  My wife is my rock.  Don’t get me wrong, she absolutely hates how “stubborn” and “obsessed” I get with small things, but she understands me.  I’ve told her plenty of times why I can react like I do, and she helps me to relax and adjust.  I never use my disabilities as an excuse for bad behaviour, but I do use it to understand my behaviours.  When I start to get upset about a change, my wife is great at walking me through things.  She knows that just explaining the changes and how they will affect/ not change my life at all is enough to calm me down.  My wife isn’t a psychologist, therapist, mother, or has ever dealt with people that have disabilities.  She has come from a place where it’s accepted to see people with a disability as burdens to society, rather than individuals that succeed differently (we are all changing our views on disabilities everyday, only some places adjust at different tempos.)  For the record, since having moved here, and understanding more about me, her opinions have greatly changed.

The point being (sorry, stray tangent,) you don’t need a fancy degree or life experience to be a helping hand to someone.  We do it everyday for our friends.  We see our BFF sitting in the hallway crying about being dumped or cheated on by his GF, and we sit down with them, console them, and try to get them back on their feet.  The challenge is that people with a disabilities are different.  We need different help, and many of us do not know how to help.  Most of the time, it just takes some investigative work.  My favourite example is the “lazy” student.  A student doesn’t finish his work, many teachers say he’s “lazy.”  When you do some investigation, it turns out that reading about some love story that happened 40 years ago is not only extremely unmotivating for a teenage boy, but when you also have problems reading you’ll never get to the point where you can complete your work.  “Lazy” is an excuse to not care, as are many other words that allow us to say, “I’ve done all that I can.”

If you have a child with a disability, I’m sure that you can identify the conflicts and struggles that come with it.  If you have a disability, I’m sure that you know you struggle, as did I.  We all need to take some time to do some investigation.  Our society has become better and better at doing this, yet often we continue to avoid finding answers.  Organizations like the LDAO and developing programs in our local school systems are there to help.  Ask your teacher for resources, ask your principal, your student services teacher, call the LDAO, anything.  When you are at your witt’s end with a teenager that has a disability, whether it be socially, behaviourly, or academically, sublimate your own stress and find an answer.  You’ll make your life easier, the life of others around you easier, and you’ll find that understanding someone leads to success.  I found it in my life, I see it everyday as a teacher.

Climbing down mountains


Today marks my 8th blog post; I want to start working up to something different for my 10th post.  I am well aware of habits and routines, and how a routine becomes a habit.  Each of my posts have been written once a couple days before my post, then almost entirely rewritten the morning I post.  Each of my posts have featured a picture of some sorts and about 1000 words (wow, that’s already 8000 words, mainly about myself.)

When I applied to be an author for this post, I offered my perspective as a person with AD(H)D and a teacher.  As I can recall, the majority of my family’s struggles were related to school.  I never had any issues with sports, friendships (when I was young) were never difficult, and I did help out around the house about as much as any other kid.  I can remember the fights, the tears, and the pains from bringing home notes, report cards, and calls home from school.  They have been such a part of my mother’s life that she retells the stories like an old war veteran, rocking on her front porch chair.

I’ve already shared many of the stories with you; the non-existent support, the overly intimidating IPRC meetings, the time I did get support, etc.  What I didn’t tell you is the problems other parents face.  I write these blogs every day from my own perspective, my own life, my own problems.  Solutions that I have brought forward are not universal, they may not even be transferable; it’s just a perspective.

This brings me to my topic de jour.  Although we are all different, and we each bring with us our own strengths and weaknesses, there are some universal solutions we can, will, and do adopt.  During my years as a student of our province’s educational system, some of these solutions were only in their infancy, others were not even a twinkle in the ministry’s eye.  

First, and most importantly, is differential instruction.  This idea is so simple, yet so oddly new that education systems in the United States are only now beginning to adopt it.  Differential instruction is using a variety of teaching and evaluation methods based off of the concept that every student learns differently.  This idea was only accidentally used when I was in school, and before that, teachers were taught how to deliver instruction in almost a militant form.  By using DI, students are able to learn the way that best suits them, and demonstrate their knowledge in their strongest form.  For some students, reading is easier as a learning tool, while others learn better with open discussions.  When it comes to evaluations, you may find that one student can show her knowledge better on paper, than in practice.  DI is all about finding the best in the student, not the comfort zone of the teacher.

For the students that require more than DI (or teachers that do not use DI), we now inact individual education plans (IEP.)  This program is fairly new as it did not exist when I was in school.  IEPs are created when students are struggling to perform but do not have a formal diagnosis.  This is very useful in cases where students may either not have an identifiable disability or there is a large wait time for a formal psychological evaluation.  They may include some alternate forms of evaluation, or accommodations; some may include, using a computer instead of handwriting tests, have a scriber in class, and relearning past curriculum.  The latter seems to be one of the most alarming for parents, as I will discuss.

The Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC) is very similar to the IEP with a few additional doors that open.  Where DI is implemented by the teacher by choice, and an IEP mandates that teacher to use DI, an IPRC identification is a legal mandate to the board and teacher that they must use DI to accommodate a student.  I currently provide tutoring and advising services for parents that have students that learn differently, and as part of that position, I always recommend that parents pursue IPRC whenever possible.  With a formal IPRC identification, students are allowed extra personal resources that may not have been available before.  Unfortunately, many parents with these students are told that there is an exhaustive wait period before their students may receive a psychological assessment.  For some parents, this process may accelerated with a private psychological assessment.  Such assessments may cost more than $1500 and a full day of school/work; a cost that for many parents that is just too much to bear.

Within all of these acronyms and edu-babble, it all unfortunately boils down to the parent.  A parent that is well informed and involved will almost always find success with their student.  There are many teachers out there that work hard, and will ensure that every student is taught with DI.  But when things don’t go right, parents are always the first line of defense.  My parents were there for me, and my siblings, and we all made it through each finding their own success.  I advise many parents that are met with struggles, but find solutions with efficiency.  

As with being the strongest defense for their students, parents can also be the obstacle too.  Often parents are given unwanted advice and do not take the time to learn what it all means; such as medication, therapy, identification, or modification of curriculum.  When a parent hears about modification, they may think that their student is going to be pushed back a grade or two.  In reality, modification means that a student may learn grade 5 math, rather than grade 8, however, this is likely because the student has no knowledge of grade 5 math curriculum.  By continuing to push students in grade 8 math, those students that need to learn earlier math will continue to fail.

And in the end, the most important thing for a student to be successful in school, is confidence as a learner.  A student that brings home level 4+ in grade 5 math is much more likely to feel better about themselves than a student bringing home 1- and Rs in grade 8 math.  With the proper modifications and accommodations, along with some tutoring, those students can quickly catch up to their peers while building their confidence as a learner.

I can remember exactly when and how I started to fall behind in school.  I also remember when and how I regained confidence in myself as a learner.  For me, it was my 6th year in high school, and it happened the same year I was given the proper support I needed.  So, for the parents out there fighting, keep fighting; when you finally win that battle it will make a difference.  For those parents that feel lost, talk to someone, read some articles, and pick up a phone.  Communication with the school is always the first step, and knowing that you’re reading this blog, you’ve already started your research.  We’re all different, and it’s by understanding how we are different that we find our success.


The Advantages of AD(H)D

During my studies at the Faculty of Education (formerly, teachers’ college,) I watched a video about AD(H)D that stuck with me.  It wasn’t a very interesting video, no special CGIs, nor any fun music.  This was a video that, much like many other “educational films,” was likely produced in the 80s or 90s.  The picture was old, the sound muffled, and the clothing out of style; how anyone else would remember this video from the other hoards of brain-eating educational monsters is beyond me –but I did.  It was a simple spoken sentence that made me think.  A straight-edged, take-no-nonesense suit, with dark, moosed hair parted on the side, looked at the camera and explained that people with attention deficit do not have a deficit of attention at all, but rather too much attention to everything.

It’s true.  I can’t remember how many times I’ve had my mind on a million things at once.  My mind then started to focus on that one sentence and what it meant to me.  I started to think of all the times that I’ve multi-tasked, or have seen things others don’t notice.  I remembered the times when I became overly focused, almost obsessed with one thing.  I was looking at AD(H)D wrong the whole time.  I can pay attention, I just struggle with focusing my attention.  Why didn’t they coin it FD(H)D?

With just that one class, I began to reinvent how I approached my AD(H)D.  I saw it more as a super power than a limitation.  I began to notice how my mind has been using it all along.  When I drive, I’m never just watching the car in front of me.  I’ve got an eye on the car slowing down in front of him, the speeding passer approaching from my left, the pedestrian about to jaywalk, the blinking hand telling me that my green light is about to turn, and train that is about to cross in the distance.  I see my path clearly and quickly.  I hit the gas to get out before the car on my left passes me, honk my horn at the pedestrian to stop their would be jaywalking, make it through the light, signal to pass the slowing car, and make my right turn so that I may cross the trains path on the overpass as to avoid the delay.  After having got myself out of a would-be jam, I’m now upset because I heard over the radio that my team just gave up a goal as I was passing that slow car.

In basketball I used my mind to drive the ball.  I’d dribble up the court, weaving around my opponents until the moment where I see a trap being set under the hoop, so I drop a no-look pass to my teammate as they cut in from behind me.  My mind allows me to track all the players on the court with ease.

AD(H)D and many other disabilities do not need to be seen as a disadvantage.  If we look at each disability with an open mind, we can begin to see how we can use our abilities instead of limiting ourselves and others.  Now knowing the abilities (or super powers, if you will) of someone with AD(H)D, I know just how I want to use them.  Maybe I should feature them in a play, as acting requires attention to the entire scene, not just the person they are speaking to.  Maybe I should teach them to conduct an orchestra so that they may focus on every part being played.  Maybe I need to give them roles as supervisors, able to monitor large groups to ensure that everyone is on task.

I grew up in an educational system that was just starting to evolve.  Teachers were still handing me books, and forcing me to read rather than allowing me to explore my text book.  I would often read ahead to the more interesting parts of my history text book.  This drove my teacher mad.  She would insist that I learn what everyone else is learning, despite how horribly boring it may be.  I would fail her class; years later I would, however, go back and learn what she wanted me to after learning about how it related to more interesting parts of history.

I encourage my students to work at their own pace.  I tell the students what they are responsible for learning, and let them chose which chapter to start on.  Sometimes I let students share work; one student studies chapter 1, the other chapter 2, then they give each other the answers to the chapter questions.  Many students (and teachers) would consider this cheating, I find that it actually encourages students to ask questions about clarification and understanding; questions that lead to a deeper understanding.

In my work as a supply teacher, I was called in one day to teach an English class.  This class was reading Percy Jackson and the lightning thief on computers.  Each were at different parts, some were even reading just the paper book itself.  I opened one of the paper books, and read a part of the final battle, which I leave you with:

My senses were working overtime. I now understood what Annabeth had said about ADHD keeping you alive in battle. I was wide awake, noticing every little detail.

I could see where Ares was tensing. I could tell which way he would strike. At the same time, I was aware of Annabeth and Grover, thirty feet to my left. I saw a second cop car pulling up, siren wailing.
Spectators, people who had been wandering the streets because of the earthquake, were starting to gather. Among the crowd, I thought I saw a few who were walking with the strange, trotting gait of
disguised satyrs. There were shimmering forms of spirits, too, as if the dead had risen from Hades to watch the battle. I heard the flap of leathery wings circling somewhere above.

Throwing the bottle away


At some point in every infants life, they toss their bottle.  Of course, what do parents first do?  They pick it up and give it right back; never asking why they are throwing it away.  Eventually, it must occur to parents (I’m not yet a parent, so I’m sure there’s still much for me to learn) it’s time to take the bottle away.  Later in my life, I had to make a similar decision without the assistance of my parents this time.  I was finding that medication was starting to alter my behaviours in ways that were actually hindering my abilities.  I was less ambitious, socially exciting, and active.  I was finding that some days I just did not want to take my meds and some days I needed them to study for a test.  I knew I couldn’t keep up a charade of randomly taking my meds; that;s how I start to forget to take them.  If I forget to take them when I need them, it could really mess my day up as I’ve become, in a way, dependent of their effects to function.

I was 22 when I first started this dialogue with myself.  It had been 3 years since my drug concerns; I’ve molded modeled my study habits to complete high school, and my first year of studies (away from home.)  I dealt with, successfully, moving through 3 different schools; high school, university of Guelph, and the university of Windsor.  It was really the University of Windsor part that told me I was ready to start moving on from meds.  I successfully completed my first year of Drama in Education, but found that I wasn’t ready for the workload.  I still wanted to have fun, to party, and I wasn’t ready to do the amount of work required for this program (the first year introduction class greeted me with a 100-page final paper.)  I took a look forward in my life and decided I wanted to study an easier degree and then return to finish my program.  I move to London and attended University of Western Ontario for a B.A. in sociology.  It was a bold move, but I wouldn’t be where I am without it.  Had I not gone, I likely would have ended up dropping out of school and failing to move on in life.

While in London, I had a very easy schedule, academically.  I usually took only 4 courses, and I was really strong in social sciences, thus the classes came naturally to me.  The lighter class schedule allowed me to focus my attention to other components of my life, starting with accommodations at university.  It took me good couple of weeks to track down the right people and to advocate for myself, but eventually I was greeted with great accommodations.  The government (through the bursary for students with a disability) purchased me a new laptop, the university supplied me with extra exam writing time when I needed it, and the university also advocated for me when I needed it.  The last part was the bridge I needed.  They university supplied a letter explaining that I was granted certain accommodations, one was that any overheads and powerpoints were to be provided to me on paper or electronically so that I did not have to copy.  I was also allowed to voice record any lectures, a tool that I never found useful other than in one particular class.  My Survey of Sociological Theories class had a really good prof teaching it, but he was also very reluctant to support me.  It didn’t seem that he just didn’t believe that I needed it, but that he had his own agenda that I was disrupting.  He loved overheads, and I hated them.  I asked for paper copies, and I asked to record his class.  He was shocked-white.  He told me he would get back to me, and I gave him my letter.  The next class he came back and offered me the paper copies of his notes, in exchange I don’t record the class–now in any other situation, a student shouldn’t take a compromise if they need their accommodations, but I didn’t need the voice recording.  I was an easy victory as I got the notes I needed and aced the course.  I even received my first A on an essay, ever!

Learning to advocate and take responsibility for my own education was the first step to weaning myself off of the bottle.  The next part was learning to organize my time.  These steps were unknown to me at the time, but thankfully, life kind of just challenged me the way I needed to be challenged.  I quickly found that OSAP would not be enough for me to live in London and was afraid of having to quit school halfway-through.  I was not ready to do this, so I took a job as a part-time security officer.  I worked many concerts back stage, including ZZ top and Meat Loaf, but most often would have to work midnights.  The schedule was non-existent.  I would often be called the day of and would have to arrange transportation to and from work.  It was a challenge for sure.  It started to take a toll at school as I would skip classes and avoid studying.  When my school started to suffer, I realized that this was a problem.  I started to look for a job with more stability, and stumbled across a tech support job.  One of my best friends (quick fact: 5 out of 7 people in the groom’s party at my wedding had AD(H)D,) introduced me to the job.  It was great because I was given my schedule in advance, and later was offered a standard 8p-2a M-F schedule.  The job gave me a chance to study and complete assignments during downtime, and gave me the stability I needed.  This meant I was rarely home.  I would have classes from 8a-3p, come home, nap, cook, and go to work.

I learned quickly how to save time.  I would cook big dinners on Sundays and Wednesdays which were my easy schedule days, and cook enough for 10 people.  The leftovers were my meals for the rest of the week.  I would do grocery shopping on my way home from school at lunch on Tuesdays.  On Fridays, I would do laundry as I only had one class.  As these habits started to form, I realized that I was at my best when the basic, mundane parts of my life were habits.  Habits quickly became routines and required very little thought.  By not having to think, my mind was freed to focus on other things in my life.

I found that when I followed my routines, I was doing really well in school and didn’t require my meds.  My anxiety levels were lowered, my attention was easier to control, and I was happier.  I quickly learned, however, that when these routines became disrupted, my anxiety levels were through the roof.  I still am working on the anxiety part today; but I realized that this was who I was.  I looked back at my childhood and saw that I was at my best when I was busy with routines.  

I started to form routines everywhere in my life.  When I wake up in the morning, I would eat breakfast, watch the same morning show, then shower, get dressed, and brush my teeth.  It sounds simple, nothing anyone else doesn’t do, but its the days when I’m out of toothpaste, or my show isn’t on that dictates the importance of order.  If I finished breakfast and the shower was being used, I would fall apart.  I wouldn’t know what to do, and rather than brush my teeth, I would just sit and watch more TV until the shower was free.  I had to keep my schedule.  If I ran out of toothpaste and had to go to the store, I would be late or miss school.  I could not adapt.

Finding success without my meds was a combination of understanding how I function best, and creating routines that plays to my strengths.  Even when I selected my courses, I knew that I did not like to do repetitive work like in math and science, thus I steered clear of those subjects as much as possible.  I knew I loved leadership roles, so I would always join weaker groups.  I knew I was a social learner, so I was the first to volunteer to present (it got me out of the ugly written work.)

It didn’t happen over night, but I kept the med bottle full, and ready, for over 3 years.  When there was a major test, when my day was thrown out of schedule, I would take my meds.  I eventually learned my own coping strategies to deal with my anxiety.  Even to this day, I’m still learning how to express why I get irritable with somethings.  Recently, I learned why I hate shopping with my wife so much.  I was getting almost claustrophobic in stores waiting for her to pick out a pair of shoes.  It was my anxiety and loss of control.  My wife and I work our best to solve these issues; sometimes its as easy as bringing my tablet along to play games on.  It’s going to be a life long process, but every day I’m getting better at it.  I haven’t taken my meds for 8 years now.  This November, I successfully finished a long term assignment and coached cross country at one school, coached basketball at another school, and tutored 3 different students.  I think I’m finding my own success without my meds.

To medicate, or not to medicate…

Many parents of children with AD(H)D have come across this question.  There seems to be a mix of research and myths that surround this issue that often make this choice very difficult to make.  My mother was a nurse in Detroit, and thus had access to multiple doctor opinions.  Those opinions, however, were limited in their usefulness as each situation, each child, each family, is different.

My childhood had a resume of drugs that I was taking (and not taking) that resembled a purchase order from a small pharmacy: Ritalin, Dexedrine, Aderall, and Concerta.  Each coming in different release times, dosages, and form.  The controlled substances had many side effects, some listed, some unlisted.  The listed side effects were pretty standard: loss of appetite, mood swings, loss of sleep, and anxiety.  The ones that were never mentioned ended up being the most challenging to me and my family.

I can remember the first time I was called down to the office.  The secretary paged my class and asked me to come down to the office.  I got to the office, took my (at the time we were flopping between Ritalin and Dexedrine, but I’m not sure which one I started with) medication and returned to class.  Of course, as any teacher and student would tell you, the first thing my peers would do is ask me why I was called down to the office.  I was in grade 4, I don’t even remember what made up answer I gave them; I knew I didn’t want people to know I was “disabled” (back in the early 90s, this was how I was labelled.)

I quickly told my parents how uncomfortable I was with being paged down.  I told them that I felt embarrassed and didn’t like having to answer those same questions every day.  A solution was presented; I would simply go down to the office under my own power as soon as lunch started.  We didn’t know this at the time, but we now know that I have a memory disability as well.  We did know, however, that I was a grade 4 student with AD(H)D.  It was very easy for me to get distracted with something else, or to simply forget to go down –I was 9.  So obviously, my parents and teachers got upset with me.  I once read a journal article that explained how AD(H)D did not cause stressed relationships and interactions at home and school, but provided an opportunity for a catalyst for a negative situation.  Stress at home is caused mainly by how people chose to react to this catalyst, and this was a perfect example.  Looking back now, we can see that we needed a better solution then to rely on they child to make sure to take their stay-focused-medication.

Another catalyst came up when my parents found out that I was not eating my lunch.  I ate huge breakfasts prior to taking my medication, and huge dinners when my medication was wearing off.  We never did find a working solution to that, I just learned to hate lunch all throughout school.

Medication was always a hot topic at my house.  I was on one med, my other brother was on a different dose, and later, my youngest brother would also be on it.  It was another negative catalyst that my parents did eventually figure out, but it took time.  It was one of those side effects that don’t appear on a bottle, but definitely should.  “CAUTION, MAY CAUSE PARENTS TO USE MEDICATION AS A CRUTCH, BAND AID, AND FIX-ALL-DUCT-TAPE.”

Yes, my parents would do just that.  If I forgot my books at school, they would ask: “did you take your medication today?”  It was the go to question for everything I did wrong.  As an adult, I now understand why they were asking, however, as a child, it made me mad and made me feel that my parents were trying to drug me to solve their parenting problems, rather than to address the problems themselves.  I started to rebel against medication, refusing to take it, and sometimes cheeking my meds until I could spit them out.  My parents would find them in the garbage and were now having to deal with accessible meds to an infant (my younger sister.)  This was probably the biggest negative catalyst, and it took my parents years to figure out how to address it.

As I grew older, more mature, and switched to a less obsolete medication, I started to take my meds more often.  Sometimes, a little too often.  I started to get into drugs when I was in high school, but at the same time, I started to compete in swimming meets.  I still to this day, have no clue what made me initially start this, but I did, nonetheless, start to take 2 to 4 times my dose.  I found that with higher doses, my mind became more alert, my muscles became quicker, and I had much more energy.  I would dose myself an hour before a swim meet, looking for a little bit of an edge.  It was wrong, it was dangerous, and worst of all, no one knew.

Medication for AD(H)D is a big choice.  You are dealing with a drug that is a controlled substance, that can be sold on the street, and that has many side effects.  From my experience I believe that the biggest question is not whether or not the medication will negatively affect your child, but rather how ready are you to help your child to use this medication as an aid.  After all, medication is not a solution, but merely another strategy to help your child adjust positively to having AD(H)D.  Can you think “big picture?”  Will your child take this medication for the rest of their life, or do you have an end game?