A, B, C, D and F

“I, myself, was always recognized . . . as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was . . . an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.”
~Agatha Christie

“I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”
~Sir Winston Churchill

How bad does it have to get?

At what point does a student’s difficulties with schoolwork demonstrate that they are having significant problems, and therefore need help?

Should a student have to fail classes before someone realizes or decides that there is a problem?

Why do we rely on failing – or near-failing – to signal academic difficulties? By the time a student has slid that perilously low in achievement, they have been struggling for a long while, and are getting further and further behind, thus making it even more difficult to catch up and succeed.

Furthermore, all that time spent struggling and generally not understanding why they are having problems, only creates even greater frustration. Stress doesn’t always push students to rally and succeed – too much stress rather, just serves to flatten their spirits.

Being told (directly or indirectly by all sorts of adults and peers) that they are simply “lazy” or “not trying hard enough” or “stupid” or whatever, only serves to further mangle the esteem and create greater frustration. It’s a recipe for depression, for withdrawal, and/or for acting out.

Bright students apply their natural intelligence and create coping strategies around their various difficulties. Oft times this is an unconscious process; it’s sheer adaptation to the world because they are expected to be able to do what everyone else does, and because in many ways, they have to approach tasks differently.

But coping strategies can only compensate so far. When the student is tired, or is sick, or is overwhelmed by other events in life, or is having to spread not enough compensation over too much difficulty, it breaks down. And then the student “suddenly” can’t do what they’ve always been able to do. Teachers, parents and others can’t understand why the student isn’t performing well. It’s easy to make those dread attribution errors: “You just need to focus. You just need to try harder. You just need to pay attention.”

For the student, sometimes they can’t even understand how or why it is that they can do things some days, but not others. Or why they can only sometimes do things well. It seems irrational. It’s easy for the frustrated student to make attribution errors of their own: “The teacher hates me. The work is too hard. The subject is just stupid.”

Students who are both very bright and have learning disabilities or learning difficulties or even marked learning style differences, face a terrible Catch-22. For years they will get by on sheer brains, compensating for their problems in ingenious ways. But eventually the complexity of the subject materials, the increasingly higher taxonomic levels of assessment, and the increasing study load all combine to bog down the effort. (The distractions of adolescence certainly don’t help, either!)

These “twice-exceptional” students may do well, but struggle to achieve what they could do. The learning problems, which affect both the acquisition and demonstration of knowledge, can cancel out the exceptional qualities. What everyone sees, instead of a bright student with learning problems, is just an ordinary student with erratic and scattered abilities.

Once someone finally cues into the fact that there is a problem, it’s the disparity between ability and achievement in test results where the learning problems are diagnosed. But even before that, it’s the erratic results in the grades (even in the same subject!) and the uneven scatter of abilities that should send up flags.

It’s not uncommon for students with learning disabilities to be uneven — the “easy” things may be difficult (such as taking 4+ years to learn multiplication tables) and the more advanced stuff may be easy (e.g. physics or calculus concepts). If people insist that the student “master” the preliminary steps before they can move on, the student will be bored and not reach their academic potential. Bored students can act up, either withdrawing, being class clown to get attention, or getting frustrated and angry.

Even after testing, there can be confusion all around. None of the test results may show a severe problem of any one kind. But we have to remember that problems are cumulative. On good days, various problems may merely be additive; on bad days they can be multiplicative. So a student with some ADHD organizational problems and some Auditory Processing Disorder problems and some Asperger’s socialization problems and some difficulties in reading and some periodic tics and some depression and occasional migraines … doesn’t have any “major” problems. But what that student does have is a major conglomeration of interacting problems. It’s no one thing – it’s everything!

One school person said this student didn’t need an IEP because they were “coping so well”. Drr? the last report card ran the entire gamut of the alphabet, from A through F.

Yeah, right.

How bad does it have to get?



  1. 20 October 2012 at 6:06

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  2. michelle said,

    23 January 2012 at 17:39

    Andrea…I am in tears reading your A, B, C, D, and F. I am requesting your permission to print this and show school when I request a 504. And possibly show my son’s teachers so they understand him. This is my 11 yo son!! I have been reaching out to school since 2nd grade. Tutors, basic skills testing etc. Now he gets tutored by the principle. 504 inquiry etc…Took him 5 hours to do a 15 sentence research paper last night in which he forgot his book at school as usual and I called him lazy. Yes he does not know his X tables but knows all his 30 football plays. Spelling is terrible, temper tantrums in frustration, Writes like a kindergartener plus many more. Just made a CAP appt for next week.

  3. Tanyr said,

    30 September 2011 at 21:22

    THANK YOU, Shannon…very much! I’m going to look into it! I’m thankful that through sports that my son plays/husband coaches, I know the Guidance Counselor pretty well.. I’ve put a call into her in hopes of getting the info needed to go forth and get the ball rolling! Also, Colby’s 1st grade reading teacher and I spoke last night re: CPAD….that is how I began researching it today! I had looked up and read up on other “differences” but not this particular one yet.. I was concentrating on possible Dyslexia. (I do believe now that it is CPAD) I can TOTALLY relate with you regarding the frustrations being part of the family! That has been the case with us too! It is just SO upsetting to me and as with you I have also realized some things that I am doing wrong..(more so with the way I have handled situations with him… :( .. ) Thanks again and I hope this message isn’t too scrambled…I’ve just been typing along.. ;)

    Tanyr :)

    • andrea said,

      2 October 2011 at 2:35

      Hang in there! And thank you for believing in yourselves and your children.


  4. Shannon Jones said,

    30 September 2011 at 19:01

    For Tanyr: My daughter is 8 and I feel your pain. I am learning that we have to advocate for them continuously, because we know how smart they are and how much potential they have. My school system is satisfied if Emily makes Ds, but I know she can do so much better if they would give her the concessions she needs. If you haven’t done so, find an Exceptional Children’s Advocate in your state. They can help you get the school system do more for Colby. :)

  5. Tanyr said,

    30 September 2011 at 17:07

    Hi.. My name is Tanyr and I am the mother of an 8 yr. old boy..(Colby) I am at the very beginning stages in researching CPAD. Colby repeated K and is now in the 2nd. grade still struggling. My heart hurts SO much because I see the confidence he is lacking when it comes to school. As far as sports…(football, baseball, basketball) he is one of the BEST on the field or court! Thank you SO much for this blog!! I want to do all the right things and get this under control NOW because he is SUCH a smart boy! :(

  6. Shannon Jones said,

    29 September 2011 at 16:52

    Oh my! Thank you so much for this blog! I have an 8 year old with APD and info is soooo hard to find! Finding websites like this have been my biggest resource so far. Frustration has been like a sixth family member for us, but hopefully I can start helping Emily (my daughter) more now. This particular blog about “how bad does it have to get?” is dead on accurate. Emily’s school refuses to give her an IEP even though she is 2 years behind according to test results. I’m gonna fight though! After reading a couple of your blogs, I realized some things I am doing wrong, too, so thanks again!


  7. 1 August 2011 at 23:45

    Oh yeah, this is my place! I was diagnosed with ADD at age 40, undiagnosed sensory processing disorder, probably some auditory processing disorder. I often feel like a hypochondriac, finding several disorders, each describing another aspect of my difficulties.
    But so many things I’ve read on this blog (and its replies) articulate my own experiences so well. The high intellect but average performance in academics, ie: not living up to my potential. The pain and frustration of not knowing what the hell was wrong with me. The strong drive to prove I AM smart, the insecurities that perhaps I am not after all. The teasing from classmates, the puzzled teachers, the “Try harder” advice, the procrastination habits and failures. Disappointing parents, friends, bosses, etc. Jobs that ended badly, due to memory problems, or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person because I’m “slow on the uptake.” Or just plain, I was too slow. Too slow, toooooo slooooow!
    I have some relief from seeing I am not alone, and that I am normal–for someone with these disorders.
    But after the first relief and hope that came with the diagnosis, a crushing realization fell because not much can be changed. It can’t be cured or turned off or made harmless.
    Lucky me. My lucky husband, my lucky kids.
    And now I fight for my kids.
    I see them having struggles, but I already ran into dismissal from the pediatrician, stating my laundry list of Sensory and ADD symptoms were merely discipline problems, you know, my fault again. I am not disciplining up to my potential, ha ha.
    Thanks for your openness, I will keep reading.

  8. 4 April 2011 at 6:50

    I was 22 when I was diagnosed with APD. I failed a lot of classes in my years. It too took me twice as long understand and I often approached everything backwards. Overall, I found college easier than the proceeding years of education. However, my last experience with higher education was heartbreaking and had devastating consequences. (I am over 40 now). I wanted to be college professor. I dreamed about it when even my family said I was too stupid and they were also dead set against me going to college. It took me eight years to get a BA in Mathematics and Religious Studies with a three semester break for mental and physical exhaustion. (This story probably reads like sentence salad). My last education encounter resulted in 18 completed graduate credits (in theology) and 9 failed credits plus the thesis I never finished. The consequence was near fatal depression and 70,000 dollars of default student loans and no real job skills to pay it off. The collection fees and interest on this debt at the end of 2010 topped 200,000. I have paid about 15,000 thus far.

    When I was a child, I thought that the only reason I wasn’t a 4.0 student was that my peers knew some system. It felt like the knowledge was present just on the other side of a wall. And I would approach that wall till my head hurt. In college, I studied 18 hours a day for a c minus GPA. I remember this one test I failed because I couldn’t remember the chain rule, but I remembered how to derive the formula from the theory. It took me thirty minutes, which left me twenty minutes to complete the exam. It was too bad I couldn’t have been graded on that knowledge. After that, I would enter the room an hour before the exam and write all the formulas on the desktop. But this was all in the time before I learned I had APD.

    But despite all this, I have taught myself a lot of things (I taught myself how to cook w/o recipes, I taught myself photography, I taught myself how to write poetry, I taught myself how to multitask, and I taught myself how to sing in my late 30’s by tuning my voice to a pipe organ). And I currently, teach writers workshops (for nothing at present) and I am very good at intuitively diagnosing problems in systems. Smalltalk is still a mystery to me, but I am hopeful that I can someday master this skill.

  9. qw88nb88 said,

    6 October 2007 at 0:23

    I heartily agree, Andrea! Mine wasn’t diagnosed until graduate school, either, until I was over 40 years old. Not only were people generally unaware of ADD in the 1970s, much less the way it often presents in girls, I’m sure that they also assumed that all your difficulties were due to your hearing loss. If they give you an interpreter (and hearing aids, if you that applies) then that should fix everything, right?

    As if!

  10. 5 October 2007 at 19:59

    Some 25 years ago, give or take, a deaf girl’s family took her public schools to court to try to force them to give their child a sign language interpreter. The schools didn’t want to pay for one. Eventually the US supreme court decided in the school’s favor; as I recall, part of their argument was that the girl was “doing fine” in school, basically meaning that she wasn’t failing — so therefore she didn’t “need” an interpreter. But I doubt she would have been performing up to her full potential either. On a couple of occasions I’ve had to go without an interpreter at school (first few weeks of second grade; and the first quarter of freshman math). I don’t remember what my 2nd grade grades were like, but my math dropped from an A to a C for the ENTIRE YEAR because having to sit through class without an interpreter for the entire first quarter set me back so badly I never managed to catch up.

    (I met the girl years later, when we were both college students. So I know she was very smart: I imagine that, plus help from her parents, was probably how she got by without an interpreter. It was nice to meet her because, when I heard about her court case as a little girl — back when she was just a name in the newspaper to me — I cried about the Supreme court’s decision for about a year afterwards, pretty much every night in bed as I fell asleep. Because I knew first hand just how important my interpreter was to my own success in school and could not imagine being deprived of one. So it was a relief to me to hear from her that her family moved to another state where she could get the services she needed.)

    In my case: my ADD was not diagnosed until after I had gotten my BA, been working for a while, and then started graduate school. In hindsight, I suspect one reason it was overlooked all those years (aside from the fact that they didn’t look for ADD in girls in the 1970s, and they also didn’t look for the non-hyper “daydreaming” type either) was probably because I did so well in school. What people missed was that I was working, I now realize, harder than many others. So instead I was left to wonder what was wrong with me that X, Y, and Z were so enormously hard for me when people seemed to think that they should be easy for someone as smart as me. For instance, finishing research papers quickly. Or even starting them in the first place.

  11. Jannalou said,

    27 July 2006 at 18:01

    Honestly, I think I need something like an IEP/IPP (IPP=Individualized Program Plan; what they call IEPs in the world of special needs preschool programs in Alberta).

    I want to go back to school at some point, to do my Masters… what in, I don’t know. I’m still playing with ideas (I’m interested in everything and partially good at everything I’m interested in, so it’s hard to choose). But when I do, I’ll need accommodations. Or at least the possibility of accommodations. Because I’m smart (I want to do an IQ test, just for the fun of it), but when stress gets big, so does anxiety, and then my ADHD gets big, as does my introversion, which just leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of insanity and results in depression.

    And while I know this, I’m not so good at identifying when life is too stressful for me to manage on my own, and not everyone in my life is good at it, either. (And somehow, my mother makes me feel worse about it, though she’s excellent on picking up on when my life is falling apart.)

    Myself and my brothers all should have had IEPs throughout our schooling years (thinking pre-university/college). I was advanced in a few areas and got bored easily (but loved school anyway; go fig); my “meds barometer” brother needed a lot more 1:1 instruction and excelled when he was given that attention and encouragement; my middle brother probably could have done with more individualized instruction and encouragement (and reining in at times); and my youngest brother could probably have done with more advanced subject matter in most of his classes.

    As it is, we all did okay and we’ve all got some kind of post-secondary education under our belts. I have two bachelor’s degrees, through whatever miracle allowed me to absorb information from lectures, and while my employment history hasn’t been great, I have always had work, at least part-time, at something I enjoy doing. The oldest of my brothers has a diploma in library technology, and works in the local university library; he’s thinking about upgrading his diploma to a degree and then doing his Masters (he can do it at the university and maintain his employment and be guaranteed a good job after he’s done, too). He also writes for Marvel comics, which has always been his dream (he writes the handbooks and encyclopaedias, about the different characters in the main lines). And he’s been invited to sit on a panel at a comic convention in New York in August! My middle brother is an Anglican priest and is married; he’s got an undergrad degree in philosophy with a minor in religious studies, and I think his degree at seminary was a Masters in theology. And my youngest brother will be starting his Masters in Classics in September. He took a year off between undergrad and graduate school to do missions work in Cyprus. His dream is to be a university professor.

    My dream is to become a published author and to run a guinea pig rescue. Aside from that, I wouldn’t mind being a wife and mother someday. I figure I’m on my way to achieving all of these, it’s just taking me longer to get there than it takes other people. And in the meantime, at least I like my job. :)

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