Looking Below the Surface

Author: Karen Copeland

In August 2014, I had the opportunity to co-present the closing keynote at the Promoting Mental Health in Schools Summer Institute alongside Keli Anderson from the Institute of Families. For my part of the presentation, I read aloud a letter I had received from a parent. This letter had tremendous impact on those in the audience, and the parent has given me permission to share it with you here. 

Image via https://www.flickr.com/photos/usoceangov/8290528771/
Image via https://www.flickr.com/photos/usoceangov/8290528771/

From: Anonymous Parent

We heard advice from everyone who was willing to offer it. “He needs more discipline” “he needs a good spanking” “you should never spank your child”, “ he needs more sleep” “he needs less sleep”, “more stimulation” “Less stimulation” and “Just stick with it. You have to win.” So we did.

We were told by people close to us that he is just spoiled and being bratty, so then we would take all of his toys away on his next outburst. We would go to family functions, and spend the whole time chasing him and trying to keep him calm him while saying things like “he’s just tired” or “he is over stimulated”.

I was so stressed out the summer before Kindergarten; I actually thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. His outbursts were at an all-time high. Everyone at this point, including our doctor was chalking it up to parenting.

Then came Kindergarten. The pink slips started flowing almost right away, and continued the entire year. Even though the constant flow of negative communication from the school was terribly disruptive for me at work, and at home, I felt like I needed to know everything that was going on so that I could try and address it. I desperately wanted to have a good relationship with the school, so I felt like I couldn’t express my frustrations without being pegged as a difficult parent…so I didn’t.

In grade 1, he continued to get student aide forms for what we consider to be silly offenses like jumping in mud puddles, or licking artwork, for which his behavior was deemed “vandalism”. He was sent into the office for telling the lunch monitor she is pretty. While I am the first person to acknowledge that he has REAL challenges that require REAL solutions, putting compliments and licking artwork on the same level as smacking someone seemed so counterproductive to me.

Meanwhile at home, we were finally discovering what works for him. He has been given an “official” diagnosis of ADHD. We have found what I call our “ADHD Coach”, and he has taught us WHY our child acts the way he does, and what is going on in his brain. We completely changed the perspective we were parenting from. We went from punishing him and consequences, to understanding and positivity with brilliant results.

Our child is funny, creative, smart, caring, thoughtful, brave, and loving. Unfortunately, even with all of those incredible qualities, he finds school almost impossible, and is scared to even enter a classroom for fear of being kicked out and feeling like a failure for yet another day. When asked to describe himself, he would tell you that he is a “bully”, despite the fact that he is the first to run to someone in need of love, support or comfort.

Every second of every day he fights a brain that demands he do things that he knows will cast him farther from friendship, good grades and peace. He struggles with a body that compels him to move even though he is asked to be still, and takes the consequences of not meeting those unattainable goals every single day. Despite being forced to learn in a system that by it’s design has set him on a course of certain failure, he’s tough, resourceful and adaptable. He’s stubborn, positive, persistent and courageous. With the right environment at school, he will be a top achiever and leader in class, instead of the kid who spent most of last year in the hallway.

To realize his potential, He needs us all to see that he is the first person to run to the aid of another student, or anyone needing help. The sensitive boy who dries tears and gets Kleenex, the hard working child who is helpful, focused and solution oriented. The athletic boy who excels at sports, the academic boy who learns with gusto and enthusiasm. Most importantly, he needs us to see his curious self, who gets genuinely excited about the world around him.”


When I first read the letter, I was overcome with emotion. Many of her words resonated with my own personal experiences. I spent a great deal of time reflecting on the letter and what it meant for her to write it. I admired the courage it took for her to learn more about why her child was responding the way he was, and to shift the way she was thinking about him too!

A couple of things came to mind for me, the first being: what message is this child receiving from the adults in his life? I thought about the concept of winning streaks and losing streaks and reflected on blog posts by Linda Pollastretti and Chris Wejr on this topic. How do we shift the way we are thinking about a behaviour?

Screen shot 2014-10-24 at 9.01.08 AM

Source:  The F.O.R.C.E. Society for Kids’ Mental Health – ADHD Corner Project Final Report, May 2014

(NOTE: If you have an interest in knowing more about what it is like to live with ADHD, I highly recommend you read the above linked ADHD report!)

After I thought about her child, I pondered this:  “I felt like I couldn’t express my frustrations without being pegged as a difficult parent…so I didn’t.” How often are parents sitting silently at the table, and what kinds of assumptions might be made about their silence? I have connected with many parents over the years, and most of them have had challenges with the education system. I will let you in on a secret, parents have a very real fear of how using their voice will impact their child. This fear is not only based on previous experiences, it comes from current family experiences as well.

Does curiousity have a seat at the meeting table? If a parent is silent, what can be done to try and draw out what he/she is feeling? How is the response perceived? If a parent is NOT silent, how is this perceived? Is it possible to filter away the emotion that may come in the message to understand the true concern of the parent? or is parent emotion perceived as a threat, causing a defensive response?

Are parents on winning streaks or losing streaks in our schools?

I followed up with the parent recently to see how the school year had started off for her child. Sadly, it has continued on like much of what she shared above. But she is not giving up. My hope is that she and her child will become connected to a community that understands, a community that is open to looking beyond the surface of the behaviour. My wish is that one day this family will experience what it is like to be on a winning streak. When they do, it will be beautiful.




  1. My husband is a classic ADHD, and his parents spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was wrong with him. My sister was also probably ADHD, although my parents didn’t believe it was right to diagnose her. She had a different style of learning than all of us. She got through biology by jumping around the living room and walking around in circles while studying. It worked for her… Our world only makes room for certain types of learners, that’s the only way the system can function. Just because some of us don’t fit into that, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment Mercy. You are right, just because some people may not fit, doesn’t mean there is something wrong. It also doesn’t mean that people won’t be successful in their lives. When people take the time to recognize the strengths and gifts that come along with “not fitting the system”, then amazing things can happen.


  2. Karen – powerful questions and brave of the parent. I too have sat across a table and watched these types of meetings unfold. One time I stopped and reached out to the parent to ask – what is your deepest wish and dream for your child? That changed the course of the conversation. It takes courage to ask ourselves the reasons why we come to a table – our words and actions need to lift up both child and parent to a place where connectedness and care are valued. Only then can we create solutions that resonate. These are not single answers but built on a continuum of trust.
    Thanks for connecting back with the parent.


    • Janet, I love that you asked this question! I have sat in countless meetings for my own son and I have had a question like this asked of me only once. It too changed the course of our conversation because I felt like someone was taking the time to care and really wanted to know the answer! What if all of our meetings started from this place of connectedness? What if we put aside the agenda for a moment to check in, see how things are going for the child and the family at home and at school, and let that guide the direction of the meeting? Sadly, these are things that are difficult to accomplish in a 15-20 minute time frame that also demands fulfillment of paper requirements…

      I recall a powerful statement from Nancy (commenter above) to a room full of professionals. She said “When you meet with us for the first time, put aside your checklists and just ask us our story. Know our story.” As you said, build the continuum of trust, develop the relationship.

      Thank you for your comment, Janet.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think it is important to ask the question of what is our deepest dream and wish for our child and hopefully parents can be asked that question more often. I have been asked that question however it didn’t change the tone of the meeting because once again I felt that my answer was not honored or truly acknowledged. I was made to feel like I didn’t know my child as well as the educators did and that my dreams and wish were unrealistic. Again, it is important to not just ask the right questions but to truly set aside our preconceived notions, feelings and agendas and to be open to helping that child reach their full potential not just the small piece of potential that we chose to acknowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m saddened to hear that you were not heard. There is much work to do in this area and we all have a hand in creating the conditions for it. For myself I ask no question lightly – every one is meticulously thought thru to engage in dialogue that lifts each individual. Strength comes from the desire to be vulnerable enough to truly hear, to understand and be heard.


  4. You are right Janet and I am sure that you are a sincere individual who truly means what she says. Unfortunately parents do not always get to have people like you involved with their children and we can very easily recognize the ones that honestly want to be on our team and those that are only paying it lip service.


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