I Was an Overachiever, So My Daughter\’s School Struggles Are Hitting Me Hard

photo illustration of girl holding report card with F's

When I was a kid, it was a rarity for me to ever bring home anything less than an A. That mattered to me. A lot. All the praise and validation I received in my childhood came from my grades. And I held on to that. It was the one thing I had going for me that made me feel special and worthwhile.

In college I studied child development. It was there I came to realize I wasn't especially smart, I was just lucky in that I learned the way our current education system teaches. I also had people in my life who I recognized as being incredibly intelligent, even though school had never been easy for them.

That was when I promised myself I would never be the mother who pushed her kids to excel in school. Instead, I vowed to be someone who focused on my child's strengths, whatever they may be, instead of their weaknesses. I decided schools were pushing children too much and that the education system was breaking kids who might have otherwise been able to change the world.

I knew early on my daughter was going to have some challenges in school I hadn't faced as a kid. She'd been in services for both occupational therapy and speech since she was 2 years old, and there were signs she was probably going to struggle with certain aspects of her education. But I also saw the intelligence in her. Her spatial awareness and memory for people, places, and events all exceeded my own. And I was in awe of how she problem solved and saw the world around her. I wanted her in a school that recognized those strengths, and that's why I ended up sending her to a private school. I felt the smaller classroom setting would benefit her.

Which is all to say…my daughter's eventual academic hardships were not at all a surprise. Instead, the only surprise was in hard it hit me when those struggles did end up presenting themselves.

Kindergarten was pretty smooth. She did better than I'd originally expected her to, and her teacher had no concerns by the end of that first year. I think I convinced myself that meant my initial concerns may have been unfounded.

First grade was a different story.

Math was the first sign of distress. Addition and subtraction had the ability to bring her to tears. And no matter what tools we provided her, no matter how her teacher and I tried to help—she just couldn't seem to wrap her head around the concepts she was being taught.

Then it became clear her writing also wasn't on track with her peers. She couldn't remember to put spaces between words, or even to use the lines on the paper to regulate the size of her letters. And while she was doing pretty well at memorizing her sight words, she seemed to struggle with phonemic awareness.

I realized pretty quickly that her marked up schoolwork was giving me anxiety. And while she was never aware of her letter grades, I was able to track them myself on the school's online portal. The Cs and Ds stood out to me like curse words. I had to keep reminding myself that she was trying her best, that we were trying our best. But those marks, those letter grades that would have devastated me as a child, were now devastating me as an adult.

I worked incredibly hard to not convey any of this to my daughter. Instead, I was as supportive and understanding as I could be. We took breaks, we worked together when she felt up to it, and I continuously reminded her of all the ways she was smart and skilled, including the fact that she never gave up. Her willingness to work hard is something I praise her for every day.

But internally? I was feeling like a failure. That little girl in me that used to count so much on her grades as a marker of her self-worth was having a hard time remembering they weren't. Not then and not now.

When my daughter's teacher recommended a learning disorder evaluation just before Thanksgiving of last year, I broke.

Again, this hadn't been unexpected. In fact, a part of me realized I had been holding my breath, waiting for this recommendation to come. I had a degree that had prepared me for this, one that had taught me a learning disorder diagnosis only meant a child learned in a different way and needed help discovering the tools that would allow them to be successful. I knew this was not a reflection of her intelligence or her ability to succeed.

And yet, hearing the words? Having the confirmation that her struggles weren't likely to go away?

It hit me. Hard.

I really had to work to figure out why that was, because logically, I knew this was a good thing. I knew the sooner we could get her a diagnosis, the sooner we could get her help. Once she had the tools she needed, she'd be able to thrive.

But my life had been easier in a thousand different ways because of how naturally I'd excelled in school. And I wanted that for my daughter. I wanted it to be easy for her.

It was only as I started to process some of this that I realized my daughter maybe didn't need that in the same way I had, because she has things I didn't—a happy, healthy home. Supports in place to help her succeed. And skills in areas I never developed.

One thing I've had to remember is that my daughter is happy. She has an amazing teacher who spotted her struggles early on and has worked tirelessly to help her. She feels supported and loved at school and at home, and she truly enjoys learning. She hasn't even fully realized yet that her struggles are different from her peers. And I'm thankful for that.

I'm also working every day to remind myself that grades aren't the only way a child can feel special and worthwhile, despite how much they did that for me.

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