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Emphasizing grades over mental health hurts even high-achieving students

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

This past winter, at age 21, I was diagnosed with ADHD. And in some ways (those dots I connected later), I was almost the poster child for “severe ADHD symptoms.” So why did not a single teacher from my 12 years in grade school ever mention the possibility? Because I got good grades.

The process of getting diagnosed began with going to a psychologist to take a number of diagnostic tests. Three weeks later, and with calculated data, she showed that while I was very bright, I had extreme issues with focusing, paying attention and completing tasks. 

I was somehow both shocked and unsurprised. I had clear issues with concentration and sitting still for a while, but my school experience never seemed like one of a child with ADHD. Weren’t they supposed to be diagnosed in, like, middle school? And didn’t they have bad grades? And uncontrollable hyperactivity? I had never really experienced any of those things. 

By sixth grade, I was reading at a college level. In seventh grade, I attended a math competition and became the first girl from my school to make it to the next round. In my sophomore year of high school, I joined different activities and earned good grades in my magnet classes. I continued all this through high school, through my first year of college, until I hit a number of roadblocks and had to take a gap year.

Still, though, I had recovered nicely. I had graduated with my associate’s last year and was now in my junior year at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. How could someone who had only received A’s and B’s their whole life have “severe” attention issues?

In class, I was always talking. Whether it was to my friend, the random kid next to me, the teacher and even myself sometimes, it didn’t matter. I didn’t care how many times I got into trouble, I physically couldn’t stop myself from talking. Usually, it was about the lesson, but I would also go off about the last movie I had watched, basketball practice after school or my plans for the weekend. 

I would constantly jiggle my leg. Sometimes both. I found it hard to find time to shower or go to sleep, and when I did find the time, I was too wired to do either. I could barely even finish a full sentence in a conversation, and I would lose track of the topic while in the middle of my thought.

Since middle school, I would alternate between different classes’ homework when I got bored with one assignment. I had an alternating sleep schedule, sleeping when I needed it and doing homework when I was awake. 

And yet, not a single teacher had thought to consider that I might have any mental health problems because of my good grades, the psychologist told me. My “linguistic ability” was very high, which meant that reading comprehension, literary analysis and other similar classwork came easily to me. Additionally, she pointed out that I had developed my own coping methods to deal with my attention deficit.

I don’t say all this to brag. I say all this to say: my teachers never suggested, whether to me, my parents, by way of a footnote on a report card, comment during a parent-teacher conference, nothing, that I had any problem with hyperactivity, lack of concentration or attention issues. Obviously, I did. 

It is not a secret that the American school system is severely lacking the mental health support system that growing kids so desperately need. Many fall through the cracks, either because the teachers don’t have enough time, brain space, energy or care to help them succeed. Accusations of “teaching to the test” can’t easily be fixed, since the majority of teacher’s pay increases are tied to their students’ performance on standardized testing. 

This grade-based definition of success forces teachers, who are by and large overworked and underpaid already, to focus on certain students and ignore others. If certain students are doing well academically, the teacher feels more comfortable taking time and attention away from them to focus on a student who is struggling more, for whatever reason. 

The only problem is that I also struggled. I was always high-strung. I fought and stressed over the fact that I physically could not bring myself to do my homework, walk my dog, read a book or write a poem. Yes, when push came to shove, I could always slide through by the skin of my teeth, but it was hard.

It’s difficult to truly say how an ADHD diagnosis would have changed my life. If I had been diagnosed in middle school, I certainly could have had a better support system. I could have had doctors who knew I had trouble focusing, or a legitimate reason for extended deadlines, or extra time on tests or even medication. But the thing I do know is that I wasn’t diagnosed, even though I clearly should have been. 

The teachers I had in elementary, middle and high school were amazing, intelligent and caring people. However, the environment in which they work on a daily basis is simply not one conducive to identifying the needs of each and every student and helping them individually with their issues. I understand why I was overlooked in grade school (and high school) in order to support those who more clearly needed it, but I also was a student in the system who was struggling.

Whether by decreasing class size or increasing support administration in schools (public and private), the American school system needs to really try to understand the diverse number of problems any student could experience that could significantly impact their lives in ways that are not necessarily reported in their grades. Good mental health is a crucial aspect in the turbulent life of a young, developing human, even in kids who manage to get good grades.