“I loved my middle school years,” said no one I know, ever.
Being a teenager is hard, there is no doubt about that. But let’s be real here: the preteen years are even harder. Puberty takes over your body physically and hormonally and, if you’re like me, you have to transition from a traditional elementary school classroom to lockers, compartmentalized classes, and social cliques.
This is overwhelming for any child. Now imagine having those same difficulties, but adding a learning disability to the mix, or anxiety, or a nice combination of the two. I know I’m not the only one who went through this.
If we’re being totally honest, we live in a society where we tend to judge a book by its cover. Even when we say we don’t, we often do. It’s not always intentional, but rather instinctual or subconscious. I will say not everyone is as judgmental as most middle school students, and that there are people out there who truly see the good in one another.
Some people (I’d like to say myself included) live by the saying, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” Unfortunately, a middle school setting is not the ideal place to live by that statement. However, I would like to believe that people do, in fact, become less judgmental as they get older. So, the question is, how do special needs children navigate their middle school years, while also facing the challenges that come with a learning disability?
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First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Claudia Rose Addeo. I’m currently 23 years old and, to be honest, I’m a five-foot-four blonde who has been told I have the style of a Real Housewives cast member. I was on the cheerleading team in high school, in a sorority all throughout college, and I pretty much exhibit every stereotype of a “girly girl,” or a “basic,” as some may say.
I’ve literally been asked “What’s it like to be perfect all the time?” And again, people judge my book by its cover. However, most people haven’t read the first few chapters in my personal book, which will explain why this is all so relevant…
What most people don’t know is that my journey began at two years old. After various evaluations, I was cross diagnosed with multiple delays. At this point, I had the cognitive and physical abilities of a 15-month-old, so it’s safe to say I had some catching up to do. I then went to a special education preschool and spent many years of my life receiving speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, resource room, and endless hours of one-on-one tutoring six days a week.
Five of these six days, I attended a full day program, only to return home and continue with more services for an additional two hours. Most people don’t know there was uncertainty if I would ever go to college. And lastly, most people don’t know that in addition to this being the content of the “first few chapters” in my personal book, I was—to phrase it bluntly—very unattractive and awkward in middle school.
I was five foot and about 100-115 pounds. I thought it was a good idea to get braces and a bob haircut in the same year. This flattered my curly, frizzy hair that I did not know how to tame. I didn’t wear a training bra until the end of sixth grade when, in reality, I probably needed it since the start of fifth grade. My metabolism wasn’t as strong as it had been prior to puberty, giving me what looked like a beer belly.
The one guy I had a crush on referred to me as “A-cup.” I’m sure you can put the pieces together on that one. And as an added bonus, I wore makeup I did not know how to apply properly. Disclaimer: sparkly pink eye shadow and eye liner under your water line will not get you any head turns. Go figure!
Clearly, I was not the confident, educated, strong woman I am today. Also, it most certainly did not help that I had a learning disability. This meant I had to work harder than every student in every class just to keep up. This also meant I did not pick up on certain social cues that came with being a middle school student.
This was not helpful during seventh grade sex ed or when my friends started to get boyfriends. I had to overcome a variety of obstacles for the entirety of my education. Now, how did I navigate this? How can you help your teenager navigate this? Though this question does not have a one-size-fits-all answer, I can share what has helped me, speaking through my professional and personal experience.
It’s important to know it all starts at home. A strong support system is key to helping your children flourish. Let me also say that this doesn’t always mean a traditional family home, though that was the case for me. A strong support system means children know they have family, friends, and even neighbors who support and love them unconditionally, and want to see them develop into the best versions of themselves.
Having a strong support system also means making sure your children are hanging out with the right group of friends. There’s a saying my grandmother always said in Italian, that translated to “Tell me who you hang out with, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Don’t underestimate the influence other children can have on your child. It’s important this influence be a positive one. This especially goes for children like me, who just want to be accepted by their peers and fit in. I did not always have the common sense and strong gut intuition I have today, and there was a time in middle school where my friend group teetered on not being the best for my social and emotional well-being.
Thankfully, I had a mother who was very involved in my life and always put my best interests and needs above her own. Though it was not easy, my mother helped me realize this social clique was not the best fit for me. I know it may be hard to communicate with your children during this time, especially when their hormones are all over the place and they just want to fit in, but just remember—it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. Delivery is key.
Lastly, preparation and knowledge are powerful when starting new chapters of life. I visited my middle school the week prior to classes to prepare for the transition and reduce my anxiety. This allowed me to practice opening my locker, visit each of my classrooms, and familiarize myself with the room numbers.
If your children receive services like I did throughout my middle school years, they should know who will be working with them, who will be advocating for them, and who they can turn to during the school day.
It’s always a good idea to have your child meet the special education teachers on his/her team, have the guidance counselor introduce himself/herself to your child the first week of classes, and make sure he/she feels comfortable with the assigned school psychologist or counselor. If there is a problem during the school day, your child should feel comfortable knowing he/she has someone to turn to that’s close by.
Make sure your children know they are never ever alone—on good days and bad! It is so important to practice, inform, and prepare your child for every minor and major milestone in his/her life to the best of your ability. Your child will always feel more confident approaching any new situation when he/she is armed with knowledge and preparation.
To all the parents who have children about to enter their middle school years, just know you can do this, and they can do this! It gets better over time, that I know. To the brave and amazing parents out there reading this, just know it’s not easy, but the end result is so worth it. Progress is possible.
With a strong support system, open line of communication, and with the proper knowledge and preparation, your child can navigate his/her middle school years like a pro! Just remember, don’t ever judge a book by its cover. The first few chapters may be difficult, but the product to follow can be greater than you ever expected.
A confident teenage survivor.
This article was featured in Issue 109 – Attaining Good Health.