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Ask Dr. Sears: Will Grade-Swapping Foster Learning?

Q. My 10-year-old son, who has always been characterized as "bright," skipped a year in school and is now in fifth grade. However, he was recently diagnosed with A.D.D. He's having trouble staying organized and keeping up in class, and isn't fitting in well with his classmates. Do you think it's better to let him complete this year in the fifth grade or to move him back to fourth grade so he can be with other kids his age?

A. Whether your son stays in the fifth grade or returns to the fourth depends on which class fulfills your number-one goal: fostering his love of learning. This is far more important than dwelling on his academic performance relative to his peers. The attitude he develops toward learning early on will influence his ability to succeed in school in the years to come. Here, some ways to help your child cope with his A.D.D. diagnosis and flourish academically:

Get informed. As a parent, the more you educate yourself about your child's unique learning abilities, the more effective an advocate you can be when making challenging educational decisions, such as the one you are now facing. I suggest you pick up two of my books: The A.D.D. Book and The Successful Child Book, which has a chapter on fostering the love of learning.

Understand A.D.D. Realize that A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder) is primarily a behavioral difference. A.D.D. becomes a disorder only if not correctly diagnosed and treated. There is nothing "wrong" with your son; he simply thinks, acts, and learns somewhat differently than other children, and therefore requires a specific style of parenting and teaching to succeed. In fact, I often find that the A.D.D. diagnosis is a result of something I call B.B.B.: Bright Boys get easily Bored. Precocious, high-energy youngsters often tune out in class if the subject matter has no relevance to them and are then labeled as having "a poor attention span." Many famous people, from Edison to Mozart, would likely have been labeled A.D.D if they had gone through today's school system. So be sure to celebrate, rather than criticize, your son's difference. His ability to think outside the box may very well allow him to grow up and build a better box!

Match school and child, teacher and child. Because bright boys get easily bored and require a specific teaching style, it's important to find the right match of class, teacher, and school for you son. You want a teacher who will cater to your son's unique learning needs, rather than force him into the mold of his peers. Perhaps your son is a visual, hands-on learner (as is often the case with A.D.D. kids). In this case, the teacher would best teach history not by asking your son to memorize facts, but by giving him a part to play in a historical play. This would help him shine  -- and pay attention. Which teacher will make the material relevant to your son? The fourth grade teacher or the fifth? Base your decision on this more than anything else.

Discover your child's special something. Every child can and should succeed in something. Does your son have a talent in sports, music, math, or science? Identify his strengths and nurture them. This may produce a "carryover effect"—success in one endeavor leading to an overall improvement in academic and behavioral performance.

Start your child's day with a brainy breakfast. Research shows that children who begin the day with a well-balanced breakfast tend to make higher grades, pay better attention, and behave better at school than those who do not. I have seen many A.D.D-labeled children who were "cured" once their parents started sending them off to school with a nutritious breakfast!