Charlie’s parents specifically sought me out because they knew I could be firm. They had heard that I do not put up with bullshit from lazy, unmotivated kids. So they hoped I would be good with their son Charlie.  Charlie needed something. Between his documented executive function disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), he was what I would term a royal mess—but he was also quite hilarious. And once again, the family context was decisive. Charlie had a more serious, academically oriented older brother, who informed his knack for joking around his parents. Hearing his mother’s contagious peeling laughter at Charlie’s many clever sarcastic remarks confirmed my impression of a circular, reinforcing context for Charlie’s identity as a class clown. However, his embrace of this attention-grabbing role meant playing the class clown more than he actually should have—or needed to. Constantly being the entertainer was getting in his way developing other possible versions of himself. In Charlie’s thinking, though, how else could he stand out in comparison to his academically successful brother, who had recently been admitted to a prestigious undergraduate business school? The fact that his folks treated him like the lovable family jokester no doubt reinforced Charlie’s self-conception as an unserious, unexceptional student. He took regular classes and thrived in all of them except for when he was occasionally late in turning in assignments. Charlie, in fact, earned outstanding grades across the board. But lacking a sense of challenge and the ability to concentrate over the long haul meant our work was cut out for us on the ACT.

It’s funny how a lack of foresight can play out on multiple levels. Before meeting me, Charlie hadn’t realized that the collection of As on his transcript would not automatically get him into the state university he sought to attend. Up until that point, he didn’t think about the matter as much as he thought about when and where the next game of pickup basketball was happening or what line of trash talk he was planning about a friend’s Fantasy Football team. Reaching Charlie in the traditional ways proved difficult: while guiding him through every step, he followed along, but as soon as I took off the training wheels, he would either miss a critical step in problem-solving (executive dysfunction) or fall prey to distraction to the point where he would get completely lost (ADHD).

My instinct in this kind of teaching situation is often to yell with a big smile on my face. If you can be entertaining enough with ADHD students, you have a shot at getting them to hyperfocus on what you care about as a tutor. So, that’s what I tried with Charlie. Charlie’s parents wanted him to go to the University of Maryland in College Park, but even the combination of his elite private high school background and his strong grade point average wouldn’t be enough because of his lack of advanced courses. For the first time in his life, Charlie had to confront the fact of his dysfunction—on the test.

At first, he was taken aback by my persistence. He didn’t realize that I wanted to change the whole way he saw himself as a student. The results of his cognitive assessment showed that, although he had difficulties with attention and processing speed, he also possessed high levels of abstract reasoning and flexible thinking—two indicators of a high intelligence quotient.

After relaying these mixed but encouraging test results to Charlie, I remember his cowed look, shyly staring up at me out of the corners of his eyes and then casting his gaze straight forward. He had taken the series of brain games seriously because he saw it as a chance to prove his intelligence. But I forthrightly explained the mistake he had made: “Now, I know exactly how smart you are!” I thundered so loudly that students in the six other tutoring sessions in the office could hear. That’s when Charlie began to sullenly appreciate the big picture and what I had been striving for in our work together. He began to pick up on the message I was trying to communicate every time I gave him shit and pushed him to do more. He loved it when I called him a piece of shit, because he knew I was really saying, “Dude, I really believe in you.”

Over time, that statement wasn’t just implied; I probably said it a dozen times to his face in those very words. I knew that by reaching him in this way and by making him believe that I really meant it, I could get him to focus in the same way he had previously done in Fantasy Football. Before building up, you must first break down. The dismantling process was often challenging, but Charlie was game for it. He knew on some level that he was smart, but previously he had never connected his academic success to his perceived intelligence. So, deconstructing what I would term his “bullshit approach to school” was not the debasing experience it might have been for a more fragile or unprepared student. 

My tough love approach proved to be effective medicine for Charlie’s stagnancy in high school. Between our sessions and his ACT homework, he could see where he wasn’t improving and learned to be a better student by tackling those issues head-on. Not getting the answer right the first time no longer seemed to him a sign of his permanent ineptitude; instead, it became a chance to keep trying until he had figured out the problem or even mastered the subject. In this sense, with my direct communication style—caring but, when necessary, confrontational—Charlie developed a positive mindset around preparing for the ACT far more quickly than did many of my “good” students, which in turn made major improvements possible.

Gaining ten points on the ACT is the equivalent of upping your chances of admission from the local community college to a selective private university. By forging a style of communication and interaction that worked with Charlie, I witnessed a greater degree of intellectual growth in six months than he had experienced in his entire four years of high school.

This excerpt was taken from Ian Siegel’s book School Sucks Your Child Doesn’t, The Secret to Unlocking Your Child’s Untapped Potential. You can order the book here.