I’m always reminded of an elementary music teacher this time of year. Her name was Miss Lilly, and I remember her during the holidays because she conducted our elementary school choir when I was just a young’un. The only song I remember singing in that concert was “Silver Bells,” but it reminds me of her every time I hear it.

Miss Lilly was more than just a music teacher, though. She was also the first teacher that I remember helping me deal with my behaviors rather than labeling me for them.

In this world of categorizing kids into neat little packages that require medication, there would’ve been teachers who tried to label me with ADHD. I did exhibit some of the symptoms – hard to sit still sometimes, often bored in class, lots of drumming my fingers on tables and cracking my knuckles and talking in class when I shouldn’t. In today’s school environment, there would be a rush to diagnosis me with something and then throw medication at me to make the teachers feel better about having me in their classrooms.

I didn’t have ADHD, by the way. I didn’t have anything that you’d find in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (that’s the book that therapists use to diagnose people). I simply had “little boy’s disorder” – in other words, I had a lot of energy, I was bored at school, and it was sometimes a struggle to get through the day.

Miss Lilly saw that. She was big on noticing the “little things” and making you feel important as a result. For example, she drove a brown Dodge Duster that she’d pretend to race with us as she left school for the day. Another example was that Christmas concert mentioned earlier. Each child dressed up as a different country, and I really wanted to be the United States. I don’t know for sure, but I think she knew that because on concert night, I stood dead center wearing the red, white, and blue hat and scarf. It was a little thing on her part, but it made me feel special.

The most important thing Miss Lilly did for me was the first thing I remember her doing. I don’t even remember the topic of the class, but I was drumming my fingers on my desk, on the counter, on the wall, and maybe even on the people near me. Instead of confronting me, Miss Lilly calmly walked over, handed me a pair of drumsticks, and went back to teaching. No lecturing. No embarrassing me in front of my friends. No long, drawn-out conversation about being respectful and not distracting my classmates and what the heck was wrong with me and I must need medication. Just a simple, gracious action to help me make it through class.

That’s one of the reasons I don’t immediately diagnose children when they come to my office – because Miss Lilly was shrewd enough not to jump to conclusions with me. In so many cases, there’s no disorder, just a kid acting out because there’s a logical reason for it. Figure out what’s making the kid choose the behaviors you don’t like, and then you can help make changes. If it turns out there’s a real disorder, we’ll deal with that, but let’s make sure there’s not another reason for it first.

Miss Lilly taught me that simply by handing me a pair of drumsticks.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, is in private practice in Worthington, Ohio. He specializes in family therapy and is a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. For an appointment, call (614) 477-5565; online sessions may be available. He’s also the author of 13 books, including his latest, “Since Before You Were Born,” which is a collection of humorous stories based on his childhood. It’s available at http://www.amazon.com/Since-Before-You-Were-Born-ebook/dp/B00EHT3B5G)

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