“Read the syllabus”: Getting the information you need without annoying your instructors

If you’re in university/college in the United States, many/most instructors will expect you to be able to get certain kinds of information from the syllabus. If you send them an email/message asking for that information they think you should be able to find yourself, it may annoy them — they may feel that you are expecting them to do work for you that you should be doing yourself.

A non-exhaustive list of things that many instructors expect you to check the syllabus for:

  • What the reading is for a particular class session.
  • Whether there’s an assignment, and when it is due.
  • When an exam is, and what range of material is likely to be on the exam.
  • Whether participation is required.
  • How many points something is worth.
  • (Depending on the instructor and the subject, there may be other things).
  • Where and when to turn in homework and assignments.

Most syllabi are formatted along these lines:

  • At the top, there will be the course title, the course number, and the name(s), and (usually) contact information) of the instructor(s),
  • The next thing is usually an introduction with some basic information about the class. This will usually include:
    • A description.
    • A list of course objectives (the kinds of things that you’re supposed to learn in the class.)
    • Information about office hours/how to get in touch with instructor(s).
  • Some information that may be at the beginning of the syllabus or may be at the end:
    • If applicable, information about where to go for help, eg:
      • If you’re an undergraduate taking a class that involves writing, there is likely a writing center you can go to for help.
      • If you’re an undergraduate student taking classes that involve math, there’s likely a math help center you can go to.
      • In some schools and subjects, there will be formal study groups or tutoring sessions available if you need additional help. This is particularly common in very large classes in subjects that are prerequisites for various career paths (eg: a chemistry class that’s required for premed students.)
      • In many/most universities, there are subject-specific librarians who you can go to for help with things like finding sources on a topic you’re researching or how to use the databases your school subscribes to.
    • Policies about things like grading, excused absences, late assignments, makeup work, accommodations for students with disabilities, etc.
  • There will probably, but not always, be a list of general course requirements and an outline of due dates and exam dates. Sometimes that information is in a summary at the top, and sometimes it’s only in the next part.
  • There will almost always be a week-by week or session-by-session list of class meetings and associated assignments. This will usually list:
    • Which reading is required and/or recommended for each session.
    • Due dates for papers, reading reflections, or other assignments.
    • Exam dates. (Eg: If there’s a midterm and a final, the week-by-week part of the syllabus will say when they are. The syllabus may also have explicit information about what material they will cover; it may also assume that it’s clear from what’s listed on the syllabus as being taught before the exam.)

Sometimes it’s harder than instructors think it is to find information on a syllabus. 

  • Even after checking the syllabus, you still may sometimes be confused. 
  • Once you’ve checked, it’s ok to ask clarifying questions.

For instance, sometimes the information is out of date:

  • Sometimes instructors move more slowly through the material than they expected to.
  • This might result in some assignments or readings being dropped or pushed back to a later date.
  • Looking at a syllabus, you may be unsure whether the assignment is what’s listed or whether it’s been changed to something else.

Sometimes there’s more ambiguity that instructors realize, eg:

  • “Read Smith pp 1-15” might be ambiguous about *which* reading that is if there are multiple files listed as “Smith”.
  • “Read the first chapter” could be unclear about whether it’s the introduction or Chapter 1.
  • “Do the problems on pages 45-47” could be unclear if a book has both a main list of problems and extra problems in a sidebar.
  • “Read Chapter 3 and answer the chapter questions” could be confusing if there are both questions in sidebars on some of the pages within the reading *and* questions at the end of the chapter.
  • Sometimes there’s a syllabus given as a .doc file and also formatted differently on Blackboard/Moodle/etc, and sometimes someone makes a mistake and they contradict each other.

Sometimes the stated policies on the syllabus don’t match an instructor’s actual approach to teaching:

  • Eg: Some instructors have very strict grading policies on the syllabus but are lenient in practice when students ask for exceptions.
    • Since there’s such a wide variety of approaches to this, it’s generally impossible to tell from the syllabus whether or not instructors who list strict policies mean them. 
    • The best source of information is usually, but not always, other students who have taken a class with that instructor before.
    • Sometimes there’s no good way to know in advance.
  • Eg: Instructors are often required to include standard language reflecting school wide policies. 
    • Some instructors copy and paste the required language without paying attention to it or having any actual intention of following it.
      • Eg: instructors may be required to paste in language that says something like “students with disabilities should contact the disability center for accommodations. No accommodations can be considered until documentation is provided.” 
      • In practice, many instructors who are required to say that on the syllabus are actually entirely willing to arrange for informal modifications if you talk to them directly. (eg: an instructor who usually gives written exams may have no objection to you using a computer instead.) 

If you check the syllabus and you’re still confused and need to ask the instructor a question, here are some things that will make it less likely that your question will annoy them:

First, make sure you’re asking the right person:

  • If you’re in a small class or a seminar, your instructor is probably the right person to ask.
  • If you’re in a large class that has discussion sections led by a TA, you should probably ask the TA rather than the main instructor. If you’re supposed to ask the TA, their contact information should be on the syllabus.
  • If you’re in a very large class and there’s a relevant help center (eg: a math homework help there), you should probably go to the help center rather the main instructor for questions about content that you’re struggling with.
  • If you’re having trouble writing a paper, it’s probably ok to ask either the instructor, a TA, or a writing center for help figuring out what to do. 
    • If you’re having trouble finding sources, it’s also generally ok to ask a librarian for help.

If it makes sense to send an email or message, format it in a formal-ish way: 

  • Your message should be more like a letter than a text message.
  • (For whatever reason, some instructors take it as a personal insult when students structure emails informally. I think that this is unreasonable, but it’s very common and it’s worth erring on the side of formally in order to avoid irritating people who have power over your grades.)
  • Use complete sentences. 
  • Use capital letters and punctuation. 
  • Don’t use texting-style abbreviations or emoji.

Address them formally:

  • Include a greeting in an email. (For whatever reason, some instructors are extremely offended by emails without greetings.)
  • Use their academic title if they have one, unless they’ve explicitly told you to address them a different way.
  • Their title will likely be at the top of the syllabus. If you’re not sure, start the email “Dear Dr. [Lastname].
  • Many instructors with titles are offended if students call them by their first name, even if they use a title. 
    • This is especially likely to be the case with marginalized instructors, because they’ve likely had experience with people using last names for privileged colleagues and first names for them. 
    • Even if your intentions are respectful, they can’t read your mind, and may perceive it as a similar kind of disrespect. 
    • Err on the side of formality and use their last name.
  • If you’re emailing a TA, they probably don’t have a title and you’re probably supposed to call them by their first name. It’s a good idea to double check this – look on the syllabus. If they have a title there, use it when you email them.
  • Spell their name correctly. If it’s hard for you to spell their name, copy and paste it from the syllabus. 

If at all possible, keep the message short. Long messages are more likely to annoy instructors because they take longer to read.

Tell them that you’ve checked the syllabus, briefly explain what you’re confused about, and ask the question in as specific terms as possible. (Some unusually unreasonable instructors may still be offended that you need to ask, but no *reasonable* instructors will be upset if you make it clear that you did try to look up the information yourself. When people are so unreasonable that they get angry that students can’t read their mind, there’s not a lot you can do about that – that’s on them.)

Some instructors may also be annoyed that you asked them rather than another student. (I think that’s unreasonable, but if you have an instructor who feels that way, it’s in your interests to try to get information from other students if at all possible.)

Send the message as soon as possible: 

  • The closer to class, the more likely it is to annoy the instructor. 
  • (In part this is because everyone needs good work-life balance – instructors need down time when they’re not constantly on call to answer questions from students.)
  • If an assignment you’re struggling with is overdue, it’s still best to email and ask for help sooner rather than later. 
    • If you’ve had trouble with an assignment in a way that stopped you from meeting the deadline, you probably need help.
    • It’s better to ask for help as soon as possible.
    • Shame-hiding and trying to solve the problem on your own through sheer force of will tends to backfire.
    • It’s embarrassing to be struggling with a late assignment, but it’s best to face the embarrassment and ask for help.
    • It’s ok to need help, and you’re more likely to get it if you ask for it.

Here’s an example of a message that many instructors will find annoying or outright offensive:

“hey, what’s the reading for monday?”

Here’s an example of a message that no one reasonable is likely to be offended by:

Dear Dr. [Lastname],

I’m confused about the reading for next Monday. It says on the syllabus to read pages 1-25 in the wombats book, but I thought we were still on unicorns next week. Should I read the wombats reading or the unicorns reading?

Thank you,

[Your name]

Another example:

A message likely to annoy or offend instructors:

“what should i write the paper about”

A message that’s much less likely to be seen as offensive and much more likely to be welcome:

Dear Dr. [Lastname],

I’m having trouble with the paper on llamas. I wanted to write it on the history of purple-dyed llama yarn, but it’s not coming together, and I’m wondering if I need to change the topic. Could we talk about it during office hours?

Thank you,

[Your name]

tl;dr: Undergraduates often annoy instructors by asking for information that the instructors think they should be getting from the syllabus. Scroll up for some advice about how to ask for information/help without annoying instructors.

If you’re feeling bad about your kid after an IEP meeting

Content note: This is directed at parents, and it’s about mitigating damage that can be done by the stigmatizing language in the IEP process. It expresses sympathy towards parents who are feeling things that can be harmful to disabled kids (as well as a call for parents handle those feelings constructively). This post may be triggering to people with disabilities who have been harmed by these kinds of attitudes. 

The IEP process can be really hard on kids, parents, and families. In order to get your kid the services they need, you’ve probably had to describe them using some awful language. It likely violated every one of your instincts about how parents ought to describe their kids. You may have had to do it anyway, in order to get your kid access to education.

It’s pretty normal to feel awful about either yourself or your child after describing them in such negative terms or allowing others to do so. It’s wrong, and it feels wrong, and you often can’t do anything about it — and it often comes along with pressure to believe that this is being caused by your child’s disability. If you’re finding that you feel that way, it’s important to do something about it. Kids are generally very aware of how adults in their lives feel about them. Feeling that way about your kid on an ongoing basis is really damaging to them and to your relationship with them. Don’t beat yourself up; do find ways to mitigate it.

It can help a lot to remind yourself that nothing about your child’s disability causes this kind of language. No child should ever be described this way, including yours. They’re not being described this way because of the things they can’t do — they’re being described this way because the system is ableist and often unwilling to respond to disability constructively. It’s not their fault, and it’s not your fault — it’s an awful fact about our culture’s attitudes towards disability.

You wouldn’t say that a baby is failing because they’re not talking — it’s just part of being a baby. If someone said that a typically-developing eight year old was failing because they can’t write 10 page papers, most people would be outraged. Your child’s development isn’t failure either, and they deserve appropriate education without stigma or panic. They are allowed to have a body and a brain, and they deserve to be respected as a human being. Language that treats them as a collection of deficits is cruel, and doesn’t reflect reality.

Your child’s differences aren’t a failure. Their development is what it is, and that’s ok. It’s ok to be different. It’s ok to have a disability. It’s ok to need appropriate education. Their need for appropriate education is not failure, it’s just that you sometimes have to cooperate with a system that wrongly describes it that way.

One way you can show yourself that it shouldn’t be this way is to write a better description of your kid after the fact. Rewrite what your child is learning, and what you’d like them to learn. Write about what the barriers are, and what kind of help they need. Write about their rights, and where you see that they might be violated. Write about them as the child who you know and love, not a collection of scary deficits. (It can also help to write down ten of your favorite things about your kid.) Their disability does not call for freaking out. It’s just part of who they are, and that’s ok.

Short version: IEPs describe kids using cruel stigmatizing language that doesn’t reflect reality. Having to cooperate with them anyway can do serious damage to parent-child relationships. Rewriting a new and better description of your child can help to mitigate this damage.

Recognizing uniqueness is not a substitute for thinking about disability

Teachers who are really good at teaching typically developing kids sometimes have trouble understanding the significance of disability. I’ve heard a lot of things like “all kids are unique” and “I always individualize my approach for every kid” and “I don’t see the need to label any kids as disabled, it’s just a matter of finding what works for them”.

This sounds positive, but it can be a disaster for kids with disabilities.

We talk a lot about uniqueness, but a lot of effective teaching depends on understanding ways in which kids are similar to each other. Developmentally appropriate practice means understanding how kids the same age are similar to each other — then being flexible in ways that recognize kids’ unique humanity. We develop a sense of what the range of difference is for kids of a particular age.

Kids with disabilities are more different than that, and we need to take those differences seriously. Disability matters, and practices based on typical developmental milestones don’t account for it.

For instance:

Developmental milestones tell us:

  • Two year olds don’t have the motor skills to support handwriting.
  • Early education helps two year olds develop the motor skills that will eventually support handwriting.
  • Ten year olds do have the motor skills to support handwriting.
  • If they’ve had appropriate education, ten year olds should be able to write.

Developmental milestones don’t tell us:

  • How to teach ten year olds who don’t have the fine motor skills to support handwriting.
  • What early literacy and pre-writing instruction looks like for young children who are unlikely to develop the motor skills needed to support handwriting

It’s also important to understand the difference between unusual and unique. Disability means having unusual differences. But not every difference is unique. Some differences are shared by other people with disabilities. Those shared differences are important.

We need to understand the disability-related similarities. Part of that is having the right words to describe them. Calling disabilities by their right names isn’t about labeling, it’s about breaking isolation and making important things speakable.

For instance:


  • Braille exists because blind people need it to exist
  • The differences between sighted people and blind people are a reason that braille needs to exist.
  • (And a reason that Braille is better than raised print).
  • The similarities between many blind people are a reason that braille *can* exist as a standard way of accessing literacy.
  • If each blind person was completely unique, there would be no way to create a reading and writing system that would work for large numbers of blind people.

Some other examples:

  • Wheelchairs.
  • Ramps.
  • Large print.
  • Cars with hand controls and/or wheelchair lifts.
  • Text-to-speech communication devices.
  • VoiceOver and other screen reading software.
  • Signed languages.
  • Medications that manage symptoms.
  • Supportive seating.
  • The ADA, Section 504, IDEA and other disability rights laws.

People with disabilities are unique, and not interchangeable with each other. Similarly, kids the same age are unique, and not interchangeable with each other. Both the similarities and differences are important.

Short version: Sometimes progressive educators are uncomfortable with the concept of disability, and want to instead just see every kid’s uniqueness. That doesn’t work, because disability means having unusual differences — and because the differences aren’t unique; they’re shared with many other disabled people. Recognizing uniqueness isn’t enough — we also need to understand and accommodate disability.

Picking humanities paper topics

Picking a good topic for college papers in humanities classes can be challenging. It’s particularly hard if the subject of the class is new to you, and/or if you’re not used to choosing your own topics.

Good topics usually have all of these attributes:

  • You find the topic interesting.
  • The topic is relevant to the class.
  • Enough material is available that you’ll be able to find sources.
  • The topic is small/specific enough that you’ll be able to write about it in the amount of time you have.
  • The teacher knows enough about the topic to be able to help you if you get stuck.

One way to find topics that probably fit into all of those categories is to use the class syllabus:

  • Look through the syllabus of the class.
  • Find the reading that is most interesting to you.
  • When you do that reading, notice what you’re curious or confused about.
  • Is there something that doesn’t make sense?
  • Is there something that makes a surprising amount of sense?
  • Or something that you’d like to know more about?
  • Or something that raises a question?
  • Once you’ve found something you want to know about, write down your question.
  • Then look at the footnotes in the reading.
  • Go look up the sources the reading cites.
  • It can also help to check out the book that the reading came from, or to look up other things by the author.

This usually works well because:

  • If the reading has a citation related to your question, that means there’s material on it.
  • If your topic is related to the reading, your teacher will probably be at least somewhat familiar with it.
  • If you’re raising a question about the reading, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to finish the paper in the amount of time you have.
  • If the topic is coming out of a question you had while reading, you’re more likely to find it interesting while you write.
  • Writing about something closely related to the reading can also help you to review material and prepare for the final exam.

Short version: Picking a paper topic in humanities classes can be hard. Using the readings and the syllabus to find topics can make it easier. Scroll up for some specifics about how to do that.

Electronic books can make reading possible for people with executive dysfunction

Electronic books can be an important disability accommodation for a lot of people, including some people with normal vision. If you’re having a lot of trouble reading, or not reading as much as you’d like to, it might help to use electronic books.

There are a lot of steps involved in reading a print book. Some of these steps can be difficult or impossible for people with impaired executive function, autistic inertia, fatigue, chronic pain, or other conditions. Some difficult steps can be eliminated with electronic books.

In order to start reading a print book, you have to be able to do all of these things:

  • Have the book in a place where it’s available to you when you have time to read.
  • (Which can involve remembering to bring with you somewhere.)
  • (And keeping track of the book and not losing it.)
  • Decide to stop what you’re doing and do a different kind of task.
  • Figure out where the book is.
  • Go get the book.
  • Avoid getting distracted by other things as you find the book or get the book.
  • Figure out where you are in the book.
  • (Which can involve things like remembering the place.)
  • (Or using a bookmark, which comes with its own multi-step challenges like remembering that bookmarks exist and having one available.)
  • Open the book to the right page.
  • Avoid getting distracted by other parts of the book.
  • Get into a position in which you can read, which you can also sustain long enough to read for a significant among of time.
  • Actually start reading the book.
  • If you want to take notes or highlight, you also have to gather all your note-taking tools.
  • And not get distracted and forget what you’re doing.
  • And not forget where you put the book in the process.
  • That’s a lot of steps, any one of which can sometimes be difficult or impossible.
  • Using electronic copies can eliminate some of these steps, or make them easier.
  • This can be game-changing.

Some ways in which electronic copies can eliminate steps:

  • You can store your entire electronic library on one device (or synced to multiple devices).
  • If you know where your device is, then you know where all of your electronic books are.
  • This can mean you don’t have to physically search for anything.
  • (Electronically searching to remember where you put something can be much easier.)
  • You also don’t have to remember to bring a specific book. You just have to remember to bring one device.
  • (Which can be a device like your laptop, phone, or iPad which you’re in the habit of carrying with you anyway).
  • If you’re already using your computer, you don’t have to get up to go get your book.
  • You also don’t have to change positions.
  • Being able to stay in the same position and location can make it much easier to start reading.
  • It can also be easier to remember your place. A lot of software will leave the book open to the same place as when you were last reading it.
  • Searching can be easier, faster, and less distracting than flipping through a print book. (This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for some people).
  • Electronic bookmarks may also be easier to use than physical ones.
  • You don’t have to look for highlighters, pens, pencils or notebooks, all of that is right there in the book-reading software.
  • Eliminating these steps can make reading a lot easier.
  • Making it easier can make it possible.

This isn’t the right strategy for everyone; computers, phones and other devices have their own executive dysfunction pitfalls. But for some people, it makes reading much more possible.

Short version: Some people have trouble reading print books, even if they have normal vision. Sometimes the reason for this is that executive dysfunction (or another disability) makes some of the steps involved in starting to read a print book difficult or impossible. (Eg: people with ADHD might get distracted looking for the book.) For some people, using electronic books instead of print books can make reading much more possible. Scroll up for some specific reasons that electronic books can help.

Access straw men

A lot of people are reluctant to change anything for the sake of accessibility, even if the change would be inexpensive and easy. Often, they resist even considering the possibility that there are changes they could make that would enable a broader range of people to participate.

Often, they set up access strawmen as a way to avoid negotiating access. 

Those conversations go like this:

  • The disabled person asks for a modification of some sort.
  • The resistant person ignores the actual request.
  • They instead describe something vaguely related that’s obviously unreasonable.
  • Then they insinuate that the disabled person asked them for the obviously unreasonable thing
  • They implore the disabled person to be more flexible and reasonable
  • The disabled person generally doesn’t get their needs met, and often ends up disoriented and feeling a lot of shame

An example:

  • Douglas: I can’t climb stairs. I need class to be held in a room on the first floor.
  • Roger: It sounds like what you really need is for all the buildings to be rebuilt for you. I can’t rebuild all the buildings; I have to focus on teaching.

Or sometimes:

  • Dawn: I can only read lips if people are looking at me. Can we talk about how to make class discussions work?
  • Robin: I can’t stop other students from talking to each other. Why don’t you take this opportunity to work on your listening skills?

When a person with a disability asks for an accommodation in school, work, a conference, or wherever, don’t set up a straw man to reject. Respond to the actual problem, and try to find a solution. Is there  a way to do the thing they’re asking for? If not, why not? Is there something else you *could* do that would work? Occasionally there is no good solution; more often, there is a way to make things work. When people in positions of responsibility are willing to look for access solutions and put effort into implementing them, a lot of things become possible.

Uncertain abilities and the right to fail

Being disabled often means being unable to reliably predict what you will and won’t be able to do. Or whether something will be hard or easy. Sometimes this is for physical reasons; sometimes it’s because of how people treat us; often it’s both.

For instance, taking a class might involve uncertainty about any or all of these things (and lots of other things that I didn’t think of):

  • Am I cognitively capable of learning the material?
  • Am I physically capable of doing everything the class requires?
  • Will anyone be willing to do the group work with me in a way that makes it possible?
  • Will I be well enough to come to class regularly?
  • Will I live long enough to get the chance to apply what I learn in the class to my work?
  • Do I have the executive functioning to do this when I’m also doing other things?
  • Will the class material be so triggering that I dissociate frequently and miss a lot of what’s going on?
  • If I miss material for disability-related reasons, will there be a way to make it up?
  • Will I be able to get into the classroom?
  • Will I be able to stay in the classroom safely?
  • Will the teacher want me there?
  • Will they get me accessible materials in a timely manner?
  • Will they teacher have the skills to figure out how to teach me?
  • Will they allowed to be flexible in the ways I need them to be?
  • Will I have to fight for what I need? Will the fight be successful?

Disability typically involves a lot of uncertainty. It means that it’s often completely unknowable whether or not you will be able to do something. This means that the risk of failure is often much higher than it is for people without disabilities. If we try new things, we’ll usually fail at more of them than people without disabilities.

Sometimes people take that to mean that we should only be allowed to do things that are definitely within our abilities, to spare us the pain of failure. Or, to spare them and us the pain of having to notice that we’re disabled and that there are things we can’t do, no matter how hard we try.

This has disastrous consequences for children in special education and adults who live in the system, who may never be allowed to attempt anything harder than preschool curriculum. And, when we’re allowed in mainstream settings, we’re often terrified that failure may mean that we’ll be kicked out and sent to segregated settings.

When we’re not allowed to fail, we’re also not allowed to succeed. Because for all people, success rests on a lot of failed attempts. And because disability typically involves uncertain abilities, we usually need to make a lot more failed attempts than nondisabled people as we figure it out. Watching our peers succeed at things we fail at can be painful. So can trying really hard and finding that something we wanted to do is not possible for us. So can finding that something is dramatically more difficult for us than anyone else we know. That pain is real; it’s also bearable. We can fail and be ok. We can bump up against our limitations and be ok. We don’t need to live in cages full of easy tasks to avoid these things.

Short version: Being disabled means we often can’t reliably predict what we can and can’t do. (Or how hard something will be.) Finding the things we can do well often involves trying and failing at a lot of things.  The only way to find out is by trying things. Sometimes people try to prevent us from ever trying anything because they think that the pain of failure is unbearable. When we’re not allowed to fail, we’re not allowed to succeed either. We need space to fail without shame or punishment, so that we can find the things that we can do. It’s ok to be disabled. It’s ok to not know what you can do. It’s ok to try things that you might fail at. It’s ok to fail and keep trying, or to give up and try something else. It’s ok to decide that it’s not a good time to take those kinds of risks. We all learn to calibrate when to take these risks and when not to, and these are decisions that we need to be allowed to make.

Executive dysfunction and teachers

we-aint-borntypical asked: Sorry if this is late, but how do I tell my teachers about my executive dysfunction and how it affects my ability to do assignments?

realsocialskills said:

I think the most important thing you can do is accept that the problem is real, and that it’s ok to need help.

It can be hard to accept that executive dysfunction is real. It can be very tempting to feel like if we just try harder or wait long enough, it will somehow work out. And some percentage of the time that does work — which can make it seems like it will *always* work if we try hard enough. But it doesn’t work that way, and expecting it to causes a lot of problems.

Executive dysfunction means that sometimes there are insurmountable barriers to doing things completely independently. Sometimes this can happen with things that our culture says are easy and that you may not have heard of anyone having trouble with. It can be hard to come to terms with that. It gets easier with practice.

More directly about managing relationships with teachers, I’ve found two things helpful: I try to err heavily on the side of asking for help as soon as I’m feeling stuck, and I also try to select instructors based on understanding and/or cognitive compatibility.

If you’re facing an assignment and can’t figure out how to make progress on it, it’s good to err on the side of asking for help immediately. This can be hard to do, especially if you feel ashamed or like you don’t have a good reason. It’s actually ok though, and it gets easier with practice.

It’s normal to need help sometimes, even if the reasons you need it are unusual. All teachers have students who need help. Good teachers understand this and consider needing help normal. (Not all teachers are good, but many are). A lot of teachers care about helping their students, and it’s usually a lot easier for them to do that if you ask sooner rather than later. (It also saves you the time you’d waste trying to do something impossible through sheer force of will.)

If you can, it helps to explain in concrete terms what you are having trouble with, and what you think would help. (If you don’t know what would help, the concrete request might be “Can we meet to talk about this assignment?”). I think that it usually helps to err on the side of talking about concrete problems rather than abstract concepts like executive dysfunction.

For instance, I think “I’m having trouble getting started on this assignment. Could you help me narrow down my topic?” is usually more effective than “Executive dysfunction makes this assignment hard for me, what should I do?”. That said, if the latter is the only way you can ask for help in a particular situation, don’t wait until you know a better way. It’s ok to ask for help imperfectly; it’s ok to need help even if you’re not sure what help you need.

Not all teachers will be good at helping you. Some won’t be willing, some some won’t know how. Some will be inconsistent. But a good percentage of teachers *are* skilled at helping. If you have a choice about who your teachers are, it’s good to err on the side of picking teachers who are good at helping.

Also, some teachers are going to be inherently more cognitively compatible with you than others. Different teachers do instruction and assessment differently. If you have a choice, it can be good to err on the side of taking classes with teachers who give assignments that are more reliably possible for you.

Aside from attributes of teachers — asking for help effectively is a set of skills. One of those skills is the emotional skill of feeling ok about the fact that you need help. Another is assessing what’s going on and figuring out what your needs are. Another is expressing it to teachers in a way that they can understand and act on readily. And there are other skills I’m not sure how to explain. No one is born knowing how to do these things, and they all get easier with practice.

Short version: Executive dysfunction makes school complicated. Taking classes with teachers who teach in a way that makes cognitive sense to you can help, when you have a choice. It can be hard to ask for help, and hard to feel ok about needing help. That’s a set of skills, and it gets a lot easier with practice.

A thought on making difference ok

One issue with accommodations and modifications in school, is that it can often be hard to avoid stigma. Kids don’t usually like being singled out or doing things conspicuously differently. Also, nondisabled kids often resent it when disabled kids are allowed to do things that they are not allowed to do.

Further, one frequent objection to accommodations is “but if I let one kid do this, then all the other kids will want to.”

Sometimes that’s true — and, often, the best solution to that problem is to just let all the kids do whatever the thing is. Sometimes there’s no good reason to restrict access to something. Sometimes changing the rule works better than making exceptions to it.

One way that something works to correct this problem is to make some of their accommodations available to other kids who would like to try them. The kid who has a documented need for accommodations probably isn’t the only one who would benefit from them.

And even aside from that, it’s good for kids to explore the world and experiment with different ways of doing things. This is a good way to learn that difference is normal, and that doing things differently is a basic fact of life.

For instance, if one kid needs to use manipulatives for math, maybe try making manipulatives available to all the kids.

If one kid needs a large print worksheet, maybe make a few large print copies and let kids try doing it that way.

If one kid needs to chew stuff, maybe make things available for other kids to chew.

If one kid needs to use fidget toys, maybe make them available to all the kids who would like to try it.

If one kid needs to type, and you have the resources to make that available to other kids too, maybe let them try doing assignments that way. And let the kids that works better for continue to do it.

And, beyond that, it helps to get in the habit of providing different ways to do things even when there isn’t a kid who needs them as a specific accommodation.

Not in the sense of “take a walk in the disabled kid’s shoes”, this is not a disability simulation. The point shouldn’t be empathy building, and it should not be presented as being about the disabled kid. The message is “there are a lot of legitimate ways to do things, and it’s ok to experiment and figure out what works for you, even if most people don’t do it the same way as you”.

You can’t always do this, and you can’t always do this for everything. When you can, it helps, a lot.

When a class is harder than you expected


My entire life English has been my thing – my best class, I even just started writing a novel. And AP Lang is kicking my butt up down and all around.

Advice on avoiding the soulcrushing feeling that I lost a large part of my identity to this class?

realsocialskills said:

I think it might help to remember that this class is not an ultimate test of whether you’re good at writing.

It’s one class. I don’t know why it’s kicking your butt. There are a lot of possibilities.

For instance:

New skills that don’t come naturally to you:

  • Sometimes students who are good at a particular subject expect that everything about it will always come naturally to them.
  • In the long run, that’s unlikely to be true.
  • No matter how good someone is at something, there will probably be things that are difficult, unnatural, and have a steep learning curve.
  • This can be scary the first time students experience it, particularly if they have a lot of identity hung up in being good at something.
  • Particularly if they’re young enough that their peer group might be made up of people who also haven’t experienced struggling with their strongest subject much before.
  • If that’s the issue, it might help to remember that this is normal. Everyone struggles with something related to their field in the long run. That’s ok.
  • And it also might help to remember that part of being great at something is learning how to do hard things
  • Most people who write seriously consider writing to be difficult.
  • Writing is probably going to be hard sometimes. Sometimes it’s going to feel like a miserable slog. It’s still worth doing. For a lot of writers, writing through the stuck places is a vital part of what makes good writing possible.

The class might be designed to kick your butt. Some classes are like that, eg:

  • Some teachers assign things that they know are barely possible for their students
  • The point of this is to push you hard to increase your skills dramatically over the semester
  • Teachers who do this tend to keep making the assignments harder as their students develop more skills
  • Your teacher may be assigning books they expect most or all of the students to find extremely difficult to read
  • Your teacher may be having you write in ways that they know will be very difficult
  • Or holding you to very high standards that they expect to be only barely possible for you to meet
  • Struggling with that kind of class doesn’t mean you’re bad at English
  • It means that you’re in a class where the teacher is pushing you really hard, and not giving you any chances to do anything comfortable
  • If this is a factor, it might help to remind yourself that it’s ok to struggle when you’re being asked to do difficult things

The grading standards might be more difficult than you’re used to:

  • Different teachers grade differently
  • In most classes, there’s a default grade you get if you do all the assignments more-or-less competently. In some classes, that’s an A. In others, it’s a B. In others, it’s a C.
  • If you’re having to work much harder for grades than you’re used to, it may well just mean that the scale is different.
  • (Even if it’s a teacher you’ve had before; many teachers grade AP classes more stringently).

Your classmates might be different than you’re used to:

  • Sometimes students are used to being much better than their peers at a subject
  • Then they take an advanced class, and everyone else is good at the subject too
  • Then they’re not dramatically better at it anymore, and feel like they must not be good at it after all
  • This is also common among people who are used to being at the top of their class in high school, then go on to an elite school and have peers who were also at the top of their classes
  • If this is what’s going on, it might help to try to focus on doing things well rather than doing them better than your peers
  • And to remember that if you’re around others who are strong in your subject, you can learn from them as well as the teacher
  • You don’t have to dramatically outperform everyone else for your skills to be real
  • Writing well and reading seriously matter as ends in themselves, whatever test scores say.

The class might suck:

  • Some classes are terrible and make students feel terrible.
  • The teacher might be giving you unreasonable or unclear assignments
  • The assigned books might be excruciatingly dull.
  • The writing assignments might be pointless busywork that makes you hate writing.
  • The teacher might be mean.
  • Your classmates might be mean.
  • You might have access needs that the teacher isn’t meeting.
  • Or any number of other ways classes can suck.
  • Most people who go to school for a long time deal with classes that suck sometimes.
  • If that’s the problem, it might help to keep in mind that bad classes don’t mean you’re bad, and that the class will end.

You might have a lot of other stuff going on.

  • High school is hard on a number of levels for a lot of people.
  • Particularly the last two years, in which there can be a lot of pressure to believe that your future will be ruined if you don’t push yourself superhumanly hard.
  • Life in general can be hard for all kinds of reasons.
  • Sometimes when stuff is really hard, people find things difficult that they normally are able to do easily.

Mental or physical health:

  • If you have a mental or physical health condition, that can make school harder.
  • Some mental and physical health conditions tend to start in adolescence.
  • Long-standing conditions often also change or develop complications in adolescence.
  • Health conditions in adolescence are not always diagnosed quickly or treated appropriately.
  • Even when things are managed well, they still have to be managed, and that can still complicate things a lot
  • And that’s not always acknowledged, particularly when people want to reassure you that your brain is fine and you are totally mentally normal
  • The reality is that mental and physical health problems, as well as treatment, tend to make school harder
  • It can help to remember that it’s not your fault that dealing with health is hard and takes time and can suck in other ways and makes things other than health hard sometimes.
  • Or, as one of my friends once said to me, “it turns out that brains care more about oxygen than they do about academics.”

Disability issues:

  • Sometimes students with disabilities start needing academic accommodations when their classes get harder.
  • For instance, someone who could take notes by hand in an easy class might need a computer to take notes in a hard class.
  • Someone with dyslexia who can read 20 pages a week of standard print might need to use a screenreader for a class that requires 120 pages a week.
  • When students haven’t needed accommodations before, or haven’t needed them in a while, it doesn’t always occur to anyone that they might need them now
  • (Particularly if they were pushed really hard to learn to do something in the standard way, and were able to do so for a few years before classes got harder).
  • If you have a disability or suspect that you might, it’s worth considering whether you would benefit from modifications or support.

And in general: There are any number of reasons this class could be hard. This class is not a test of whether you are good at English, whether you are good at writing, or whether you should write a novel. If you want to write, you can do that, and do it well, no matter what happens in this class.

Short version: A lot of things can make classes hard, even in subjects you’re used to being good at. Those classes aren’t tests of whether you’re good at the subject, or whether you can keep doing the things you’re interested in. They’re just classes. It’s ok to do hard things.