ADHD and the Foreign Service Part Two: The Bidding System Pretty Much Sucks for Special Needs

In my first post on this subject, I described ADHD as my son experiences it (and as we experience it— do we ever.) Now, on to how this has worked for getting posted overseas.

My intention is not actually to rant, although there are definitely days when I feel like doing that. It is just to chronicle the experience. Hey, you never know, it might be useful to someone else one day. As a cautionary tale, if nothing else.

A year ago, when started to look at going overseas this summer, we knew that we would have to find a post that could accommodate my son. This wasn’t just because we’d been told that he would have to be cleared for post. We had some really bad experiences at our last overseas post with an international school that was a terrible fit for him.

We arrived at post when he was 5 years old, and could not have known at that point how the situation would deteriorate. While we knew he was a bit different, his preschool teachers in the States were noncommittal as to whether he was ADHD or gifted. They simply advised that we hold off on putting him into kindergarten in order to give him an extra year to mature.

Well, as it turns out, he was both ADHD and gifted, which is a tough combination. After all, as I told the school at post, just because he may be ADHD doesn’t mean that he isn’t genuinely bored in a class that is reading Clifford while he reads Harry Potter and Encyclopedia Brown at home. There are many international schools that simply aren’t willing to deal with any kid who doesn’t get with the program. This was one of those schools. He was basically kicked out, which was a traumatic experience for him, as you can imagine. Not much fun for us, either.

Fortunately, we found another (British) school at post which immediately identified him as being gifted, put him on an IEP and gave him more advanced reading as well as a pull-out project with another bright boy. That school, which had an overall higher academic level than the American one as well, turned out to be the best educational experience my son has had to date.

So, when we started looking for schools this time, we began with an abundance of caution. Having already done four tours on the cucaracha circuit, and my husband having just returned from an unaccompanied tour, we thought we’d shoot for Europe. What the heck–surely one first world country in the course of an FS career is a reasonable goal? And, we thought it would be cool experience for our son, who is actually very independent, with decent real-world skills for his age, and would love to have the run of a European city. Also, since we were already in DC, it was a good opportunity for my husband to pick up another language on the way out.

My husband came up without about eight jobs that would a good fit for him. I started researching schools at those posts.

***TEENY LITTLE RANT***

Allow me to make the point that this process would have been much easier had I had direct access to post information online. As it was, for each post, I had to ask my husband to go on the ironically titled “Open Net” and dig up information that I would have been happy to find myself. For example, the names and emails of CLOs, regional psychiatrists, regional medical officers, and the appropriate contacts at M/MED, Employee Counseling Services, and the Office of Overseas Schools. Keep in mind that I am donating my time to getting State’s employee to post. Giving me access to the resources that I need to accomplish that does not seem like too much to ask!

***END OF RANT***

It turns out that it is actually very difficult to find an overseas high school that is willing to accommodate ADHD. For a start, many of them require the IB diploma. My daughter got her IB diploma here in the U.S., so I know how much work and organizational ability it requires. I concurred with the admissions officers’ frank opinions that my son would not be able to handle it. He needs a “normal” high school with AP or IB courses in his strong subjects.

At least three posts were crossed off the list for that reason alone. But I give the schools credit for being upfront about it, anyway.

That left a few more posts, and a flurry of emails between myself, various CLOs and school admissions offices. In the end, we found two posts that had schools with good special ed support services and that did not require the IB diploma. We were cleared to bid on both. One of them was described as “ideal” for my son by his ECS caseworker.

My husband bid on those two posts, was offered a handshake on the “ideal” post, and came in a strong second on the other. We were totally psyched. All our hard work was finally going to pay off. My husband would get a great job, my son would get a great education, and we’d all get to live in Europe for a while.

But then the ideal post was given to another officer who outranked my husband and bid on it at the last minute. And the second post was given to a native speaker of the local language.

I’m not going to get into all the details, which are a whole other subject, but for purposes of this discussion, I will point out that neither of the officers who were assigned to these posts had school-age children.

So, it certainly seems to me that our family’s needs simply did not play a role in the final assignment. And, I have to ask, what is the purpose of all this identification of needs and clearances for bids if they are not going to play a role in the assignment? It seems to me that all that is accomplished is a system that restricts bidding for people with special needs children, but does not address their needs at the point where it matters: assigning officers to posts.

Which leads to another interesting point: I was absolutely amazed at how many people (not official people mind you, but other FS parents) either hinted or stated outright that I should at hide, or at least minimize, my son’s issues when communicating with State and with schools. I was also surprised at how many admissions officers thanked me for my “honesty.” This says volumes about how this system is working for families with special needs children. Apparently, the strategy that works best is to bid on posts and work out the educational issues later.

Of course, one result of this is that when you are actually honest and upfront about your kids’ issues, schools probably think you are hiding something even worse! And it is a great disservice to kids to put them in schools that can’t accommodate them. Trust me, I know all about that.

All of this eventually led to where we are today: just a few weeks from departure and unsure whether or not we are actually going to post. I will write more about how this particular situation came about next time. But it seems to me that this system serves no one. We have been through a lot of stress that could easily have been avoided had our family’s needs been taken into account in the first place. The State Department has spent a ton of money educating my husband in a language he may not actually need. And the post may lose an officer (a pretty darn good one, if I may say so) on short notice.

Perhaps some system could be implemented that gives ECS and O/OS some positive input into the bidding process instead of only negative input–saying where we can’t bid. For example, ECS could offer a  memo to the panel on behalf of the officer who requests it stating that a post is especially suitable because of specific educational needs. The purpose would not actually be to keep FS families happy–God forbid–but to ensure successful assignments.

Would that really be so crazy?

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