It all began when my son was 8. He overheard a school teacher call him "the boy with issues". Naturally he asked me the following day, "Mum, do I have issues?" My answer was immediate. Without hesitation: "Yes. Everyone does."

Yet as the years pass, I watch my gregarious boy repeatedly slapped back with judgment from institutions that all say they celebrate individuality, but eventually bristle at his nonconformity. And with each incident, his skin thickens and his spirit dulls. The label becomes a reputation, the reputation morphs into a persona, and the persona hardens into a shield against the words that keep on coming. The child who once filled every room with joy is now riddled with self-doubt. All because the very people charged with nurturing his growth have instead become arbiters of “normalcy” - judges of character, deciding which quirks are acceptable and which have to be expunged in order to “fit in”.

He’s now 12 years old and officially diagnosed with ADHD. He is boisterous, creative, forgetful, sensitive, daring, curious, gets bored easily and is occasionally impulsive with words and actions. Selective memory of a brilliant mind. And when he is stressed or emotionally overwhelmed, he tics - physical reactions to his weakness towards talking about things that bother him. Above all though, he is a child. His main purpose in life is to make his friends laugh, be loved by all. He's most at ease in front of a crowd, surrounded by attention. Yet his character faces daily scrutiny and rigid discipline. Targeted for minor infractions, barred from mistakes and presumed ill-behaved. Learning feels impossible with a target on his back.

But his story is far from unique.

There are countless children with learning differences or needs outside the “norm” who are falling through the cracks of a broken system.

Our education clings to restrictive traditions at the expense of students’ wellbeing, privacy, and personal growth. Studies reveal lectures over 10-20 minutes rapidly decrease student retention, yet passive listening remains the norm. According to The Atlantic, students take a staggering 113 standardized tests from pre-K to 12th grade, though these narrowly focused exams fail to capture diverse skills and learning styles. Tracking systems that reinforce differences are known to harm student self-esteem by categorizing children as “basic,” “standard,” and “advanced”. Excessive homework still piles on despite proof it increases student stress while providing no academic benefit. Students with sensory issues face challenges from noisy, bright classrooms.Yet schools do little to improve these environments.

The stubborn adherence to outdated methods demonstrates a systemic failure to truly meet students' needs and cultivate their unique talents. What is often pushed instead are medications aimed at quick behavioral fixes versus meaningful accommodations - band aids that theoretically help teachers more than students. In short, the focus remains on changing the child rather than adapting the system, revealing a bias rooted more in convenience. Are we failing our most vibrant young minds? More importantly, are we shaming them into thinking they're “wrong”, “weird” or “bad”?

Shot by Nico Froehlich

Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for teens. 17% have considered it within a year and 8% have attempted. Marginalized teens face up to 5 times the risk. Underscoring the need for proactive emotional support long before crisis stage. The blood of suffering youth stains our hands.

Remaining complicit while the most vulnerable slip through the cracks makes us culpable. Passive parents enable the status quo. And marginalized youth are squeezed into boxes. Parents must partner with schools to pioneer bold reforms. Are we raising soldiers, robots or students of life?

While academic success can provide some advantages, ample evidence suggests it does not directly determine happiness or fulfillment. Our fixation on grades comes at the detriment of nurturing qualities more aligned with mental health and wellbeing.

A 50+ year Stanford study found zero correlation between straight-A students in high school and success later in life, quantified by conventional achievements like salary, community involvement, and satisfactory relationships. According to a comprehensive Gallup study, there is no association between grade point averages and employee engagement at work. And a Harvard study found students with higher GPAs in college were no more satisfied or successful financially and professionally compared to those with lower GPAs.

And so we arrive at the tragic irony - science confirms the very qualities my son naturally possesses - grit, astuteness, curiosity, creativity, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy - are the strongest predictors of professional success and life fulfillment, not the rigid academic metrics by which he is judged. The research is clear, and yet we continue to crush spirited children into conformity. A unified goal must be helping each child shine as their distinctive selves, not dimming their differences. The journey begins in a teacher's smile, small moments of reassurance that every child has wings beyond measure. Our duty is clearing their path, and then stepping back and watching in awe as they take flight.