Mother of Olympic Swimmer Michael Phelps and Learning Disabilities

““All kids can fail us at times. ““But if you work with them, nine times out of 10, they’ll make you proud.”

says Debbie Phelps, middle-school principal in Towson, Maryland, and mother of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps who won record eight gold medals in the Beijing Games.


Photo Credit: China Daily

““I was told by one of his teachers that he couldn’t focus on anything,” says Debbie. She consulted a doctor, and nine-year-old Michael was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD, ADD).

““That just hit my heart,” says Debbie. ““It made me want to prove everyone wrong. I knew that, if I collaborated with Michael, he could achieve anything he set his mind to.”

Debbie taught middle school for more than two decades and began working closely with Michael’s school to get him the extra attention he needed. ““Whenever a teacher would say, ‘Michael can’t do this,’ I’d counter with, ‘Well, what are you doing to help him?'” she recalls.

As you can see today, Debbie’s initiative, perseverance and creativity helped shape Michael Phelps, the super-athlete he has become. My friend, Cathy is right when she says that we can draw inspiration from Debbie’s story – whether our children have ADD or not. Steadfast and resourceful, Debbie saw strength where others saw weakness, and kept looking for ways to help her son after others were ready to give up.

Debbie’s story reminds me of my daughter, Marielle. In my daughter’s case, she was not diagnosed with anything.

When my two girls were growing up, Lauren seemed to be the brighter one over her younger sister in terms of reading, writing and speech. Naturally, friends, teachers and relatives compared the two. It got me worried because I didn’t want Marielle to feel inferior beside her elder sister. At the age of six (see how important it is to catch that window of opportunity), I discovered by accident that Marielle is an Alpha child, right-brained and creatively different. I took matters into my own hands and in the summer before she entered First grade, I initiated exercises to develop her right brain.

Little did I know that 1994 summer was Marielle’s turning point. A few months before she received her first grading report card, I held a 7th birthday party for her classmates. Naturally the parents went along with their child. A mother approached me and gushed ““My daughter told me so much about Marielle. She is so smart. You must be a proud mother”.

I was ““huh? really? I don’t think so. You must have mistaken me for another mother.” Then the mother got her child ““Isn’t Marielle the smartest in your class?”

Was it the brief summer activity that spurred her development? Was it the confidence she gained because she found a pathway to learning? Maybe I caught her preference for right brained thinking patterns just before she reached her 7th birthday. Was it the recognition from Marielle ““You mean I’m not really dumb!” after I told her that she might be predominantly right-brained? I may never know but I am proud of her.

As parents, we don’t necessarily have to be doomed to a child’s failure or learning disabilities . There are so many ways to help them overcome their limitations. We can’t rely on schools alone to help our children especially if the school is the traditional educational system designed for left-brained , auditory learners.

We, as parents need to work with our children during this window of opportunity before it is too late.

Noemi Lardizabal-Dado (1354 Posts)

You may contact Noemi (noemidado @ gmail.com) for speaking and consultancy services in the following areas: Parenting in the Digital Age (includes pro-active parenting on cyber-bullying and bullying) ; Social Business ; Reinventing One’s Life; and social media engagement. Our parenting workshop is called "Prep to Prime (P2P): Parenting in the Digital Age (An Un­Workshop)" P2P Un­Workshops are conducted by two golden women in their prime, Noemi and Jane, who have a century’s worth of experience between them. They are both accomplished professionals who chose to become homemakers. This 180­degree turn also put them on a different life course which includes blogging, social media engagement and citizen advocacy. They call their un­workshops Prep to Prime or P2P, for short, to emphasize the breadth of their parenting experience. They tackle different aspects and issues of parenting ­­ from managing pregnancies, prepping for the school years of children, dealing with househelp, managing the household budget, to maximizing one’s prime life and staying healthy through the senior years.


About Noemi Lardizabal-Dado

You may contact Noemi (noemidado @ gmail.com) for speaking and consultancy services in the following areas: Parenting in the Digital Age (includes pro-active parenting on cyber-bullying and bullying) ; Social Business ; Reinventing One’s Life; and social media engagement. Our parenting workshop is called "Prep to Prime (P2P): Parenting in the Digital Age (An Un­Workshop)" P2P Un­Workshops are conducted by two golden women in their prime, Noemi and Jane, who have a century’s worth of experience between them. They are both accomplished professionals who chose to become homemakers. This 180­degree turn also put them on a different life course which includes blogging, social media engagement and citizen advocacy. They call their un­workshops Prep to Prime or P2P, for short, to emphasize the breadth of their parenting experience. They tackle different aspects and issues of parenting ­­ from managing pregnancies, prepping for the school years of children, dealing with househelp, managing the household budget, to maximizing one’s prime life and staying healthy through the senior years.

  • I used to think that my youngest daughter Tania would have a hard time decoding because she has some articulation errors, unlike my7yo son Julian who was reading even before he turned 4. But last summer, Tania just “bloomed” she is not just reading, she is writing her own stories as well, and playing Lupang Hinirang and Ama Namin on the piano too (right hand only though) with very little supervision at the start.

    I have just written a post about this too, as a special ed teacher’s point of view:

    Phelps,Sports and ADHD

    • We had the same challenges pala. M stuttered a lot before she was first grade. Couldn’t read at all.

  • For a time I thought one of my kids had ADD, until my wife and I realized that we were both *too much* for our son. As a parent, there’s this pressure of wanting you’re children to be the best, but then again sometimes we just have to stop and listen and let them grow on their own, and our role is to make sure they are.

    CC Lozanos last blog post..The Jerks’ Reklamo ng Reklamo and Me

    • I would say that we should help our children reach their potential…it’s the best they can attain given their strengths and weakness/

  • my son was diagnosed with a communication disorder, at first we though he had autism. by the time he was almost 2, he never said anything and cannot focus on people. they took him to the doctor and he eventually got into speech therapy. he’s six right now and has a vocabulary of a 4 year old. at home, we follow up with conversations, learning games, flash cards, art work, and a bedtime story. and he can ready 1/3 of the book by himself, with a lil help. it’s not easy to have a child who has a disorder or has special needs, but it can be helped and managed. it’s good to remember that we are not alone, and that we are not raising a child alone.

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    • That’s progress! YOu never know what your child will attain. I remember my brother stuttered similar to my daughter even until his teens. Fortunately, he reached his potential in college. Now he is a neurologist in the USA. And everyone thought he was dumb.

  • aaawwww… this is very touching. i admire mothers like mrs. phelps.

    nicelys last blog post..Belo’s First Open House for Bloggers @ Belo Med Center, QC (O8.16.08)

    • I think most moms try their best to help their kids.

  • I for one loved her quote:
    “I’ve been there not to dictate or guide. I’m there to listen to what he wants to do and try to help him problem solve and make a wise decision.”

    As a parent, it’s extremely hard not to meddle, even with good intentions. Kudos to her for letting him become the best he could be… on his own.

    Joelles last blog post..Organize Your Life. Get a Pocketmod!

    • I know! I tend to meddle too but I don’t repeat myself. I just say it once and that’s it.

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  • Now that I am homeschooling my kids, I can very well relate to Michael Phelps’ mother. When my kids were enroled in regular schools, I often received notices from mmy kids’ teachers about what my kids can’t do and should not do. No, they were never diagnosed with anything. It’s just that the teachers were so used to generalizing and branding kids. I pulled them out of regular school and I see them flourish with our homeschooling adventures.

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