As a long-time education advocate, she has just, within the past year, publicly acknowledged an adult diagnosis of ADHD from more than 30 years ago. It has been the silent challenge for most of her life since she was a young child. But now, she wants to be vocal about it so others can avoid what she says is stigma.
As a school girl taught by Catholic nuns, Danielle Dalton has written many lines on the chalkboard during her life. Now a past college educator, adult trainer, business manager, president of AFFNO supporting French language in schools, wife and mother of seven, the most recent line is that ADHD should be just a word to reflect the need for a different learning style.
The little girl who spoke only French wore a school uniform, attended mass every day, and was full of curious energy as a child into her teenage years. She said that overflowing intensity was difficult to contain, telling the story of how the priest just had enough one day. He stopped mass to tell her to be quiet.
She grew up in Quebec, as her grandmother’s 16th child, in a time when ADHD had the labels of naughty, troublesome, mischievous, or as she puts it, in her 1957 household, it was called, “For Pete’s sake — what is wrong with Danielle?”
The nickname people referred to her by was “Tornado.” She was one of three siblings. She was raised by her grandmother after her father was shot and killed when she was six years old. There were many family challenges in her youth, such as violence, addiction and abuse.
“When I grew up, if your parents were not married, you were ostracized by the entire community. Parents did not let their children play with you. You were abused in school by the nuns and were never properly socialized,” she said. “People always called me all sorts of names.”
The behaviours of others ostracizing her are often the same received by many with ADHD.
But she said she escaped from that by reading novels on the front porch of her grandmother’s house, eventually leaving it all behind when she hitchhiked to Miami at the age of 17.
In Florida, she became a nanny to a little boy for a year. Later she made her way to New York and cleaned the house of a wealthy family. It was here she became engaged to the son, but even love couldn’t keep her in one place.
As a self-described bohemian travelling with just a pair of jeans in a backpack, her wanderlust took hold and she started en route north, across the border. Headed back to Quebec, she could now speak French, Latin, English and Spanish. However, Quebec didn’t hold her fancy for long when she was attracted by a newspaper ad for a rodeo stampede in Edmonton. Rooming with her friend who already lived there, she soon knew the city was not for her when Calgary started to call her name. It was there she met her husband Cary and settled down.
“I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t stay in one place. It’s only now I realize that a lack of focus affected the vision I had for my life.”
A Northcoast resident for more than 30 years, Danielle became part of the Prince Rupert landscape after leaving the prairie province and an executive management position with a major hotel chain. It was here that Danielle continued her career in hospitality management at the Crest for more than 16 years and also as a college educator at what is now Coast Mountain College.
But during that time and needing to be an example to her children, she returned to university to study criminology and social work. However, she never entered the probation stream.
“It would never have allowed me to see the students self-actualize. Now, I can be an example and part of that positive journey for them,” she said.
In 2007 she was headhunted by Hecate Strait Employment Development Services to lead a mature worker pilot programme. She went on to be a navigator with Work BC and then a training coordinator, educating adult learners.
Needing again to scratch that familiar itch of moving on, Danielle went to work for the City of Prince Rupert for more than two years as a customer service supervisor.
“I thought I needed a change. I learned fabulous things and new processes. But, I came back to my first love. I have a passion for education and helping people learn. I want to help them overcome their challenges, to teach them life skills, and to give them the tools to succeed,” she said.
It bothers and upsets her when students come to her programmes after leaving high school and they can’t read or write to a level needed in the workforce. She said this is usually because there is a learning disability that has not been addressed in an individual manner specific to the learner’s needs.
She believes class sizes are too large, and students lack incitement due to things like shorter recesses combined with the necessity to stay in their seats.
“Kids are exhausted by not having anything to stimulate them. They are not allowed to be kids anymore. They have to sit down and toe the line, and if you don’t learn like everybody else, there’s the stigma that there’s got to be something wrong with you.”
“I have been very sensitive to that all my life, through my own learning, through my hospitality career. People who learn differently are the reason I have learned that there are many different avenues for a student to follow. They are the reason I am an educator.”
She said the fact that ADHD or other learning disabilities are commonly referred to as mental illness annoys her.
‘I have to ask the question, how many of us do not want to declare ourselves because of the stigma … Since I was diagnosed and only last year started talking about it, a lot of people and students have opened up to me because they feel no one understands them. But all it is, is that their brain functions in a different way.”
The problems with students not learning are not teacher issues she specified, but rather overloaded system issues where everyone is thrown into the same fishbowl and told to swim.
“When some of these students come to us, barely able to read and write, we need to find a way to individualize learning for their success. We need to be able to open the door for them to be able to embrace the fantastic opportunities the Northcoast offers. But they can’t step over the threshold because the basics have been omitted from their learning processes.”
“I understand firsthand the hardship, the shame, the deprecation of learning differently and the amount of gruelling effort required to succeed. I want to share the drive forward to help students overcome the stigma with hope, belief, and dedication, so they can go after what they really want.”
“I’m not called Tornado as much as I used to be because I have found people who care. There are people who care about these learners. I am an educator because I care.”