Long before the ferocious rise of the fidget spinner as of late, the ADHD debate has been a hot topic bubbling in the mommy community for decades, where it’s central controversy prevails … to medicate, or not to medicate? Statistics suggest that approximately 11% of school-age kids are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is characterized by lack of focus, impulsivity, and difficulty regulating executive functions. ADHD is most commonly diagnosed using empirical methods; practical and standardized testing, puzzles, interviews, and feedback from the parents or teacher. In most cases (roughly 75%), the teacher suggests to the parents that their child should be tested, because he or she can’t sit still, or is somehow disruptive in class. Naturally, the teacher’s own bias affects the result of the testing, and things snowball from there, potentially influencing the entire course of a child’s education. So sometimes I honestly just can’t help but wonder…
Do our kids really have an ADHD problem, or is it the teachers?
In our situation, it was the middle of 1st grade when the school approached us, recommended testing (even specific psychologists) and began urging us to consider medication (Ritalin, Adderall, whatever), which we declined. I couldn’t imagine giving mind-altering drugs to my energetic, happy, brilliant and funny 6 year old. Side note – did you know that studies have found a link between these medications and suicidal thoughts? So next the school began pressuring us to move him into their smaller “special” class (which of course, came with an extra special tuition). We were told to either medicate him, or move him. Well, over the summer, after expensive testing and ultimately agreeing to move him to the much smaller (much more expensive) class, he started complaining about his eyes, so we took him for a check-up at the eye-doctor. Low and behold, we found out he’s far-sighted (he can see distances fine, but requires glasses for close-up… like reading glasses). In other words, when his impatient teacher had moved him to the front of the class hoping it would improve his attention, she made things substantially worse, and when she told us that he had a ‘reading-disability’, what he really had was a vision problem. After doing about 10 seconds of research, I discovered that ADHD is in fact a common mis-diagnosis for kids who need glasses. When they can’t see, they get frustrated and give up and stop paying attention. They fidget because they literally can’t focus – their eyes.
So why didn’t his school, a so-called top-notch private learning institution, ever once suggest that we get his eyes checked? As experienced educators, should that not be their very first suggestion? Why did they pigeonhole him, and repeatedly tell us he was unfit for (or would hold back) the ‘regular’ class? Was it all about their bottom line? Was he (dare-I-say) profiled? In a recent study by New York University, researchers demonstrated that race influences teachers’ referrals to special or gifted education. Statistical reports here in Ontario even suggest that income disparity has a similar effect. How Interesting. Well sadly, after an unrelated yet (totally) discriminatory incident at this particular school, we panicked, and moved him back to our local public school. He went from 8 kids in his class in grade 4, to 28 in grade 5, and we were terrified – having been brainwashed by this private school to think he had a severe learning disability. But guess what? He’s doing great, and his new teacher can’t understand what all the fuss was about. In fact, she thinks he’s a valuable addition to her class, and reassured me that he’s just a regular, energetic young man, who is eager to learn. He has an IEP (independent education plan), which includes small accommodations, such as an extra break or a gentle reminder here and there, and access to the ‘focus object’ he keeps in his desk. He also meets with a support teacher once a week for one hour, who helps him stay up to speed with the curriculum (much like a tutor would), but there is no doubt, he’s way better off now. Furthermore, being in a ‘regular’ class had an instantaneous impact on his self-esteem. He has more friends now, a sense of belonging, and his confidence is through the roof.
A wise doctor/psychotherapist I know, who specialized for decades in adults with ADHD, coined his own term for the disorder; he calls it the “Advanced Distractibility Difference” (or ADD) and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. He uses the analogy of a lion cub drinking from the watering hole. If the cub was too focused on drinking, and not easily distracted by his surroundings (like a slight rustling in the bushes), he would become easy prey for those hungry hyenas waiting to catch him slipping. You see, in nature, the difference in our ability to be distracted may have evolved as a survival skill. From this perspective, the main distinction between my kid and a ‘normal’ kid, is that mine is hyper aware of his surroundings (a trait that would make him a strong member of his pack in the wild). So why do we want to sedate our hyper-evolved babies? Is it possible that in this tech-driven information-obsessed society, 11% of kids are just not stimulated enough by their teachers’ boring lesson plans, or a lacking talent-pool of educators who can effectively engage diverse groups of students? Is it possible that classroom teachers should be making more of an effort to engage all of their charges, even the ones who learn ‘differently’, or require a little extra finesse? Rather than catering to the more quiet, complacent kids?
Now, I’m not saying that ADHD isn’t real. With a degree in psychology, I know it’s a physiological phenomenon that does often require academic modifications. But is it possible that it’s been blown way out of proportion, in favour of a greedy big pharma industry (or an easier way out)? Perhaps the entire education system needs a modification, to not only categorize, but celebrate our kids’ differences, from their expectations to their learning needs, even if that means slowing down, implementing new strategies, or paying a little extra attention where attention is due. Otherwise, the next thing you know, we could have a generation of over-medicated 6 year olds, who were simply just bored little boys.