The ADHD "Crisis"... Myth Or Reality? (Or Is There A Larger Question To Ponder?)

Yes, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a very real condition seen primarily in active boys who sometimes display short attention spans and/or hyperactive behavior. ADHD has been in the news quite a bit lately because more children are apparently being diagnosed or treated for suspected ADHD. Treatments for this condition have historically included prescription medications. The diagnosis of ADHD for children is normally arrived at through the input of a psychologist or a pediatrician.

Being a retired Special Education teacher, I've been involved with children having symptoms of this condition since serving as a Learning Disabilities tutor at Emerson School in the early '70's. At that time, Emerson was a junior high school, and special needs educational services were just beginning in the higher grades. Prior to that time, special educational services were based in the elementary grades, and were generally intended to be "pull-out," "as-needed," and "temporary" services. As research increased, it was discovered that special needs did not necessarily end in the 6th grade. Eventually, special educational services expanded into the junior high and high school years, and even beyond, as some so-called "special needs" simply did not go away with age.

The question of how to deal with students having "differences" has been around since schools began. Students having so-called "differences" have been labeled, re-labeled, and un-labeled over the years as various educational fads, political leadership, and classroom assistance programs have come and gone. In the 1970's, Public Law 94-142 (the Education of the Handicapped act) and other laws were passed to ensure that special-needs children would receive a "free and appropriate" public education in the "least restrictive environment" possible in order to suit their needs.

For about 250 years now, the American educational system has primarily been a come in, sit down, shut up, we-know-what's-best-for-you, pencil-and-paper, tri-modality system of learning. You listened, you read, and you wrote, and that's pretty much the way it was, and all too often, that's the way it continues to be in many schools. It's no accident that so many on-line, private, and charter schools have sprung up because one-size-fits-all learning never seems to fit everyone.

The traditional system of learning does work...for some students, but for many others, it has not worked well at all. The number of drop-outs in high school and college continues to be staggering. An incredibly high percentage of individuals incarcerated in America's prison systems have either failed in schools or have been found to have some form of special needs that might not have been addressed when they were younger.

The "one-size-fits-all," "go-through-the-same-cattle-chute" philosophy of American education was based on the utopian supposition that everybody is capable of experiencing success at the same time in every subject offered in the public schools. Higher and higher educational standards have been called for by politicians from both parties, and a huge testing industry has developed in order to insure that students are meeting those higher standards. Diversity in education somehow became a dirty word in the last 20 years or so, as America's students have been pushed towards increasingly uniform academic education, often at the expense of learning about the trades and the fine arts.

The cry for "higher standards" was very much a bi-partisan political push in the 1990's, resulting in a "No Child Left Behind" law that mandated testing and continuous improvements in the public schools. The failure of that law is patently obvious these days, as a vast majority of the states have sought waivers from the standards that the law had demanded. There were several problems: While the intent of that law may have been meritorious, funding for schools continued to lag behind, and there was a huge failure to address the issue of many students who were simply unable to respond to the social, educational, and political pressures that were placed on them. Intending to increase our competition with the world, standards-based advocates tended to forget that much of the world allows educational specialization (directing students into diverse interest areas) earlier in life. Ironically, those high academic standards achieved by many countries only seem to be higher because many of their students have already entered vocational or specialty schools.

These days, the "Common Core" movement is the latest attempt by the federal government to raise academic standards ever higher to a nationwide standard of uniformity, while offering financial incentives for states that move in that direction. While the backers of "Common Core" school standards may mean well, there still remains the issue of what to do with individual students who fail to meet those standards.

Can all students learn? Of course they can. Common sense, however, will tell you that students are not always ready to learn the same thing at the same moment in their lives. There's something called "developmental readiness," as well as the maturity factor, and then you have differing abilities and interest levels. Were you, for example, a genius in all of your subjects in school? Neither was I. Back in the old days, you were taught to master something before you went on to the next challenge. These days, more and more subjects are being covered for content rather than mastery. Teachers are often being forced to teach to the tests, rather than being able take the time to respond to the interests and abilities of each child.

In the case of those ADHD diagnoses, there would be an honest question in my own mind as to whether more kids need diagnosing, or should MORE SCHOOLS be "diagnosed" for failing to respond to the needs of a diverse population? Students are indeed NOT all the same. Some are attentive. Others are easily distracted. Some can listen well. Others? Not so well. Some can write or sing well, and others, not so well.

Those points made, nearly every potential liability that a child has can be turned into an asset by a caring teacher, given a little time. It's American education, in my opinion, that needs some serious reform in the direction of educational diversity so it can better meet the needs of our students having differences. ADHD is a very real condition, to be sure, but on the other hand, our schools cannot continue to treat some of our most active, creative, individualistic, and inquisitive children restrictively just because they may have trouble sitting still and conforming to an out-dated, one-size-fits-all system of learning. History is filled with examples of brilliant people who have succeeded in spite of the educational system. Schools are, after all, supposed to educate, and not herd sheep. Where is student directed, initiative-based leadership training these days? Where too has practical education gone? Knowledge of iambic pentameter and haiku will do little good when needing to fix a leaky faucet or hanging wallpaper.

What about our Lakewood Public Schools?  As a Lakewood Schools volunteer, I believe that your community handles the diverse needs of their student population far better than many districts I've seen. At the same time, could they do better? Of course they could, but they are also constrained by the dictates of state and national educational rules. Until there is a national cry to respect student diversity, the public schools will continue to struggle with students having "differences."

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Volume 9, Issue 17, Posted 11:29 AM, 08.21.2013