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Labeling Our Youngest and Our Oldest Kids

Is a child’s disability or a child’s giftedness simply a function of his or her age in comparison with peers?

Malcolm Gladwell, in The Outliers, makes a strong case that the children who are considered athletically “gifted” may simply be the ones with earlier birthdays.  In examining a team roster of “all star” soccer players, Gladwell discovered that nearly all of them had one thing in common – they were born in the first few months of the year in a school system with December 1 cut-off date for kindergarten. 

Foodlabels1  So, Gladwell reasons, these kids could be several months to nearly a year older than some of their peers, making them physically bigger, stronger, and more dexterous and coordinated.  As early stand-outs they would have received more attention from their coaches.  And as we well know, just a few months can make a real difference in the 0-5 years.

Now the other side of the spectrum:  a new Michigan State University study suggests that nearly a million kids may have been misdiagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) because they have fall birthdays.  In fact, the kids who are the youngest in their grades are 60% more likely to be labeled ADHD.  The study suggests that many children diagnosed with ADHD are simply acting their developmental age.  And like their “gifted” peers, they also receive inordinate attention from their teachers, but it’s not always as positive.  A second study out of North Carolina State University came to the same conclusions regarding diagnosis.

The truth is, as an elementary principal, I had to frequently remind teachers that they were not doctors, and consequently not qualified to diagnose a child with ADHD or anything else.  Neither were they to suggest to parents that the child needed to be on Ritalin.  Of course, this was easier for me to say than to enforce.  The studies released yesterday identify 4.5 million children as having been diagnosed with ADHD.  When I think of the side-effects of Ritalin, it makes my head – and my heart – hurt.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.