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Has the Range of “Normal” Kid Behavior Narrowed?

Tingley-021 color web“I remember the moment my son’s teacher told us, ‘Just a little medication could really turn things around’,” writes Bronwen Hruska in her heartfelt opinion piece in the NY Times.

Hruska’s son Will apparently had a hard time meeting his third grade teacher’s expectations in terms of focusing, lining up quietly, and attending to his work instead of goofing with his friends.  When Hruska protested that her son was just an average, energetic 8-year-old boy who didn’t need to be medicated, the teacher quickly backpedaled, insisting that wasn’t what she was suggesting (it wasn’t?).  She just thought the boy should be “evaluated.”

As a school administrator I worked hard to remind teachers that it was not their job to suggest to parents that their kids had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and would be much better with medication.  Describing behaviors was one thing; diagnosing was quite another.  Still, teachers were often able to deftly intimate to parents that their child – usually their son – would do much better in school with a little medical help.  Their child would feel better about himself, they would suggest, if he accomplished more and avoided the teacher’s annoyance.

Their argument left me skeptical at best, seething at worst.  I couldn’t keep from wondering who was really going to benefit from the diagnosis – the child or the teacher?  Keep in mind that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 9.5 percent or 5.4 million children 4-17 years of age have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as of 2007.  Rates of ADHD diagnosis increased an average of 3 percent a year from 1997 to 2006 and an average of 5.5 percent from 2003 to 2007.

Eventually Hruska reluctantly decided to put her child on medication, which briefly helped him to focus but was not without side effects.  In fifth grade, however, he refused to take the pills, and eventually, on his own timetable, grew into a competent, organized high school student leaving his mother to question whether he really had ADHD or was simply growing up the way normal boys do.

Hruska’s point is that kids mature at different rates and that we shouldn’t be so quick to label normal childhood behavior as an aberration.  I agree.  But I also have to wonder if the surging numbers of youngsters on medication to induce more focused, docile behavior is somehow related to pressures on
teachers and schools to perform well on standardized tests.  Let’s face it:  if your students’ test scores determine your raise or even your continued employment, you may not have the patience nor the time to Kids allow a broad range of behaviors in your classroom.  Behavior that used to be considered “normal” for kids, especially boys, in elementary school now becomes a disruption, a problem.   It doesn’t take much to convince a parent that her child may fall behind, or even face the humiliation of retention without some kind of medical intervention.

My experience leads me to believe that in elementary school,  the classroom an active child is placed in can make all the difference for that child.  Some teachers work well with kids who haven’t settled into the school routine yet.  They plan hands-on activities, they take kids outside for recess, they provide learning tasks that can be broken down into manageable segments.  Other teachers insist on more rigid protocols like specific ways of sitting on the floor (“Cross your legs, don’t sit on them”) that are often difficult for some kids to adhere to and frankly, don’t matter anyway.

I should point out that I’m not discounting the ADHD diagnosis or the fact that some kids may find medication helpful.  But our focus on immediate results and accountability may have narrowed the range of normal kid behavior that schools find acceptable.   Kids simply don’t all mature at the same rate, and the teacher’s job is to help all kids find success, not just the docile ones.  

 

 

 

 

 

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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.