We’ve all heard about the “epidemic” of ADHD with our primary school students. It’s become the new term for those students that struggle with any variety of childhood behaviors: focus issues, excess physical energy, boundless curiosity and questioning, the need for kinesthetic learning experiences. While I will not deny that some students truly struggle with ADD/ADHD, I have found through many years working with elementary school children that this is often used as a blanket term that can cover up other challenges, many of which may be addressed without any sort of medication.
My views are based on experience and I do not profess to be an expert in child behavior. Yet, in conversations with educators, colleagues, friends with children, I often find that we are all in agreement – many of our students labeled as having ADHD likely have other influences in their lives that are causing or exacerbating their challenging behaviors, and that medication is a cover – not the answer. It’s often not enough of an explanation to say to people concerned with focus issues in students, “Well, they’re kids. They’re 6. Of course they have a lot of energy,” so we label them instead of trying to find other (admittedly more time-consuming and complex) ways to help children focus and learn.
With the national conversation around Expanded Pre-K, Transitional Kindergarten, etc many educators and behavior specialists are thinking about how having more formalized education for even younger students could relate to these continuing issues around behavior and diagnosis. After reading a recent article in the New York Times (link can be found here and below), I had conversations with a volunteer and then Angie about my feelings surrounding how we talk about children with focus and behavior issues. Below, you’ll find a synopsis of an experience I had as a child.
When I was about 8 I was tested for ADD. I remember sitting in this little, very cluttered office inside a portable building on some campus in my hometown district. I was put in front of a computer and asked to click a computer mouse every time a white box appeared on the screen outside of the large white square in the middle of the screen.
There was a bee in the room, and I remember being so nervous about the test and then this bee that was clearly out to get me that I became terrified I’d be diagnosed with the ADD. When I walked out the man testing me told me I either didn’t have ADD, or I’d outsmarted the test. I remember thinking, “Wait. I’m 8. I didn’t outsmart a test on a computer. Was the bee part of the test? What was I being tested on that I could possibly outsmart?” The test ultimately revealed I didn’t have ADD.
Around this time, I was actually getting into a bit of trouble at school. When my family moved from LA to to Chico, I enrolled late for 3rd grade and was overall quite unhappy about leaving Southern California (little did I then know Northern California is so. much. better.). The school I began attending had an accelerated program that was full, so I went into the “other” class. This class had a mixture of students; some that were more advanced, others progressing at a basic level, and others that had some learning challenges but didn’t fall into any sort of special education program. I remember we took 2 months to learn double-digit multiplication, which my father had taught me the summer before. I’d talk to other students, distracting them.
I’d pull a book out from my desk and read instead of listening to the lesson. I’d draw elaborate pictures. Or, I’d just take off into long daydreams as I am still prone to do. My name was on the board every day, often with a couple check marks next to it meaning I’d had multiple warnings. My parents were told I was developing behavior issues. My report card that year read,
“Lauren is a creative and bright person. She consistently produces excellent school work, as well as turning in special creative projects of her own. She is doing less visiting in class- nice improvement! I would like her to work on remaining in her seat at the appropriate times and to remember not to read or color during class discussions.”
This is the nice teacher way of saying I am creative, but challenging. Underneath those carefully chosen words there was a student that would literally stand up and walk around the classroom, doing as I pleased, talking to other students, finding a new book to read, and generally not paying attention or respect to the lesson at hand. I mean, I was making my own projects up and handing them in – what in the world was she supposed to do with that?
I’ve seen this same behavior in many of my students. Thankfully, my 3rd grade teacher was a calm and kind person that was willing to talk to my parents about ways to find a better space for me. I was soon tested again, moved schools the next year, and was placed into a full-time “gifted” program. Turns out I didn’t have any sort of attention disorder, I wasn’t a rebellious scallywag trying to get out of my work… I just wasn’t in the right place, and didn’t have the right teachers, mentors, or peers around me.
A year or so ago I read through my elementary school report cards. On each one I was mentioned as a bright and quick learner. Then, in the nicest terms possible my teachers would explain I talked too much and this was a challenge for other students that needed to focus, and made classroom management all the more frustrating. By the end of 6th grade, the remarks were laughable. Today, many of the traits my teachers mentioned as challenging are what make me successful. I can talk to people, I can multi-task. Just because I’m put in a position that doesn’t suit me doesn’t mean I just give up; I do what I need to do to keep myself motivated and learning.
Again, I recognize some students have very real challenges with focus and behavior. I know that this is just one story. I just worry that ADHD has become a catchphrase for an endlessly diverse and complicated spectrum of what kids go through as they grow up. I grew up, I learned more appropriate boundaries, and I still work on turning my more challenging traits into strengths. Some of this was just natural, some of this took mentorship and guidance from my family and teachers. That’s where folks like you come in.
Read this article, and let me know what you think: