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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Can’t Focus...There’s a Pill for That

By Peter DeWitt — April 03, 2013 6 min read
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“We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

Recently, news broke about the staggering increase in number of youth being diagnosed with ADHD in the United States. It was on the nightly news and the morning news programs. For some, it was just another news story. However, for educators it is much more sad than that.

Nearly one in five high school age boys in the United States and 11 percent of school-age children over all have received a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to new data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” (Schwarz). If you work in a school system you were probably not surprised about the increase. After all, we have more students taking ADHD medication than those who take their vitamins.

I am not an expert on ADHD, and when parents come to me, I make sure they understand I am not an expert. If they have concerns about attention they can go to their pediatrician. The pediatrician is supposed to help be a gatekeeper from medication and offer more information to the root cause. To be perfectly honest, I believe there are so many other factors to a child’s attention issue hat ADHD is just the simple solution to a more complex problem.

“The figures showed that an estimated 6.4 million children ages 4 through 17 had received an A.D.H.D. diagnosis at some point in their lives, a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 41 percent rise in the past decade “(Schwarz).

It is no coincidence that more youth are being diagnosed with ADHD at a time when the pressures of high stakes testing have increased as well. In an effort to ensure that students can sit and take exams that are 90 minutes in length or more, students are being diagnosed with attention issues. Attention issues can bring accommodations on exams, especially state or regents exams. Although many teachers and administrators have been given gag orders when it comes to telling a parent that their child has ADHD, there are simple ways around that order...and they’re very subtle.

It typically begins with teachers telling parents they are concerned about a student’s attention. Many teachers will try to find alternative ways to meet the needs of the students. It also happens when parents contact a teacher in the fall to say they noticed that their child gets lower grades in the areas where attention is concerned. Although many adults would opt away from medication, we cannot ignore this news that more students are being diagnosed.

Where schools are concerned, the “red flag” areas are often the soft skills that are reflected on the report card, such as “Learning and Social Behaviors.” Many report cards actually have a grade for “Focuses Attention During Instruction” or “Displays Self-Control.” So, for those of us educators who would like to say that we are not part of the problem of so many students being diagnosed, we need to take a deeper look at ourselves and the report cards we use to grade our students.

What is most staggering is that Schwarz (N.Y. Times) says, “A.D.H.D. has historically been estimated to affect 3 to 7 percent of children. The disorder has no definitive test and is determined only by speaking extensively with patients, parents and teachers, and ruling out other possible causes -- a subjective process that is often skipped under time constraints and pressure from parents.”

There’s a Pill for That!
Medicating our youth is more than just a problem in education. The issue of overmedicating is a societal problem that will not be going away anytime soon. There is big money in it, and many people don’t want to get to the real root of an issue, so they medicate instead.

If you don’t notice the number of commercials offering us medication for everything from headaches to erectile dysfunction, and many issues in-between, you’re clearly not paying attention. In the United States, we cannot watch a television show or news program without being inundated with advertisements offering us drugs to help us get through our day. And because of a diagnosis that may or may not be correct, we are exposing our kids to these habits at a very young age.

Experts cited several factors in the rising rates. Some doctors are hastily viewing any complaints of inattention as full-blown A.D.H.D., they said, while pharmaceutical advertising emphasizes how medication can substantially improve a child’s life. Moreover, they said, some parents are pressuring doctors to help with their children’s troublesome behavior and slipping grades “(Schwarz).

ADHD is clearly a complicated issue but there are more kids being diagnosed with it than necessary, and now we finally have research that should encourage us all to dig a little deeper. For those of us in education, or parents who are paying attention, we need to look at what we can learn from this because our students should not be drugged at such a young age.

Diet/Nutrition - There is a great deal of pre-packaged food that is filled with preservatives. I am a strong believer that you are what you eat. Fresh foods and less sugar may help increase the attention span of students.
Recess/Exercise - Many schools are opting out of recess in order to gain more class time. Not only is this one of the worst ideas in schools, it’s also unhealthy. Kids need to get outside in the fresh air to play.
Testing - States can’t have it both ways. They cannot increase the pressure of tests and ignore the fact that some people will go to the extreme to get the extra edge. We see it in sports all the time and high stakes testing is the new sport in public education.
Inquiry-Based Learning - Differentiation doesn’t mean one more worksheet. The simple fact is that our students learn differently and this must be reflected in classrooms. Before we tell parents that their children have attention issues, have we really tried everything, including changing our instruction.

Unfortunately, people will not look at the root cause because medication is easier. “I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid” (Schwarz) This is disgusting on so many different levels.

In the End
This news about the increase in the number of students being diagnosed should outrage us and we should want to do things differently. We don’t know that the long-term effects of being on medication will be for these students. These long-term effects may not just affect their mind and body but also their perception of the world around them.

Medicating students when they don’t need it will only help enable them. Most educators will tell you they have had at least one student say that they can’t focus because their parents forgot to give them their medicine in the morning. Too many of our youth will not take healthy risks because they have a medical diagnosis.

This is such a huge problem. It is so much bigger than ADHD. It has to do with the way we live (i.e. nutrition, exercise), the way we deal with issues (social-emotional), and where our priorities are (medicate rather than evaluate). In schools, it also has to be a time when we take a serious look at the way we instruct and the way our students learn. We should modify the environment and not the kid.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.