(Originally published in Learning, May/June, 1996)
© Thomas Armstrong, 1996
I thought I was still young when it happened to me: One of my former elementary-school students walked into my university class as a student. For some teachers, this incident would be no more than an unwelcome reminder of how quickly the years pass. For others, it might be a pleasant postscript to a rewarding career. For me, it was something entirely different. You see, I’d had this student in a special-education program many years before. At that time, Ron was on psychoactive medication for his attention and behavior problems. I could see he’d settled down. But as we caught up on the years since fourth grade, he talked of further medication, special schools, labeling, and finally breaking free of it all after high school. “Mr. A., you should tell people what those medications do to people,” he said.
Ron had begun to recover from his experience. But sadly, many students with behavior or attention difficulties are just beginning their struggles. In the late 1970s when I taught Ron, only a few students were being labeled and medicated for attention and behavior problems. In the 1990s, things have changed considerably. Ritalin use has skyrocketed 500 percent in the past five years. As many as 2 million children have been diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder. And ADD and Ritalin seem to be on the lips of any adult within arm’s reach of a child who shows erratic behavior or wandering attention.
I’m not opposed to using psychoactive medication for children who are in crisis or for whom other approaches have failed. In fact, many teachers and parents have told me how their kids have been transformed in a positive way with Ritalin or related drugs. But I’m concerned that we may be turning too quickly to drugs and labels. The traits that are associated with ADD–hyperactivity, distractibility, and impulsivity–can result from a number of causes. For example, a child may be hyperactive or inattentive because of being bored with a lesson, anxious about a bully, upset about a divorce, allergic to milk, temperamental by nature, or a hundred other things. Research suggests, though, that once adults have labeled and medicated the child–and the medication works–these more complex questions are all too often forgotten. By rushing to drugs and labels, we may be leaving more difficult problems to fester under the surface.
Before we push the ADD/Ritalin button, we need to take an intermediate step that enables us to look for other ways of seeing the child and to try nonmedical solutions. Then if these approaches don’t work, we can proceed with the appropriate referrals.
Many of the following suggestions came from teachers who are taking that intermediate step. These strategies may help you capture the child’s attention–and keep it–without turning to medication.
In a sense, we live in an ADD society. Everything is moving more quickly these days, and children are asking us to move along with them. Let’s make sure that we don’t saddle some kids with labels and drugs just because we’re not willing to make the journey.
For more information, see my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life