Want to cause a ruckus? Criticize attention-deficit meds.
Over three million U.S. kids take these drugs to help them stay calm and attentive. Parents may not be thrilled to dose their children but they are following expert advice to improve behavior and school performance. They tend to see results. And they don’t need to be judged.
But it helps to pay attention to what works for parents who don’t put or keep their kids on meds. My son was diagnosed with ADD when he was in first grade. There was a great deal of pressure from his teacher to put him on medication. As many parents do, I struggled to find ways to alleviate the problem without drugs. We found significant improvement when we changed his diet but that wasn’t enough to make the school setting truly work for him. The way he learned best and the way he flourished simply didn’t fit in the strictures of the school environment. He wasn’t wired to sit still and pay attention for hours. Once we began homeschooling we discovered that without classroom and homework pressure, what appeared to be ADD symptoms largely disappeared.
The newest studies of attention-deficit disorder medications now indicate that the calming effect of these drugs don’t necessarily indicate that those who take them have any sort of “brain deficit.” As L. Alan Sroufe, professor emeritus of psychology at the Universityof Minnesota’s Instituteof Child Development explains, such medications have a similar effect on all children as well as adults. “They enhance the ability to concentrate, especially on tasks that are not inherently interesting or when one is fatigued or bored, but they don’t improve broader learning abilities.”
Research shows the effect wanes in a few years without conferring any lasting benefit. Dr. Sroufe writes,
To date, no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems, the very things we would most want to improve.
This isn’t to say that drugs such as Ritalin are useless. It’s important to remember that studies cited by Dr. Sroufe are limited to children with ADHD, not concomitant diagnoses such as oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder, or autism. Even when facing ADHD itself, parents need support that extends beyond what the mental health system, insurance company, or school district willingly offers. Some states provide advocates who help parents stand up for the child’s right to appropriate education, including extra time to complete assignments, smaller class sizes, and the kind of counseling that helps ADHD children internalize behavioral standards and respond appropriately to social cues. Parents also turn online for support. The blogosphere is full of information and empathy from others raising ADHD children, including the following:
While Dr. Sroute looks for a mental health answer, I think it’s a much bigger issue. It asks us to look at how today’s children are restricted in movement, have less time for free play, and are exposed to unnecessarily early academics. It asks us to look at the quality of the air, water, and food in the lives of today’s children. It asks us to support all families as they are, recognizing that one-size-fits-all guidelines don’t embrace diverse ways of being. To me, particular hope lies in research showing that free time spent playing in natural settings significantly improved the behavior and focus of ADHD children. The more natural and wilderness-like the area, the greater the improvement.
Are our wonderfully distractible, messy, impulsive children trying to tell us something?
Laura Grace Weldon is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending as well as Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm with her family where she's working on her new project, Subversive Cooking.com. and blogging optimistically.