There is a post going around these days on ways to be a mean mom. It discusses such unpopular parenting decisions as enforcing your child’s bedtime and not giving in to their every tantrum. I like the post — it’s a cute reminder that being a parent is about setting limits and giving guidelines. I don’t believe that the art of developing our children’s sense of responsibility has been completely lost and I know many parents are doing an excellent job — the author of the meanest mom post is far from the only one making her kids do hard things.
But, we all know the perception of the millenials — those young adults that seem to believe the world owes them something and they don’t need to put in a lick of effort to get it. And there is no denying that in this day and age, countless children fall victim to the "I-get-everything-I-want, no-limits" household. I continue to meet these kids in my classroom year after year.
Parents are not the only people responsible for instilling strong character traits in our younger generation — school has a big role as well. Has our constantly evolving educational system played a part in producing generations of students with a serious dearth of work ethics? Absolutely!
When I went to teacher’s college, I was surprised by a few of the policies that have changed since my days as a student (too many years ago to admit). For example, the policy around late assignments for students in middle school and high school. When I was a kid, if you didn’t hand your assignment in on time, you were docked ten percent a day for a few days, and then given a zero. When teachers went to calculate an end of term mark, a zero on an assignment had an impact. Not so anymore. These days there are a series of steps a teacher must go through before even considering docking marks for a late assignments. For example, teachers are encouraged to give a due date and then a second “ultimate deadline” that a student may hand in their work. Also, we are instructed to base report card marks on the work that has been submitted — however little that may be — rather than allowing missed assignments to influence the final grade.
What does this teach our kids about responsibility, commitment, and accepting consequences? Seems to me that in this case, the school system is giving kids excuses to just not complete the task at hand. Now, I completely get that there are special circumstances and I would never consider docking a student if there was something going on in their lives outside of their control that truly impacted their ability to work. And I also understand the part of the policy that urges teachers to coach students through the process of getting things done and explicitly teach good work habits, but I also believe it would be easier to teach those work habits if there was a solid, predictable consequence to a student simply choosing to disregard a deadline. Extenuating circumstances should be dealt with on a case by case basis, rather than be a prevailing excuse for every student to take advantage of.
I was also surprised that there was no such thing as “failing” a grade. By the time I attended teachers’ college, holding a student back a year had long since been disbanded. Again, I certainly understand the value of social promotion (keeping students in classes with their peers, even when they do not achieve the expectations for the previous grades). I’m a big fan of individual education plans and tailoring education to specific needs of the students, rather than a blanket approach. However, there was something to be said for the healthy fear of failing a grade. I think for some, knowing that being held back was a possibility motivated kids to work harder.
I love the more student-centred approach of education in the modern day, but I worry we may have gone too far in removing all the consequences that helped our kids build a sense of responsibility, a respect for deadlines and drive for success. I loved the part in the “mean mommy” post where the author suggested we stop pulling strings for our kids. She suggests many of our kids get a rude awakening when they enter the world of employment and realize that the rules do indeed apply to them. It’s not just up to parents — school also has a responsibility to give students the tools to deal with difficult situations — and sometimes that means setting and enforcing the rules.
Here I am at four in the morning, tossing and turning, unable to stop thinking about the intense reaction to my latest post on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and it’s attributable causes. To all those who took the time to comment and to advocate on behalf of their children, I want to say a resounding thank you. I am inspired, touched, and truly blown away by how you are all champions for your cause. I wish more parents took such a committed stance to their child's education.
I also want to say that you are all absolutely right!
You have pointed out a glaring omission in my post. In my passion to argue against the over-identification of ADHD and in my zeal to rally against the “label the student as the problem” mentality that occurs so frequently in our school system, I unintentionally minimized the struggle for the kids and families who deal with ADHD on a daily basis.
Please allow me to clarify my points:
I absolutely believe that ADHD is a real struggle for some students, and I absolutely believe that in some cases, carefully monitored, individualized medication is the best course of action.
I also do believe that there is an extreme over-identification of ADHD, especially in a population with compounding issues, such as kids who have faced trauma, kids who are living lives full of upheaval, and kids who are not benefiting from the love and care that so many Canadians enjoy. I think it is impossible that nearly every child whom I worked with in family treatment also coincidentally suffered from ADHD. I believe that treating professionals MUST consider all the contributing factors to a child’s inability to focus and concentrate before jumping to a catch-all label. I did not intend to imply the reverse, namely that all kids with ADHD have come from difficult situations. Those are two very different arguments and I do not think for one minute that upheaval in a child's life causes ADHD. I do think that often the reaction to turmoil in a child's life looks like ADHD and leads to misdiagnosis.
I do not believe parenting styles cause ADHD—that was in fact the point of Dr. Wedge’s argument that I took the most issue with. For example, I do not believe there is any correlation between a parent’s choice to let their infant “cry-it-out” and a child’s future learning potential. I think it is ridiculous and dangerous to suggest such a thing.
I do believe that the school system marks individuals as “problematic learners” far too early. I do believe that teaching styles and educational programming needs to continue to adjust to learning differences in our students. We need to find ways to engage active learners, to include more hands-on activities, and not expect 6- and 7-year-old children to sit for long periods of time listening to an adult talk at them. I do think we need to give children's ability to concentrate a lot more time to develop before we see it as concerning and outside the norm.
I do believe that there are many other very real learning difficulties that quickly get misdiagnosed as ADHD and are often mistreated due to that label. For example, a student may suffer an auditory processing disorder, making it extremely difficult to take in oral direction and instruction. Understandably, that student will be fidgeting and unable to sit during oral lessons, as their brains are becoming exhausted trying to take in the information. For such a student, it is difficult to comprehend and follow a “called-out” instruction, such as “time to line up.” I believe we need to take the time and continue to devote research and training to truly understanding the nature and variance of learning disabilities, rather than apply a label that won’t serve to help the student or support the teacher. The human brain is a complicated thing and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
I do believe that teachers need to continue to be trained and educated in the great diversity of learning styles and learning needs. I believe it is our duty, as professionals, to find ways to engage each individual student. I believe that we are too quick to mark students as problematic, when it is the design of the classroom program that is problematic for the student. Part of the inspiration and passion behind my previous post was due to the number of students and families whom I have worked with where it was suggested in the early years that the student struggled from attentional difficulties and later it turned out that the student was gifted and the early environment was not engaging that student properly and the student’s attention span simply needed time to mature. This is not to suggest that a student cannot be gifted and have ADHD—this is not only possible, but actually quite common; however, if we are too quick to label the “problem,” we may miss focusing on an individual's amazing strengths.
I do believe that there are many great strategies for engaging and working with our students with learning difficulties. I have seen coaching, changes in diets, and changes in teaching styles have profound positive effects on struggling students. I do not think medication is always the first and best choice of treatment; however, I do recognize that this treatment is not only successful, but vital for some students, and I am not arguing that it is never appropriate. Yet even with medication, I believe the onus is on the school system to find strategies to best help our struggling learners.
I am sincerely grateful to everyone who took the time to point out the omission in my former post and who took the time to present the other side of the coin. I have long been a champion of the individual and I strongly believe in the “whatever works for you” approach. What works for one struggling student does not work for all of them, and really that is the whole point. We need to individualize education as much as possible. What works in one family does not work for all. We humans are a diverse and varied group. My ultimate point was that the education system needs to strive to be equally as diverse and varied to meet the needs of our kids.
Thanks readers, for keeping the conversation going!
You can read my original post here: Does Your Child Have ADHD (Or Is He Just Being A Kid)?
Photo by Anissa Thompson
About two years ago, an article appeared in Psychology Today called, "Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD." It proved to be one of their most shared posts, with nearly 7 million views and a slew of comments both for and against the author’s point of view. The author of the article, Dr. Marilyn Wedge, essentially claims that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not a medical disorder, but rather a social construct that is more readily attributed to environmental factors, such as parenting styles and diet, rather than to a biological cause.
Although Dr. Wedge’s post makes some sweeping generalizations that I find hard to stomach (“French parents let their babies 'cry it out' if not sleeping through the night at the age four months”) and implies that the use of judicious spanking is not detrimental to the child, which I have to disagree with. I do agree with the crux of her argument, namely that ADHD is more likely a reaction to factors influencing a child's life as opposed to a biological flaw in the brain. This “disorder” is far more nurture than nature and is best controlled through changing how we treat kids, rather than through pharmaceutical intervention.
There isn’t a specific test for ADHD. It is diagnosed through the presence of particular symptoms. Usually, a checklist is given to the child’s teacher, parent, and a few other adults who work closely with the child. These checklists, along with some one-on-one interactions between the diagnosing professional and the child, led to the label being assigned. The symptoms on the checklist are such items as:
To me, many of the “symptoms” on the list are really just “symptoms” of being a child. And, if you happen to be a child who is dealing with some other impacting factors in your life—poverty, lack of nutrition, parents who are poorly attached to you, trauma—then you will certainly rate high in all the worrisome areas of the list.
Several years ago, I worked as a Child and Family Counsellor in a class for kids who were undergoing treatment to help them cope with some pretty horrific life situations. To say that these kids hadn’t had the benefit of good parenting is a gross understatement. And here’s the thing, all of these kids had been labelled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder! In my opinion, the behavioural difficulties and their inability to focus on schoolwork were directly a result of the major upheaval in their lives, as opposed to a mental illness.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that the human mind is a complex thing and that many mental disorders are diagnosed by considering a group of related symptoms rather than an easily understood medical test. I’m not arguing that this is an ineffective way to diagnose a problem. And I am certainly not suggesting, as perhaps Dr. Wedge implies, that letting your infant cry-it-out at 4 months old will protect them against attention difficulties in the future.
What I am saying is that many of the “problem behaviours” associated with ADHD—difficulty completing work, inability to focus, excess energy, tantrums—sound like the ideal descriptors for your average toddler or preschooler. It seems perfectly logical to me that many kids do not mature out of these little kid behaviours as fast as many others, simply due to the variance in child development. Many kids just need more time to adjust to school, and school needs to work harder at adjusting to these kids.
Education is starting to understand that we need to adapt our teaching to childhood, rather than force childhood into our concept of teaching. We’ve come a long way from kids sitting in straight rows copying notes from the blackboard. The rise of play-based learning and daily physical activity show that school is starting to get it. When I see my students begin to daydream and fidget during a lesson, I don’t presume they have a short-attention span due to poor parenting or too much screen-time. And I don't start seeing the kids as suffering from an attention deficit. Rather, I assume that they are kids who have been sitting too long and it is time for a change of activity. I lead an action song, have a movement break, find a way to get the kids up, using their bodies. I don't try to change the kids to fit my program—I change my program to fit the kids.
Attention span, like so many other things, needs to develop as our kids grow up. Theoretically, the younger your kids are, the shorter their attention span. Connecting with kids, coaching them, understanding their individual needs, looking at changes that can be made in the environment all seem to be better treatments for this particular “learning difficulty” than medication. Many kids are identified with ADHD in Grade 1 or 2. Isn’t it possible that the development of their attention span is just a little behind their peers? Also, boys are far more likely to be identified as having attention difficulties than girls. Isn’t it also possible that boys just need to be engaged differently in school?
Dr. Wedge goes a bit far in implying that our style of parenting in North America is the cause of ADHD, but I wholeheartedly agree that ADHD is a by-product of environmental influences—diet, nutrition, level of maturity, parenting, school environment, variance in learning styles, and so forth—rather than some mysterious flaw in the brain that needs to be medicated until kids conform to a “standard” measure of behaviour.
Some students are those proverbial square pegs overlooking the round holes. Instead of sanding the corners off the pegs, shouldn’t the education system consider widening the holes?
Note: I tossed and turned over the feedback from this post, and wrote a follow up here. I hope you'll read ADHD Part 2: Thanks For Keeping It Real.
For more from Erin, check out: "Will Your Child Be Victim To An Over-Crowded Classroom?" and "Why I'm Not Telling My Students They Are Smart."