I was eating lunch when I got a text from my youngest son today. “95 on Spanish quiz!” he wrote.
Ironically, at that very moment I was catching up on the New York Times, where I stumbled upon the January 28 article, “Ritalin Gone Wrong” by L. Alan Sroufe, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota. The point of his article was that we all need to wake up and question why three million children in this country take drugs for attention problems, despite the fact that “no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems.”
I wanted to weep with relief—and frustration. Where was this article five years ago, when I really needed it?
You see, my youngest son was one of those fidgety boys whose teachers were always eager to share his flaws with me: “He never listens.” “He built the wrong kind of gingerbread house.” “He never remembers his homework.” “He can’t sit still.” “He asks too many questions.” Or, my personal favorite, “He has potatoes in his ears.”
It’s true that my son is active. If there’s a high surface, you can bet he’s on it. These days he spends most of his free time at skate parks and doing parkour. In his public elementary school, he was put on a 504 plan at my insistence because his teachers couldn’t seem to figure out that keeping him in for recess was a bad idea.
“We’ve tried punishing him by keeping him inside,” one of the teachers said, “but the punishment has no impact. He pays even less attention than before.” Thank you, Sherlock.
This was the same teacher, by the way, who gave a power point presentation during parents’ night that left me so bored that I started fiddling with things on my son’s desk. I ended up accidentally knocking a stack of books to the floor and got that “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” look.
My son was bright but his grades in school were dull: A’s in the subjects he liked, C’s in classes he found tedious. He forgot his homework or didn’t bother to do it. He lost things.
“It’s ADHD and EDD,” another of his elementary school teachers assured me—while standing in the hallway at a school concert. “Medicate him and he’ll be an A student.”
Frightened by the accumulating alphabet of pathologies, I took my son to a professional who specializes in testing for educational disabilities and sat in the waiting room with the door ajar. I fell asleep listening to the tester’s droning voice as she had him do repetitive tasks to see if he had an attention disorder. Big surprise: he did.
Except, that is, outside of school. At home, he built the Taj Mahal out of Legos by himself, fashioned a go-kart out of a skateboard strapped to a leaf blower, and talked at great length about concepts like parallel universes. In the driveway, he would try tricks on his scooter for hours at a time until he perfected them. He loved helping his grandmother with her computer. His summer camp counselors said there was nobody more enthusiastic about hiking, canoeing, and dissecting owl pellets.
The teachers and the tester sent me to a psychiatrist, so that my son could be evaluated further for ADHD. The psychiatrist, a lovely young man with lots of degrees but no kids of his own, was so neat and tidy that he arranged pens by color on his desk. He chatted with my son and invited him to make paper airplanes. The psychiatrist spent a long time getting the creases just right on one paper airplane.
My son, meanwhile, built six really gnarly planes, weighing them down at the nose with paper clips and bending the wings in various ways so that the planes could fly in spirals or circles or shoot straight across the room, as one did—right into the psychiatrist’s tender temple. After spending less than an hour with my son, the psychiatrist wrote a prescription for a stimulant that would help him focus in school “and rein in his behavior problems.”
“Should I give it to him on a weekend to see how it goes?” I asked.
The psychiatrist waved a hand. “No need. This is very mild. It’ll be fine.”
Luckily, I ignored this advice and gave the drug to my son on a Saturday. It was a nightmare. Or, rather, it was my son’s nightmare: he spun in circles, couldn’t sleep, and said monsters were coming in the window.
We took him off the drug. We made him finish his public elementary school
through Grade 6, then tried our regional public middle school—the same one my older children had loved. It was a disaster. My son had classes of over 30 students apiece and, guess what? No hands-on activities and definitely no recess. He began hiding rather than get on the bus.
What could we conclude, but that our son was defective? At wit’s end, my husband and I talked about another psychiatrist and different drugs. What stopped me from doing this wasn’t any scholarly article—though I read everything I could find—but our babysitter, a college kid who had been put on Adderall in high school and taken himself off it after three years.
“The thing is,” the babysitter said, “I never knew whether it was me or the drug thinking, and after a while I felt like I’d never learn how to study if I had to depend on the drug.”
Finally I decided to abandon the public school and look at alternatives. We considered home schooling, Catholic school, a farm school, even a year at sea. We ended up in a tiny Montessori School where students did academic work at their own pace, had recess at least once a day, and spent a lot of time building things. Voila. My son was happy. It was so instant and complete a transformation that I had to keep pinching myself, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It never did. “We love your son’s creativity, his humor, and the way he thinks outside the box,” his math teacher told me. “He’s a joy to have in class.”
No teacher had ever said that to me before. About my other children, yes, but not about this one. I adore my youngest son—he is funny, creative, witty, smart, daring, graceful, and loving. But I worried about him constantly, because I never thought I would see him succeed in school.
We had two blissful years at that Montessori School. Then what? In eighth grade, my son visited the public high school and was adamant about it not being the right place for him. This time, we decided to listen.
It was frightening to look at private high schools. My husband and I went to public school, as did our four older children. We aren’t wealthy; if we used our son’s college fund for private high school, what would we use to pay for college? On the other hand, I felt certain that his best shot at getting into a college and doing well there was to prepare him beforehand.
Oddly, our son passed the private school entrance exams with flying colors. (Or maybe not so oddly: he has always stepped up to the plate when something matters to him.) When his test scores led him to be admitted to a small day school of his choice, I was joyful—but nervous that he wouldn’t be able to handle things.
At first it seemed I might be right. This was a prep school, a very academic one, with lots of highly focused, talented kids who were diligent about homework, played sports, and were already talking about college. When our son had so-so first trimester grades, I had that knee-jerk reaction that all parents of children with attention issues have: was this the time for Ritalin or Adderall? Had we reached the end of the line, the point where our son’s gifted intelligence and creativity could no longer compensate for his attention issues? I still hadn’t gotten over the opinion of the experts that my son needed a drug to fix his brain.
This time, a friend came to the rescue. “We were told that it takes six months to get used to your new village in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer,” she reminded me. “Maybe you should give him that long to get used to high school.”
So we waited. After all, our son might not be getting A’s, but he was happy. He joined the cross country team and came home excitedly talking about his Western Civilization and physics classes. “Those teachers really should be on Jeopardy, Mom, they’re so smart,” he said.
Now, at the close of second trimester, he is getting A’s and B’s. Why? Because the classes are small and calm. The teachers are keen to give him extra help. So are the other students. And, most importantly, his intellectual curiosity is on fire.
In “Ritalin Gone Wrong,” Dr. Sroufe concludes that attention disorders are likely not genetic at all, but the result of various environmental factors that demand further study. He believes strongly—as do I—that every child has such a unique profile made up of chemistry, personality, and environmental influences that “there will never be a single solution for all children with learning and behavior problems.”
I know there are children for whom psychotropic medications are literally life savers. But the point of telling my story is this: if you’re worried about your child’s focus in school, examine his learning environment to make sure it’s the best fit. Your child needs to be learning in a place that will support his strengths rather than view him as a problem. For children who are bright or anxious, active or inattentive, simply changing how and where they learn can make all the difference.
Making the leap to a private school setting isn’t an easy leap financially, but there are alternatives worth investigating. Charter schools are free and are often Montessori-based, with smaller classrooms and more hands-on experiences. Some schools with religious affiliations may also provide you with an affordable alternative and a smaller, calmer environment where teachers are as invested in your child’s individuality as they are in test scores.
Listen to your instincts. If your child is telling you that school is a bad place for him, then it probably is. Consult the teachers and experts, sure, but make your own experience with your child the biggest part of the equation when figuring out solutions. You know your child better than any doctor or therapist does, or ever could.
Consider, too, Dr. Sroufe’s final comments as you ponder your child’s future: “…the illusion that children’s behavior problems can be cured with drugs prevents us as a society from seeking the more complex solutions that will be necessary. Drugs get everyone—politicians, scientists, teachers and parents—off the hook. Everyone except the children, that is.”