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Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 09/24/2012

How schools (even great ones) fail kids with ADHD

There’s a group of students struggling through school rd to navigate that gets little attention in the media or in the debate about how to fix schools: Children with ADHD.

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a brain
condition that makes it especially hard for children to focus and concentrate in school and has a number of other symptoms. It is too often misunderstood by teachers, parents and even the students themselves. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 9.5% or 5.4 million children 4-17 years of age, had been diagnosed with ADHD, as of 2007. Many others who have the disorder haven’t had the benefit of a diagnosis.

Here is a powerful post by David Bernstein, a nonprofit executive who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., writing about the difficulties that his two sons, ages 7 and 15, have confronted in school as a result of ADHD.


By David Bernstein

When I was in fourth grade in the mid-1970s, my teacher pronounced that I was going to be an artist. The truth was that she didn’t think I had any academic talent to speak of. I was an “ADHD” boy who couldn’t follow directions, figure out what page we were on in the book, or turn my work in on time. With a severely limited understanding of the mind, the teacher simultaneously overestimated my artistic talent and underestimated my intellectual gifts.

School, particularly elementary school, was not for boys like me. And, 25 years later, even the very best schools have only changed slightly.
Like so many others who deviated from the norm, I learned much more from exploring my passions than I ever did from a structured school setting. With the help of numerous mentors, I taught myself how to write op-eds, lead teams, speak, and advocate. I actually cared about ideas, not primarily because of school, but despite it.  The Washington area, alive with political discourse, was the perfect place to give expression to my passions, and I moved here in my early twenties to take a job in the world of advocacy.

Now I have two boys of my own, neither of whom possesses a normative learning style. My teenage son goes to what is widely considered an excellent private school in the area with numerous wonderful, committed teachers. But like nearly every other educational institution in America, it’s built on an outmoded educational model.  

Ironically, I first began to question the current model of education when the headmaster of my son’s school showed a video clip at a graduation ceremony of creativity guru Ken Robinson discussing how education kills creativity. Robinson maintains that we are using a model of education left over from the industrial revolution, where schools are organized along factory lines, complete with ringing bells and separate facilities.  “We educate kids in batches, as if the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture,” he states in another video on the topic.

Influenced by Robinson, best-selling author Seth Godin recently published a manifesto , “Stop Stealing Dreams,” on the need for radical education reform. He lays out the need for a post-industrial educational model that caters to diverse learning styles, passion for ideas and what individual students really care about. In such a school, teachers are coaches who help students in a journey of self-discovery. Students have a great deal of choice to determine what they study and how they study it, in stark contrast to the one-size-fits-all system of today.

Your child is right that he or she will never use trigonometry (unless so inclined). Exposing them to variety is one thing, but forcing the same subject for 13 years is another. In the modern marketplace, depth is just as important, if not more so, than breadth. Schools are all about breadth.

In today’s schools, the “good” students end up conforming, diminishing their own prospects for greatness, and the rest end up in an excruciating battle with themselves, their parents (trust me on this), their teachers and the endless tutors. My job as a parent, I’m reminded over and over again by the school, is to enforce the absurdity of the current system — make them turn everything in on time — which I do faithfully because there seems to be no other choice.  

My youngest child, a rising second grader, rambunctious and restless as any you’ll find, has “fallen behind” in reading. He is “not sufficiently available for learning,” we are told. The teachers and guidance counselors, loving and well-meaning though they are, insist on ADHD meds so he can amp up his reading and catch up with his classmates. He’s a creative, bright, independent child, who will, there’s not a doubt in my mind, learn to read well and become highly successful. But he’s just not on their timetable for reading.

We are forced, in the words of Ken Robinson, to “anesthetize” him so he can function in today’s antiquated classroom setting. The Ritalin will do nothing to make him a more successful human being, a better thinker, or a more productive member of society. It will simply help him keep up with the masses and potentially drain him of some of his creative juices. By forcing him and so many other children like him to take these powerful drugs , schools deprive the future economy and society of precisely the creative talent they will need the most.

Greg Selkoe, the 36-year-old CEO of Karmaloop, a growing hipster media company with revenue of more than $130 Million a year, stated in a recent interview in Inc.: “I was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school and actually got kicked out of several schools before landing in one for kids with learning issues. What made me not do well in school has actually been very beneficial in business, because I can focus on something very intensely for a short while and then move on to the next thing.”

Yet today’s schools insist that we prescribe our kids drugs to rid them of their hyper-focus.

I’ve talked with a number of educators, who see the writing on the wall for the current education system. They know that the economic reality of the day demands that schools change. But they also know that college-obsessed parents would balk at such changes, fearful that it might detract from their kids’ chances to go to the best college possible.
It will take monumental leadership to change the current educational mindset and model. In the meantime, my kids will struggle through school, battered along the way, and, like their father, be forced to discover most of their talents and passions on their own, outside of school.

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