I was the weird kid that nobody really liked. That included my parents, and my teachers. I knew I didn’t think straight; my mind was a chaotic mess. My dad proclaimed that I had sh*t for brains. He even made that his special nickname for me. My kindergarten teacher told my mom that intellectually I was low, really low, but my mom knew better. She knew I was different, but smart, and annoying as hell. She transferred me to the Catholic school. Hopefully, the nuns there could whip me into shape. I still never finished my classwork. I never did my homework. I sat in a daze, staring out the windows. Whenever I was chastised for my laziness, I argued back vehemently. I was teased mercilessly every single day. I prayed to God to change me. I wished I would contract a dreadful disease and just die.
Fortunately, by the time I went to high school, I had learned some coping skills. I knew how to get around my “funny thinking.” I wanted to learn, so I focused intently. There was a bigger pool of people to befriend, so I found some other “funny thinkers,” and tolerant, patient people willing to hang with me. Unfortunately, my parents lost their patience with my sharp tongue, and kicked me out of the house.
As a young adult, I discovered the mind-numbing effects of alcohol. My life, which was a daily struggle sober, started sliding downhill fast. I went to a therapist who told me that I was depressed from my harsh upbringing, and I was self-medicating to ease the pain. “Well, sure,” I thought, “ Okay, whatever you say. But what came first, the chicken or the egg?” I knew deep down that people disliked me because I was such a pain in the butt. There was a limit to what they were willing to accept. My parents were no exception. I had tried to be good. I honestly did. But everything I said and did came out wrong. I couldn’t honestly blame them. I was a born loser.
Thanks to the advent of the personal computer, which made it possible for me to write college papers, I became a teacher at the age of 35. My funny thinking had a side benefit- great creative skills. I was relatively successful. It took me three times as long as any other teacher to do my prep work- I actually got reprimanded several times for staying at school too late- but I taught up a storm. I made tenure by the skin-of-my-teeth because my creative strengths outweighed my bad politics (saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time, to the wrong person). I limped along in my profession, working long hours to ensure that I was well organized and able to focus on my students. As long as I was prepared for any contingency, I was great. The problem though, is that you can never be prepared for everything. Many parents praised me, others hated me, and principals gave me mixed reviews. Every single day I questioned whether I had the energy to keep it up.
My doctor prescribed drugs to ward off depression, and they helped a great deal. I didn’t feel as handicapped by my strange brain. I gained the confidence to appreciate my gifts. Still, I was in constant fear of losing my job due to my impulsivity and lack of diplomacy. Time had not dampened my ability to bellow first and think later. I was in constant “ready, fire, aim” mode.
My most special gift was my ability to reach out to the oddball students. There seemed to be more and more every year. And every year, there were more squirrelly boys and the occasional squirrelly girl. At first there was one here or there. Then at least one per class. Then two or three. They were unable to stay in their seats; finish any classwork; do their homework; keep their hands, feet or objects to themselves; or socialize properly. They distracted every student in the class and took up valuable teaching time. They had something called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Some parents chose to medicate, and then the squirrels would do a 180; they could now focus and do their work. I wished that I could solve my problems so easily!
Many parents asked me questions about ADHD. In fact, it was quite the buzz word. So in 1997 I carefully researched on the Internet and I read some highly regarded books. I was a fountain of misinformation. I told parents that their child would outgrow the ADHD. I advised them to change their child’s diet and keep them away from TV. I told parents that boys were four times as likely to be ADD/ ADHD. I agreed with them that they should fear the long-term effects of medication. Better safe than sorry.
Years later, because I had to be transferred away from a principal who was ready to kill me, I became an OC teacher. It was the only teaching position open. “OC” stands for Opportunity Class. Students who are not succeeding in a regular classroom setting are placed in the OC class. I mainly had two types of students: un-medicated ADHD kids, who could not obey a single school rule, do any work, or behave in a socially acceptable manner; and “lazy” boys and girls who sat in their seats in a daze, equally unable to do any work, and equally without social skills. How was I supposed to teach them? I had to figure it out fast.
I decided to start with what I knew. I already knew about ADHD, right? I just needed to learn how to sustain their attention. It was now 2010. Maybe I could get more up-to-date information. I went to the chadd.org website, the cdc.gov website, and read several new books. I was blown away. We now know that it is the most common brain disorder. There are three different types, with many manifestations, including a type formerly referred to as ADD, which does not include an outward hyperkinetic component. It is highly genetic. It can also be caused by brain injury. Most commonly, this occurs when a mother uses drugs, tobacco, and/or alcohol while pregnant. A link to pesticides is now being explored. According to the Center for Disease Control, it is on the increase and now affects 9.6% of the population worldwide. (9.6 percent! I’d been a full-time teacher for 13 years; how could I not know this?! How could any teacher not know this?! Why weren’t districts discussing this and educating every teacher?) It is spread equally among races, socio-economic levels, and genders. Just as many girls have ADHD as boys, it just usually manifests differently. And you rarely out grow it. You either compensate, medicate, or they incarcerate.
My students had one thing in common: they absolutely could not do their assigned work unless I sat right next to them and cajoled them through it. Many of them had been tested for placement in a special education program, but they had not qualified. When I thought about it, it made sense. The students are tested one-on-one, with the proctor prodding them along. Special Education testing does not include an ADD/ ADHD component, unless specifically requested by the parent, even though it is the most common brain disorder, and the Education Code specifically lists it as a qualifying disorder. Isn’t that crazy? But if we added 9.6% more students to our special education programs, we would double the number of students served, which is cost prohibitive. Further, it must be diagnosed by a behaviorist (expensive) and, in more than 80% of ADHD cases, sufferers can be significantly helped with proper medication, which the school district might then be liable to supply, since it would give those students an equal education. I can’t blame school districts for dodging that responsibility. It’s huge.
It slowly dawned on me that my less active students probably suffered from a form of ADHD, not laziness. They fit the profile perfectly. And guess what, so did I. At the ripe old age of 53, I went to my doctor and asked if my depression could be the result of years of battling the effects of ADHD. All my life I was out-of-step and too impulsive. I was used to being in constant trouble, but I had never liked it, and still, after half a century, I longed to change. Could a simple pill change my life? The short answer was yes. I’m still me, just a sharper, more productive, in control version.
If your student is not doing his or her homework, nor completing classwork; is failing, and in constant trouble, even though you have tried every possible inducement and consequence; stop blaming your child, the teacher, the school, or yourself, and do your research. Go to chadd.org and get information. Ask yourself: could it be ADHD? Is there a history of ADHD in your family? Were drugs, tobacco, and/or alcohol transferred to your child in utero? Get your student tested if you think it may be possible. Then get them school accommodations if they are.
Should you medicate your ADHD child? I would. Most ADHD sufferers are helped enormously by taking stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin, which are available in cheap generic forms. They stimulate the part of the brain that helps to focus attention and think in an orderly fashion. They have been studied extensively and have been in use for 80+ years. They are safer for your child than aspirin. New drugs that are stimulant-free are also available. I admit I am highly biased. I had a miserable childhood. I was an embarrassment and a hardship to my parents and siblings. I still have to listen to stories about my finer fiascos at the thanksgiving table. Worst of all, I feel so very, very far behind. I wasn’t focused enough to accomplish much of anything. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. A simple pill could have saved me and my family all that grief. If it had been available when I was young, and my parents chose not to medicate, I would have resented my parents for denying me a chance at a normal childhood.
Yes, it is a hassle to medicate kids. First you have to find the right medication. There are so many choices. If one doesn’t work for your child, then you go back and try another. You have to hit upon the right dosage; not enough is ineffective, too much can keep your child up at night. Then you have to adjust the dosage as your child grows. And ADHD kids will not remember to medicate themselves. The medication wears off each day. In the morning you have a full-blown ADHD child. You can’t just remind them to take it, you have to watch them shallow it down. But you will be a hero. Your child will still be quirky and creative but now he or she can be productive and socially acceptable. Instead of a mess, they are a success.
If a parent chooses not to medicate, or if medication doesn’t help, then parents must insist that their child receive appropriate special education services. In the California Education Code, Section 56339 specifically lists it as a disability, but, in most of our underfunded school districts, you will have to fight for your child’s rights.
My middle school has 260 students. Statistically, that means that 25 are ADHD. In California, only half of parents medicate their ADHD child, so 12 or 13 are unable to focus enough for academic and social success. I think I know where eight or more of those 12 students go each morning. I think that eight of my current ten OC students are ADHD. It’s possible that one or two have a different condition that looks like ADHD, such as severe depression or bi-polar disorder, but as the saying goes, “If you hear hoof beats, don’t assume zebras are coming.” The bottom line is that these eight students, who are not diagnosed and are un-medicated, need to be identified, need to be evaluated, and need a low student to teacher (or aide) ratio. One specially trained adult to three un-medicated ADHD students at the most. They need a modified curriculum with hands-on projects and computer access in order to truly learn.
In my classroom, I teach two grade levels and nine different subjects, which means I have it much easier than most OC teachers. My students are expected to do the same classwork and homework as the students in the regular classrooms, which is completely inappropriate for ADHD sufferers. They are placed in OC for a predetermined length, such as 20 days- however long a student study team thinks will be enough to catch them up with their peers. It is wishful thinking. By working with my students in small groups, I can keep them from failing, but true success stories are reserved for my few non ADHD students, who are usually assigned to OC for discipline issues such as fighting, skipping detentions, or constantly chewing gum. My students are praised and rewarded for every completed assignment, which helps a bit to undo the years of being told that they are lazy.
Even though my classroom is not the right environment for ADHD students, I am glad I have them. Hyperkinetic ADHD students are very disruptive to the usual classroom setting. They take up a disproportional amount of the teacher’s time. Since teachers must put safety first, and ADHD students are very impulsive, they spend valuable teaching time constantly monitoring them. ADHDers throw things, climb furniture, take items off of other student’s desks, kick the back of the chair in front of them, talk constantly and loudly, and use their scissors to carve the desk. When disciplined, they vehemently deny that they did anything wrong. No matter how many times you remind them of the rules, they will continue to break them. It will take years for them to learn some coping skills. It is better for them to be in an OC class, than sitting on a chair outside of the principal’s office day after day.
The California Ed Code, section 56300, says that school districts have the responsibility to actively seek out students that are in need of special education services. However, once a student is placed in the special education program, they cost the school district at least 20% more to educate. Federal law and state law mandate that each child receive appropriate accommodations for their disabilities, but they do not back up that requirement with the money necessary to follow through. It’s just like asking an un-medicated ADHD student to write a five paragraph essay in an hour. It just isn’t going to be anywhere near complete. We talk about fixing our broken education system. This is one repair we need to make.