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The Use of ADHD Drugs in Schools

11 Jul

An article in the Wall Street Journal has re-started public discussion on why so many students are taking medication to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s a thorny issue with implications for the kind of schools we have, the kind of schools we want and how we view students and their learning.

New research, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research and published in June, studied how taking Ritalin, a medication commonly prescribed for ADHD, affected students in Quebec. According to the study, taking Ritalin caused “…increases in emotional problems among girls, and reductions in educational attainment among boys…”. This is disturbing news for students, parents and educators.

There has been an explosion in the use of medication to treat ADHD in children in recent years. In March, 2013 the Center for Disease Control reported “…a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 41 percent rise in the past decade…” in the number of US children diagnosed with ADHD. Currently nearly one in five high school boys and 11% of all school age children are diagnosed with ADHD. In the wake of these revelations some critics are suggesting that prescribing ADHD medication (and the resultant side effects) to children, without gains in learning constitutes “malpractice”.

I can’t find Canadian stats, but my own classroom experience suggests a similar pattern of use. My class last year, which was typical, had 16% of students taking ADHD medication. All of these students were boys. In fact, the majority of students diagnosed with ADHD are boys. Boys are five to nine times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, leading some to suggest that this is evidence of a ‘war on boys’ in our schools.

The high rates of ADHD, and the resultant medication use, says a lot about the culture in schools. Students who don’t progress are pathologized, and schools only accept or allow for deviation if it’s supported by a label. There used to be an understanding that schools can’t meet every student’s needs, but no longer. We devote extensive resources to finding out why a student isn’t learning and ensuring they have every chance to be successful. This process, along with the need for labels, leads to higher rates of diagnosis.

Learning is a complex process and it’s difficult to determine whether it occurred.  Standardized tests are unreliable indicators of the many ways learning happens. Further, just because a student can sit still and pay attention doesn’t mean they have the skills to learn. Students struggle with ADHD for years causing a skills deficit and layers of coping strategies that interfere with learning. Prescribing and using medication is merely the first of several steps in helping a student with ADHD to learn.

The presence of a student with ADHD often impacts on the learning of the whole class. Students with ADHD can be disruptive, making learning more difficult for other students. Teachers devote time to managing and supporting students with ADHD, meaning less time and support is available for other students. It’s likely that the learning of the class improves when a student with ADHD is successfully treated with medication, even though their individual learning may not.

The value of ADHD medication is not exclusively in improving academic learning. Students with ADHD  struggle daily to meet basic expectations leading to lower self-esteem. Medication helps students with ADHD to improve their quality of life, with more friendships and a more positive attitude about school and life. That may, in the long run, be more important than a gain in academic learning.

I prefer using methods other than medication to support students with ADHD whenever possible. A classroom environment where students work in collaborative small groups and have the freedom to move around if needed can be helpful. A well constructed and implemented IEP (Individual Education Plan) with useful accommodations and strategies is also recommended.

The decision of whether or not to use medication to treat ADHD is a difficult one for parents. There are multiple factors to consider and every case is different. It is especially complicated for parents without the resources to provide the extensive support a child with ADHD may need. Constantly taking time off work to deal with problems at school isn’t a viable option for most parents. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of choosing the best solution, but rather finding the right option given the many constraints. And sometimes, that’s medication.


In Praise of Boredom and Daydreaming

6 Jul
The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house on that cold, cold, wet day.
I sat there with Sally. We sat there we too. And I said “How I wish we had something to do”
Too wet to go out and too cold to play ball. So we sat in the house and did nothing at all.
So all we could do was to
And we did not like it, not one little bit.

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss is one of my favourite children’s books. It is superficially simple but complex underneath with layers and many possible interpretations and meanings. What you take from it probably says a lot more about you than it does about the author.

One of the themes I see in The Cat in the Hat is the role of boredom in creativity. Sally and her brother are sitting at home, obviously very bored, and out of that boredom the story of an incredible cat springs forth. Like Sally’s brother (he’s never named) I spent many days of my childhood staring wistfully out of rain streaked windows (it rains a lot in Lancashire). I too became bored and from that boredom sprang daydreaming, creativity and a rich imaginative inner world. Science is now confirming what Theodor Geisel and many of us intuitively knew; boredom and daydreaming are a useful and necessary path to creative thinking.

Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler, psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara put daydreaming to the test in a 2012 study. Baird and Schooler’s research discovered that subjects were more creative if they daydreamed before tackling a creative thinking task than if they spent time thinking or did a physical task. Baird and Schooler believe that daydreaming (or “positive-constructive daydreaming” as they call it) allows us to engage in “…future planning, sorting out current concerns, cycling through different information streams, distributed learning (vs. cramming)…” as well as creativity.

Dr. Teresa Belton of the University of East Anglia researched the role of boredom in creativity by interviewing a variety of creative individuals. She concluded that boredom is “…required for the development of a capacity to generate and pursue ideas. To be creative we need time for thought, free of the bombardment of attention grabbing external stimuli to the eye and ear.” Belton encourages children who are bored to engage in creative activities rather than devices, that “tend to short-circuit the development of creative capacity”.

Over this summer vacation I hope that children have an opportunity to say “I’m bored!!” without an adult immediately trying to distract them. I hope they’re in an environment where they can’t just grab a device or turn on a screen. I hope they have the chance to sit with boredom and see what comes next, to find out what they can create on their own. The chance to be productive rather than consumptive.

This summer, and into the school year, I want kids to have the opportunity to develop their creative skills, to go through the creative process. They are growing into a world that increasingly needs and values their creativity and it’s critical that they understand the role of boredom and daydreaming in that process. As the Cat in the Hat said:

 It is fun to have fun
But you have to know how

Free Ways To Encourage Summer Learning

23 Jun

As parents and students anticipate and plan for summer vacation there’s a lot of buzz about Summer Learning Loss. Businesses selling academic camps, learning services, books, etc. are turning fear about Summer Learning Loss into profits. It’s a good strategy, because fear is a powerful motivator, and parents want to be sure that their children don’t lose hard-won learning and end up starting the next school year on the wrong foot. However a lot of what people believe about Summer Learning Loss isn’t true.

Summer Learning Loss is not a problem for most children. Research shows that some low-income students lose reading test scores over the summer but most other students actually gain in reading. There is some generalized loss in math, but that’s as measured by standardized tests which focus on rote fact retention rather than understanding concepts. A child may forget the answer to a multiplication question, but that doesn’t mean they can’t multiply. If learning is lost in 2 months, was it really “learning” in the first place?

These nuances in Summer Learning Loss are glossed over by those selling camps, study guides and learning services. They’re trying to scare middle-income families (the ones with the money) so they’ll buy what they’re selling.

Children never stop learning, whether in school or at home. Families can do a few easy things to tap into this and improve their child’s learning over the summer. The best news is they’re all free:.

  1. Talk To Your Kids– In his 2012 study “Summer Learning Inequality in Canada” McMaster University sociology professor Scott Davies discovered that middle-income children don’t gain in reading because they go to camp or take vacations, but because their parents talk to them. Dr. Davies said “It’s the daily conversations that are sophisticated and expand children’s vocabularies, and being read to regularly by seasoned readers, one-on-one,” that make a difference. Adults should engage with children, ask them questions, share opinions and expose them to advanced vocabulary.

  2. Let Them Get Bored– The first few days of summer vacation are fun, as children enjoy the freedom, but the novelty quickly wears off and parents start to hear “I’m bored”. The temptation is to step in with a programmed activity or turn on a screen, but research says parents should hold off. Dr. Teresa Belton found that boredom is an essential part of the creative process. She writes that “when children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them”.

  3. Visit The Library– In 2010 Dr. Richard Allington at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville reported the results of a three-year study where five self-selected books were given to low-income students. This simple practice, allowing children to choose 5 books over the summer, eliminated summer reading loss in those children. According to Dr. Allington, letting children choose books is “less expensive and less extensive than either providing summer school or engaging in comprehensive school reform, (but) the effect was equal to the effect of summer school”. The local library is a terrific place to let children take their time, browse and choose some summer books.

  4. Let Them Sleep In– Sleep deprivation in Canada has been called a “National Epidemic” and the effect of sleep deprivation on children and learning is well established. In 2013 Chad Minnich, of the TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Centre said that “…children who have more sleep achieve higher in maths, science and reading. That is exactly what our data show”. Making sure children get enough sleep and recharge themselves after a long school year is key to good learning. Help children establish good sleep habits over the summer so they can enter the new school year rested and refreshed.

  5. Take Them To The Park– One of the hottest trends in Canadian education is “Forest Schools” where students learn outdoors. These schools build on research which indicates that children learn better when they spend time in outdoor, natural spaces. “Nature can buffer children from stress and improve their cognitive ability. Outdoor spaces also give children the opportunity to have space away from adults, allowing them to develop friendships and social interactions”. Allowing children to play outside, in natural surroundings makes them smarter, happier and helps them develop independence and autonomy. There’s even a growing movement touting the benefits of leaving your kids at the park for a while.

Turban Bans, Soccer & Letting Kids Play

16 Jun

“They can play in their backyard.” Quebec Soccer Federation executive director Brigitte Frot, explaining the options available to 5-year-old boys in turbans who wants to play soccer.

On June 2, 2013 the Quebec Soccer Federation (QSF) defied the Canadian Soccer Association’s guidelines and banned turban wearing kids from playing organized soccer in the province. They said it was due to “safety concerns”, but were unable to cite specific incidents where injuries were caused by turbans.

The QSF’s ban on turban wearing soccer players is, at best, ludicrous, and at worst, racist. Critics claimed the QSF was making a political, anti-immigration statement. They may be right, but the collective reaction to the QSF’s ban makes a clear statement about how little we value children’s “free play”.

Bridgette Frot was correct when she said “They can play in the backyard”. She’s responding to the rhetoric that the QSF ruling prevented kids who wear turbans from playing soccer; it doesn’t. The ruling simply meant that kids who wear turbans couldn’t participate in organized soccer controlled by the QSF. Unfortunately, for many parents, organized activities are the only form of children’s play that matter.

Growing up in the north of England I didn’t play organized sports of any form until ten years old when I was chosen for my school soccer team. Despite this, I don’t remember an age when my life didn’t revolve around soccer. I played two or three hours a day in various pick-up games, on the street, at the park with friends or during recess.

This is how most kids around the world play, then and now. Most nights I left our house after supper and my parents had no idea where I was going, nor did they ask. Their only expectation was that I was home before dark and didn’t get into trouble. And they trusted me to do that. I roamed the streets, had adventures, got into scrapes, and along the way learned I could handle myself in the world without a supervising adult.

When I came to Canada things were different. Soccer wasn’t played in the streets or at the local park. It was highly organized with registrations and teams and coaches and practices and schedules and referees and try-outs and on and on. My parents drove me to games and stood on the sidelines with other parents. Playing soccer was no longer something I did on my own, it was something my family and I did together.

Many people are questioning why we don’t give children more independence. In April 2008 Lenore Skenazy armed her nine-year old with a subway map, a Metro card and some money, left him in downtown New York City and trusted him to find his way home. He did, and the subsequent public reaction to her attempt to build independence in her child, lead Skenazy to create the Free Range Kids “movement”. She encourages parents to treat their child as “…a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help…”.

There’s been lots of discussion about the importance of failure in children’s learning lately. What’s missing from this discussion is an acknowledgement that only when children are independent can they really experience failure. The presence of in-charge adults lowers the stakes for children. Adults won’t, or can’t, let kids fail, but it’s the risk of real unprotected failure that brings forth new skills and understanding.

Surrounding kids in layers of protection is ultimately disrespectful and prevents them from developing independence and self-confidence. Parenting guru Barbara Coloroso wrote in her terrific book Kids Are Worth It:

“It is usually best to allow kids to experience the consequences of their mistakes and poor choices, which are theirs to own. So long as the consequences aren’t physically, mentally, or morally threatening.”

We need to start trusting kids and valuing child-organized and controlled activities. When we organize activities for kids we rob them of the opportunity to develop autonomy. Kids all over the world operate autonomously, often because they have to. Our own kids, and those we teach, are capable of doing the same and in doing so will be better for it.

Thankfully, the QSF’s ban on turban playing soccer players has been lifted. I hope that, because of it, a few more people understand that the presence of adults in children’s play isn’t an entirely good thing. Kids don’t need a league, a coach, a referee or a provincial soccer federation to have a game of soccer. All they need is a couple of friends, a space and a ball or suitable substitute. In return they develop independence, self-confidence and, hopefully, an understanding that the joy of play isn’t something controlled by self-important adults. It’s something inside them.

High School Facebook Confession Pages: Problem or Symptom?

18 Apr

FB Confessions Shot 1

Anonymous online confession pages for students are nothing new. Juicycampus launched in 2007 with the goal of enabling “online anonymous free speech on college campuses”. They were joined in 2008 by College which peaked with over 900,000 views in a single day in 2010. Even then, these services were controversial as schools tried to ban them because many of the posted confessions hurt the school’s image while proponents promoted their positive benefits. What no one can deny is that the need to share anonymously is deep-seated.

Why Do Students Use Them?

FB Confessions 2

We’re willing to be more open and honest when we’re assured anonymity and that honesty helps uncover and solve difficult problems. Most adults have at some time read newspaper advice columns where readers anonymously submit problems and an “Agony Aunt” responds with advice so that others with similar problems benefit. Anonymity is an important and useful tool in many situations. Voting is usually done anonymously to allow freedom of expression and governments protect anonymous whistleblowers with legislation. Kids Help Phone encourages teens and children to phone in and share their problems anonymously because this helps teens and children to address problems they can’t in other ways. And police “Tips” phone services assure anonymity as a way of getting people to share others’ misdeeds.

College ACB closed down in October 2011 but anonymous online confession sites didn’t go away. Earlier that summer US college students began using a combination of Facebook pages and anonymous forms such as Google Forms or SurveyMonkey to create school based Facebook Confession Pages.

How Do They Work?

Facebook Confession Pages are simply pages that allow students to anonymously submit their deepest secrets. The moderator of the page posts the confessions on the Facebook page. Students who ‘like’ the page can see each confession and can ‘like’ each confession and comment. The moderators of the page are often unknown to the students, as are the contributors. Here’s a typical example from a school in Hawaii.

The Facebook Confession Page model has caught on and spread. Many US and Canadian Universities have confession pages associated with them and it’s been slowly filtering to high schools and spreading around the world. The pages are free, easy to set up and tap into this deep-seated need teens and young adults have to share what they’re really thinking and feeling without fear of adult sanctions.

What Are The Problems?

While the original intent of Facebook Confession Pages was to offer a forum for students to share problems, concerns and secrets FB Confessions 3that isn’t all students are sharing. The online disinhibition effect, a loosening of social restrictions and inhibitions that would normally be present in social interactions, means that many students want to also use the confessions pages to share stories of alcohol and drug use or sexual behaviour. In some cases the pages lead to cyberbullying or even slander.

These were the problems that schools in Thunder Bay, Ontario were dealing with this week. Facebook Confessions Pages had spread first to Lakehead University and Confederation College in Thunder Bay, and from there passed down into the high schools. Soon, school officials were fretting over stories of student drunkenness and drug use and negative comments about teaching staff. In one case the comments crossed into slander and the teacher concerned complained to Facebook, who took the page down.

Experience in other jurisdictions suggests that taking pages down won’t solve the problem. Pages are easy to set up, and often when one is taken down another pops up right away moderated by a different student. Students jealously guard their adult free space and it’s often only after the fact that educators and parents discover that students are posting in a Confession Page.

FB Confessions 5Schools and school boards that move to shut down pages may find their requests falling on deaf ears. Freedom of expression is an important principle for all citizens, students included. Student stories of drunken escapades may be unpleasant and tarnish a school’s image in the community, but they aren’t illegal. Facebook only seems to be willing to take the pages down when there is clearly something illegal being posted. In some cases they’ve asked that offensive posts be removed while the page stays up.

Facebook is in a difficult position. It has recently been losing relevance with young users, as many of them see Facebook as their parent’s social network, not theirs. Confession Pages, with their ability to make users anonymous, are making Facebook relevant again with the 13-25 year old demographic. They’re not anxious to alienate those users without good reason.

What can educators and parents to do?

One of the values of social media use by teens is it gives us a window into their lives previously unavailable. If what we see is unpleasant an appropriate response is to deal with the problem, not to insist that the widow be closed. Teens expressing depression, issues with body image or alcohol and drug use should concern us all and rather than preventing them from posting about it we should be looking at the behaviour and trying to address it.

Students clearly have a need to post anonymously about their problems, concerns and fears. Schools should embrace the opportunity FB Confessions 4and set up their own “Confessions Pages”, moderated by students but with guidelines. This would allow students to express their concerns and problems safely while giving schools an element of control and providing an important source of information to educators about potential problems in the school.

Confession Pages and their associated problems also highlight the need for greater education about digital citizenship for students. Students sending their deepest, darkest secrets to a public forum to be posted and discussed is alarming. They need to better understand the risks of posting and the permanent and public nature of digital spaces. This starts at an early age with parents talking to children about social media and modelling good online behaviour themselves.


Social Media Lowdown Presentation

14 Apr


On April 8th I had the privilege of being asked to present at The Lakehead Public Schools Parent Involvement Committee’s Social Media Lowdown and then participate in a panel discussion.

Here is most of my presentation, captured by Sheila Stewart.

Opting Out of EQAO: One Parent’s Story

26 Mar

On February 26th I published “Opting Out of EQAO“, where I shared stories from parents who chose, for a variety of reasons, to ensure that their children did not write the annual EQAO tests. One of the stories contained more, so I offerred my blog to share the full story. This is the unedited story, written by Danielle Turpin, about her two children Ethan and Olivia and how and why they are opting out of EQAO testing.

As spring draws close again, and the hope of warmer weather fills us all, it is the time in the educational cycle where students, teachers, parents, administrators and elected trustees all realize that the EQAO tests are right around the corner.

Students worry that they won’t do well, teachers worry that the EQAO tests will somehow expose them as ineffective, parents worry that little Jimmy or Suzie won’t make them proud, and administrators worry that their data set will be invalid and those higher up the food chain will call them to task.  The data will be largely unused to increase the quality of education, but politicians and real estate agents will find the information indispensable.  All of this will cost the taxpayer, according to some sources, the low figure of $33 million a year.  Money well spent?  Hardly.

I had decided to pull our son from the EQAO testing back when he was in Grade 3 in __________.  He had been identified through Toronto Western, as having Tourette Syndrome, ADHD and a communications-based learning disability.  He also has executive functioning and working memory issues.  Needless to say, the Principal of his elementary school was very easy to convince.  Looking back, she was almost EAGER to have him not write the test – in her head, having him write the test would risk lowering the average in his small Grade 3 class, skewing the numbers and probably making her look bad.  Ethan hung out with Grandma and Grandpa that week, and enjoyed himself immensely.

This year, things are slightly different.

Our son is in Grade 10, and should be writing the OSSLT this spring.

Our daughter, who has exhibited no signs of Tourette Syndrome or any learning disability and is consistently getting Level 4s, is in Grade 3 and should be writing the Grade 3 EQAO test this spring.

Neither one of them will actually be writing these tests this spring.

Our Son’s OSSLT Story

Ethan has had his difficulties at school sometimes, but he had never failed a high school course, and he has found a niche.  However, his schooling has always been difficult on all of us.  We have had numerous meetings with Principals and teacher, and we often leave these feeling frustrated and patronized.  Don’t get me wrong, some of his teachers have been wonderful.  His teacher through a lot of his elementary school years was phenomenal.  He obviously cared for his students and worked very hard to support our son.  But others have not accommodated his needs, connected to him in any way, and have blamed him for the consequences of his condition.  He is told that he should be better organized, that he should remember things, and that he needs to try harder.  To tell an ADHD student with Tourette Syndrome and learning disabilities to simply “Try Harder” is akin to telling a blind student just to “See Better”.  It is impractical, unhelpful, and insulting.  After receiving a 90% in Applied Grade 9 English, he was told on numerous occasions last semester by a teacher that he would probably fail the OSSLT – however, no extra help was offered in any way.

This year, we contacted the Special Education Head, his SERT and the Principal to let them know that Ethan will be deferring his EQAO test this year, as per the EQAO website.  After waiting a few days, the Principal returned my email, and set a date to discuss this.  We understand that the EQAO is a necessity to graduate, but there is also the OSSLC which may fit his needs better.   He is a hard worker, but does not test well, and he shouldn’t be compelled to fail the OSSLT publicly before he can take the course.   Ethan has said that if he is forced to write the test, he will simply skip, or he will sit there, and write nothing.  I don’t condone the skipping, but passively resisting is certainly well within his moral and legal rights.

I will update this when more information becomes available, but it will be interesting to see.

Our daughter’s Grade 3 EQAO Story

Olivia has never shown any sign of Ethan’s neurological issues.  She performs well in school, and is a quiet, self-motivated student.  Currently in the French Immersion program at her school, by all accounts, she is a dream student.  Typically, her lowest mark on any given report card would be a B, or a B+.  If she were to take her EQAO test, she would pass with flying colours.  She will still not write this test.

Initially, we had planned to pull Olivia from the EQAO and have her go stay with Grandma and Grandpa, as Ethan had done in years past.  But we had a quiet sense of unease about it.  If we disagree with this testing, and if it is wasteful and wrong, why should we be the ones that pull our child?  What lesson is actually being learned by NOT protesting, and simply running away?   The decision was also made clearer, when we learned that the school would not be telling us the actual test date.  In order to avoid students leaving on the day of the EQAO, they would inform parents of the two week period during which the test would be given.  To avoid the test, Olivia would then be forced to miss a full two weeks of education, and if she returned at any point during this ‘testing window’ they would make her write the test.

So, we contacted her Principal and her Teacher with the request that Olivia not write the EQAO test nor take part in the ‘pre-test’ activities  – our official request.

To our surprise, the Principal actually called our home quickly thereafter.  I explained that I did not want Olivia to write the test, and I didn’t want to pull her out for the two week period of the entire testing time frame.  The Principal asked if Olivia had any anxiety issues that would allow for an exemption from the test, which she does not.   She said that she would review the situation, and contact us again soon.  I thanked her for the quick response, and it was a friendly exchange, all told.

She responded very quickly after reviewing some EQAO material from the official webpage.  We were told that there were no pre-test activities and that the EQAO is a curriculum-based test without ANY classroom pre-teaching to the test – the official story, of course, which most people realize, is abjectly not the case.  She “cut and pasted” some information from the web, that essentially said that ALL grade 3 students are expected to participate.

We responded by thanking her for looking into this, and that we understand that the Board and Government of Ontario would like all students to write these tests, but unfortunately we are still in the same position.  Olivia will not be writing this test, nor will she be missing two weeks of school.

Then we asked what would happen if Olivia simply showed up during the Grade 3 Testing, and simply didn’t write anything.  Could they provide her with alternate learning materials, or should we?  Would she be made to write?  Would there be any punitive results from not writing?

The response we received was surprising.  The Principal explained that nothing would happen at all to Olivia, and that the only result would be a zero on this test, which doesn’t count towards anything anyways.  She can sit at her desk and not even open the booklet unless she gets a little curious.  She could read quietly, or doodle, or work on other materials.  There would be nothing punitive in any way.

We responded by thanking her again for her time, and telling her a small story about a positive experience that Olivia had with her English teacher recently, and the issue ended on a very pleasant note.

Final Thoughts

As the testing will not take place for a while, we obviously are unsure as to how this will all pan out in the future.   However, both our son and daughter are excited about the possibility of this minor rebellious act, and we are confident in that we have expressed our dissatisfaction with the current standardized testing paradigm, and not had to sacrifice our moral standards to do it.

Are we doing the right thing in our actions?  I am not completely certain, but I am certain that if we were to acquiesce then we would have been guilty of perpetuating these wasteful, purposeless tests.  At this point, the only way that these tests can be removed will be when the data that they provide will serve no useful function to the politicians, school boards, and commercial interests.  The only way that this can happen is if more and more parents chose to support their children in NOT writing these flawed evaluations.  Personally, I would love to see the day when an entire class of Grade 3s, Grade 6s, Grade 9s or Grade 10s simply refuse to write the test.