Do we want a cure for Walter Mitty?

“Sluggish cognitive tempo,” a new medical term for excessive daydreaming, could save lost-in-a-fog children and adults from being misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorder, writes Diana Senechal. But she worries that Walter Mitty and Fern will be cured of imagination.

If James Thurber’s Walter Mitty had been diagnosed with SCT, he’d stay “on task” and remember to buy the puppy biscuits. There’d be no “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.”  (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of my favorite stories of all time.)

Not all wandering minds are lost, Senechal writes.

I have had students who had difficulty staying on task because they were thinking about the subject in an interesting way – as well as students who seemed “off-task” because they were actually concentrating hard (and not taking notes as the others were). I myself tended not to take notes in school; I preferred to listen and think.

If we “faulted, diagnosed and fixed” all the daydreamers, “the world would fill up with dreary essays that never departed from the rubric,” writes Senechal.

In Charlotte’s Web, Fern’s mother pays a visit to the family doctor, Dr. Dorian, in order to seek his advice about Fern, who, in her view, spends far too much time alone with the animals, just sitting and listening to them. Dr. Dorian leans back, closes his eyes, and says, “How enchanting!”

Senechal will discuss solitude on BBC’s  The Forum this weekend.

Drugged ‘for being boys’

Most boys on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder meds are “being drugged for no good reason—simply for being boys,” charges Ryan D’Agostino in Esquire.

By the time they reach high school, nearly 20 percent of all American boys will be diagnosed with ADHD. Millions of those boys will be prescribed a powerful stimulant to “normalize” them. A great many of those boys will suffer serious side effects from those drugs. The shocking truth is that many of those diagnoses are wrong . . .

“We are pathologizing boyhood,” says Ned Hallowell, a psychiatrist who has been diagnosed with ADHD himself. The co-author of two books on ADHD,  Driven to Distraction and Delivered from Distraction, Hallowell “there’s been a general girlification of elementary school, where any kind of disruptive behavior is sinful.”

Most boys are naturally more restless than most girls, and I would say that’s good. But schools want these little goody-goodies who sit still and do what they’re told—these robots—and that’s just not who boys are.”

Boys aren’t given time to outgrow immature behavior, writes D’Agostino. A huge Canadian study found that “boys who were born in December”—typically the youngest students in their class—”were 30 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD than boys born in January,” who were nearly a full year older. And “boys were 41 percent more likely to be given a prescription for a medication to treat ADHD if they were born in December than if they were born in January.” 

“Sluggish cognitive tempo” — day dreaming — is the latest candidate for diagnosis and medication, reports the New York Times.

“We’re seeing a fad in evolution: Just as A.D.H.D. has been the diagnosis du jour for 15 years or so, this is the beginning of another,” said Dr. Allen Frances, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke University. “This is a public health experiment on millions of kids.”

‘Smart pill’ doesn’t improve schoolwork

The “smart pill” isn’t so smartreports Nature. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) meds improve classroom behavior for the first year or so, but do little for academic achievement, according to “a growing body of evidence.”  

In the early 1990s, the MTA study began following four groups of elementary children with ADHD. They received medication, behavior therapy, medication and therapy or whatever care they had already been receiving.

After 14 months, the medicated groups showed better control of ADHD.  The drugs/therapy group had higher grades, but the regular care group was second best. And the gains didn’t last.

By three years in, the four groups had become indistinguishable on every measure. Treatment conferred no lasting benefit in terms of grades, test scores or social adjustment. Eight years later, it was the same story. 

. . . A 2013 review of randomized controlled trials longer than 12 months similarly concluded that there is scant evidence for improvements in ADHD symptoms or academic performance lasting much beyond a year.

A few studies show long-term gains in academic performance, but the boost is small and fades over time.

Attention Deficit drug ‘disaster’

“After more than 50 years leading the fight to legitimize attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” Dr. Keith Conners calls the rising rates of diagnosis “a national disaster of dangerous proportions,” reports the New York Times in The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder.

“The numbers make it look like an epidemic. Well, it’s not. It’s preposterous,” Dr. Conners, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Duke University, said in a subsequent interview. “This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels.”

Fifteen percent of high school-aged Americans now are diagnosed with ADHD, reports the Times. Classic ADHD, “historically estimated to affect 5 percent of children, is a legitimate disability that impedes success at school, work and personal life.” Drugs can help, though they have side effects.

But . . . drug company marketing has stretched the image of classic A.D.H.D. to include relatively normal behavior like carelessness and impatience, and has often overstated the pills’ benefits. Advertising on television and in popular magazines like People and Good Housekeeping has cast common childhood forgetfulness and poor grades as grounds for medication that, among other benefits, can result in “schoolwork that matches his intelligence” and ease family tension.

Now,  adult diagnoses are soaring, reports the Times. “In this six-question test, anyone but the highly organized” could be deemed “ADHD possible.”

From idealist to ‘bad teacher’

John Owens quit a successful publishing career, studied education for a year in graduate school and became a writing teacher at a South Bronx high school that “considered itself a model of school reform.” It didn’t go well, Owens writes in Confessions of a Bad Teacher.
bad teacher
Owens talks to Ed Week Teacher‘s Hana Maruyama about his “heartbreaking” year as a teacher.

His principal was obsessed with data, says Owens, but the numbers were meaningless. “I had to put in 2,000 points of data a week for my kids. Everything from attendance to homework. But I also had to put in things like self-determination. I mean, what is self-determination?”

He was told he was a “bad teacher,” he complains. “If I were a good teacher, the kids who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder would sit still and learn. If I were a good teacher, the kids who didn’t speak English would speak English. If I were a good teacher, all the problems that these kids faced would be solved in my 46 minutes a day with them.”

ADHD diagnoses surge overseas

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses are surging overseas, as well as in the U.S. Children may be taking powerful drugs needlessly, warn researchers in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

In Australia, prescriptions for the stimulant Ritalin and other ADHD drugs rose by 72 percent between 2000 and 2011, while in Britain and the Netherlands prescriptions roughly doubled between 2003 and 2008, said the paper.

According to the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in 11 American children aged 13-18 and one in 25 adults are affected by ADHD.

Ritalin and other drugs are appropriate only for “severe” ADHD symptoms, which occur among about 14 percent of children with the condition, the study noted. Yet 87 percent of U.S. children diagnosed with ADHD in 2010 received medications.

Carnival of Homeschooling

The Carnival of Homeschooling is up at The Homeschool Post. Reaping what you sow is the theme.

Coming to Grips with My Homeschool Reality (The Holistic Homeschooler) and 10 Reasons to Homeschool an ADHD Child (Harrington Harmonies) deal with homeschooling children with dyslexia, mood disorders and/or hyperactivity.

Test-based funding linked to ADHD rise

The Not-So-Hidden Cause Behind the A.D.H.D. Epidemic is test-based accountability argues Maggie Koerth-Baker in the New York Times Magazine. Diagnoses are skyrocketing, she writes. “Before the early 1990s, fewer than 5 percent of school-age kids were thought to have A.D.H.D.”  This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 11 percent of children ages 4 to 17 had received the diagnosis.  When test scores count, schools have an incentive to diagnose more children as disabled, she believes.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush, was the first federal effort to link school financing to standardized-test performance. But various states had been slowly rolling out similar policies for the last three decades. North Carolina was one of the first to adopt such a program; California was one of the last. The correlations between the implementation of these laws and the rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis matched on a regional scale as well. When (Berkeley Psychology Professor Stephen) Hinshaw compared the rollout of these school policies with incidences of A.D.H.D., he found that when a state passed laws punishing or rewarding schools for their standardized-test scores, A.D.H.D. diagnoses in that state would increase not long afterward. Nationwide, the rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis increased by 22 percent in the first four years after No Child Left Behind was implemented.

To be clear: Those are correlations, not causal links. But A.D.H.D., education policies, disability protections and advertising freedoms all appear to wink suggestively at one another. From parents’ and teachers’ perspectives, the diagnosis is considered a success if the medication improves kids’ ability to perform on tests and calms them down enough so that they’re not a distraction to others. (In some school districts, an A.D.H.D. diagnosis also results in that child’s test score being removed from the school’s official average.)

Rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis vary widely from country to country, Koerth-Baker observes. In 2003, nearly 8 percent of U.S. children — but only 2 percent of British kids — had been given a diagnosis of A.D.H.D.

ADHD or narcissism?

Many children diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may simply be slow to grow out of “normal childhood narcissism, writes psychologist Enrico Gnaulati in The Atlantic.

In the 1970s, a mere one percent of kids were considered ADHD. By the 1980s, three to five percent was the presumed rate, with steady increases into the 1990s. One eye-opening study showed that ADHD medications were being administered to as many as 17 percent of males in two school districts in southeastern Virginia in 1995.

ADHD symptoms — “problems listening, forgetfulness, distractibility, prematurely ending effortful tasks, excessive talking, fidgetiness, difficulties waiting one’s turn, and being action-oriented” — aren’t all that different from normal childhood challenges, he writes. In the past, a distractible, fidgety child would have been considered slower to mature and learn social skills. Now that child is quickly diagnosed with ADHD.

The core symptoms of ADHD resemble childhood narcissism, which is characterized by “overconfident self-appraisals, attention-craving, a sense of personal entitlement” and weak empathy for others, writes Gnaulati.

“Jonah” falls apart when he can’t master a task immediately. It could be a symptom of ADHD, writes Gnaulati. Perhaps he can’t retain the information needed. But it could be the “magical thinking” common for young children.

He believes mastering tasks should somehow be automatic—not the outcome of commitment, perseverance, and effort. Jonah’s self-esteem may also be so tenuous that it fluctuates greatly. For instance, when Jonah anticipates success, he productively cruises through work, eager to receive the recognition that he expects from parents and teachers. He is on a high. He definitely feels good about himself. But in the face of challenging work, he completely shuts down, expects failure, outside criticism, and wants to just give up.

“Parents who think their kid has ADHD often describe scenarios at home where the kid reacts to minor setbacks with bloodcurdling screams or to modest successes with over-the-top exuberance,” writes Gnaulati. For kids who really have ADHD, completing homework can be torture. But, for others, “dramatic displays of emotion are attempts to get out of tasks that warrant commitment, application, and effort.”

If parents give in, “these kids often do not acquire the emotional self-control necessary to buckle down and do academic work independently.”

I think the technical term is “spoiled brat.”

Gnaulati is the author of  Back to Normal, which is subtitled “why ordinary childhood behavior is mistaken for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism spectrum disorders.”

Brainy, introverted boys are over-diagnosed with autism, he writes in Salon. “If we don’t have a firm grasp of gender differences in how young children communicate and socialize, we can mistake traditional masculine behavior for high-functioning autism.”

Just eat the damn marshmallow

In their zeal to produce self-regulating, calm, marshmallow-postponing students, schools are failing non-conformists, writes Elizabeth Weil in The New Republic. Do we want a generation of Stepford Kids?

In the infamous Stanford marshmallow experiment in the late ’60s, nursery school kids were left in a room with a marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it they’d get two marshmallows later. One third were able to defer gratification. The tots with self-control went on, “or so the psychologists say, to show the straight-and-narrow qualities required to secure life’s sweeter and more elusive prizes: high SAT scores, money, health,” Weil writes.

Her daughter is not a marshmallow kid. In second grade at a private school, she resisted “the sit-still, raise-your-hand-to-speak-during-circle-time program.” The teacher didn’t discipline her. He recommended occupational therapy.  Teachers don’t punish, Weil writes. They “pathologize.”

She met a Seattle mother whose son was referred for testing because he had trouble sitting crossed-legged. The mother “learned every one of the boys in her son’s class had been referred out for testing.”

Another family, determined to resist such intervention, paid for an outside therapist to provide expert testimony to their son’s Oakland school stating that he did not have a mental health disorder. “We wanted them to hear from the therapist directly: He’s fine,” the mother said. “Being a very strong-willed individual—that’s a powerful gift that’s going to be unbelievably awesome someday.”

Punishing students for misbehavior has been “problematic” for teachers since the 1975 Goss decision, says Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University. The Supreme Court found that schoolchildren  have due process rights. “As a result, students can say to teachers with some authority, ‘If you do that, my mom is going to sue you.’ And that changes the score.”

Instead of controlling students through rewards and punishments, teachers are supposed to get students to control themselves. Social and emotional learning (SEL) teaches self-regulation to produce a “good student, citizen, and worker” who won’t use drugs, fight, bully or drop out.

However, there’s no evidence SEL improves academic achievement, Weil writes. Meanwhile, as small children are expected to show more self-control, diagnoses of attention- deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are soaring.

When I asked Zimmerman, the New York University education historian, if schools had found a way to deal with discipline in the wake of the students-rights movement, he said: “Oh we have. It’s called Ritalin.”

The push for self-regulation coincides with a sharp decline in measures of independent thinking, Weil writes.

The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking judge originality, emotional expressiveness, humor, intellectual vitality, open-mindedness, and ability to synthesize and elaborate on ideas. Since 1984, the scores of America’s schoolchildren have dropped by more than one standard deviation; that is to say, 85 percent of kids scored lower in 2008 than their counterparts did in 1984.

Suppressing feelings is mentally draining, according to Stanford Professor James Gross, author of the Handbook of Emotional Regulation.

The federally funded Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is pushing its model for social-emotional learning, pre-empting other ideas, some educators complain.

Self-regulation and “grit” may be “lost in translation” in the classroom, writes Sarah Sparks on Ed Week‘s Inside School Research.