Can a four-year old child in kindergarten “fall behind” in learning two weeks after starting school? According to notes being sent home from teachers in New York City to mothers of these youngsters, yes. Today children are being asked to learn more, perform better, rank higher and qualify sooner than their counterparts 10, 20, 30 years ago, and it shows. Is the startling number of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in fact spurred by schools today?
According to Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, childhood anxiety and depression, as measured by various psychological tests given to children in school, has reportedly risen to where today a startling 85 percent of young people rank higher than the average for the same group 50 years ago. Depression and anxiety seem to be markers of ill-contented children who feel out of control and often “act out” in school. As stated in a recent New York Times article – ADHD “is the most prevalent psychiatric illness of young people in America.” Why is that?
What About Play- Peter Gray, evolutionary developmental psychologist states in his book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, “We are pushing the limits of children’s adaptability. We have pushed children into an abnormal environment, where they are expected to spend ever greater portions of their day under adult direction, sitting at desks, listening to and reading about things that don’t interest them, and answering questions that are not their own and are not, to them, real questions. We leave them ever less time and freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests.”
Gray is an advocate for free-play and the awareness that children learn best through self-led activities that are free of adult supervision, outside and with other children. He explains how it is in the nature of children to learn this way. By observing hunter-gatherer tribes all over the world he has documented how children allowed to explore and play for the majority of their time become more productive members of society, learn better, comprehend more thoroughly and over-all display greater respect for the other members of their “tribe” or “people” than are their western counterparts who attend standardized schools.
In the Brain- The New York Times article A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D. by Richard A. Friedman goes on to explain how those who have been diagnosed with ADHD seem to have less dopamine receptors – specifically lacking in D2 and D3 receptors – which simply means that their reward circuits are not as sensitized as those of people who are deemed “normal.” In order to remedy this, according to this article, patients with ADHD diagnoses found that mixing up their tasks or bringing in more creative ventures moved them out of their ADHD status and back to full function, sometimes with even greater results.
Conversely, Natural News revealed a study recently that showed children diagnosed with ADHD have absolutely no difference in their brains from other “normal” children, except after they have taken ADHD prescribed medications such as Ritalin and Concerta for a period of time. These drugs were shown to have little effect on children initially, except when carefully observing the children, but in the long-run the ADHD drugs have shown to stunt development. The researchers called their study the “Multi-Modal Treatment Study of Children with ADHD” or MTA and they found, long-term, ADHD drugs actually stunt growth. The University of Buffalo professor involved in the study, William Pelham, admitted that they may have “exaggerated the beneficial impact of the medication” when initially claiming these medications were helping kids.
Responding Naturally- For adults with diagnosed ADHD the remedy has seemed to be as easy as beginning a start-up business, removing oneself from the monotony of “boredom” and routine. For children today, could ADHD just be another way of describing kids who are unwilling to submit to a prescribed set of rules? Could the label”ADHD” instead be spurred by the public school system which requires adherence to so many regulations and which lacks the freedom to self-create and explore one’s own natural impulses? Evidence is pointing in such a direction.
Gray makes a valid point in his book Free to Learn (on page 23) when he states that of the 1 million years of arbitrary human history supposedly accounted for, only one percent of this has man/woman spent outside of the hunter-gatherer mode of existence. With this awareness one might glean the insight that humans were created to wander, explore, create, and learn through a vast array of modalities, all of which required of him or her the ability to move the body and test the individual and collective mind. Today’s public school system is a far cry from such modes of learning and expression and instead breed a people who are anxious to stretch beyond the bounds and limits they are given and are deemed “appropriate.” Is the public school system creating what the medical community is dubbing ADHD?
Beyond Mainstream- There are several major movements currently reaching beyond the bounds of government-run schools, back toward the idea of free-play, one of them is called “un-schooling” or “child-led learning.” In this system, kids dictate what they will learn and how they will learn based on interest. Parents are encouraged to notice what the kids tend toward and do what they can to enhance the areas of interest. The idea is that children know best, instinctively, how to learn and will naturally be compelled to “keep up” in the ways of reading and writing when they feel so inclined to integrate more into society. Children who have been “un-schooled” show just as high if not higher testing scores and are often times better adjusted children than those attending public or other schools as they reach later years. Some have gone on to complete college in less time than their formally trained peers and others rank near genius status, found to be more creative and confident over-all. ADHD is unheard of among unschoolers.
In the tribal cultures which encourage free-play as the number one tool for learning Gray find kids in these communities do not take on any “formal” responsibilities until their late teens and when doing so, they fluidly find their place within the culture. Some may argue such native peoples do not have the same level of required information in order to “keep up” as do the kids today within such a technologically advanced culture. Gray points out in his book Free to Learn, that “it would be a mistake to assume that because hunter-gatherer cultures are “simpler” than ours, children in those cultures have less to learn than do our children.” On the contrary, the hunter-gatherer way of life is full of intricacies and is very skill-intensive, perhaps more demanding and requiring more of a person in the way of knowledge than easily most people acquire today. However, one would be hard-pressed to find an indigenous tribal child that could be diagnosed ADHD as are so many western children today. The term “ADHD” would be considered preposterous to a culture where children are encouraged to play to their heart’s content. So the question remains – Is the school system today spurring the increase in the number of diagnosed ADHD children?
Sweets and Dyes- It is a growing concern that teachers in today’s public schools find it acceptable to reward performance with cookies, candy and other sugary snacks when medical science has proven that white sugar suppresses the immune functions for up to five hours after intake. Dr. Sears, an on-line parental advice physician, states how processed sugar poorly affects learning, attention and behavior. Other sources point to the fact that sugar in fact increases children’s ability to lose focus and become “hyperactive,” (though strangely one has to dig deep to find such documented information – any parent can confirm such truth). Some children are more sensitive, especially to the artificial colors and flavors found in many sweet snacks that teachers increasingly feel justified in serving their students. School lunches are also laden with chemical preservatives, colors, dyes and ingredients caregivers could question the benefit of if taken into careful consideration.
In 1994 studies showed that 73 percent of children with symptoms of ADHD responded favorably to removing food dyes and colors from their diets. In July of 2010, European food labels started carrying a warning which states: that food dyes “may have an adverse affect on activity and attention in children.”
Make it Fluid- Another concern in the public school system is the lack of pure, clean drinking water offered to children and in the proper amounts that are conducive to good health and high performance. Students in grades K-5 were asked how often they were able to take drinks of water and most replied with “three to four sips out of the fountain per day, no more.” Many children report teachers restricting their water intake by disallowing them to consume water from bottles brought from home calling it “a distraction to learning.” When a second grade teacher from Welby Elementary school in South Jordan, Utah was asked to allow one of her students free access to water during the day due to possible dehydration, she responded with “my kids get water three to four times per day.” These opportunities were confirmed by kids to be “sips” out of the classroom or hall fountain while the rest of the class waited in line behind them. How much water can a child drink in a sip?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention speaks of water access to students in school as being an important aspect of health stating, “Adequate hydration…may improve cognitive function in children and adolescents.”
The importance of water in the body for all functions is well documented. Being that the body is 70 percent water, the need for continual renewal of the source of this water is required to keep all systems in optimal performance. According to Paul and Patricia Braggs (both Natropathic doctors as well as medical physicians) in their book The Miracle of Fasting, body dehydration can cause a myriad of health problems.”When the body doesn’t get enough water, it reacts and suffers.”(page 160) They go on to list the various problems that result from lack of adequate water intake and among those specified are: headache, nervousness, inability to concentrate, and digestive problems, just to name a few. All of which, the doctors say, can be relieved by drinking an enough water.
Beyond quantities of water, the quality of water available in the drinking fountains of public schools is another issue entirely. Where many municipal water supplies are treated with chlorine – a known neurotoxin cited as a contributor to symptoms of ADHD and fluoride – an aluminum by-product responsible for pineal gland calcification and recently confirmed by Harvard research teams (published in The Lancet) to contribute to mental disorders including ADHD in children. Untreated water is filled with other pesticides, herbicides, chemicals and a wide variety of other harmful substances which do not support healthy mental functions in children. Where adults might be able to consume minimal quantities of some of these ingredients without detriment, children are much more susceptible to the dangers of neurotoxins.
Is it natural that kids spend eight hours per day in a building, with two small breaks for supervised play? Is it normal to ask youngsters to sit still for hours on end repeating information drilled to them which has been predetermined by a bunch of bureaucrats? Is it acceptable for teachers to reward classroom performance with sugar-laden snacks, restrict water intake while recommending medication for what they consider to be ill-focused behavior? Are public schools today spurring the problem doctors label as ADHD?
By restricting free-play, standardizing tests for the measurement of how kids will be placed in future programs and national rating scales and not adequately providing their little growing bodies with proper nourishment and vital fluids the rising rate of Attention Deficit may not be a coincidence but a creation of the system intended to be for them. The question remains for thoughtful consideration – Is ADHD spurred by public school?
Opinion By Stasia Bliss
Photo by Ajari – Flickr License