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education, medication, and truth

updated sat 6 apr 02


Michele Williams on fri 5 apr 02

Now I'm going to speak as someone who has 13 years' experience as an
education consultant/advocate for families with disabled children and 22
years' experience as parent of children with disabilities speak in the
capacity of someone with professional experience in the fields of disability
and mental health related to disability and education. I have helped start
two non-profit organizations to deal with children's disability and
education needs, have a national reputation on the Internet in this field,
and am considered as an ally and friend in our school system and by the
parent-clients I serve. I am credible to parents, schools, Departments of
Education in 50 states, and DOE in Washington, D.C. I should be credible

I am responding in particular to the claims that use of Ritalin is an
attempt to control any child who doesn't "fit the mold". I hear these
claims all the time and the truth is out there.
Here it is.

There are good teachers and bad teachers. There are teachers with the
ability to flex and bend and get creative to meet the needs of even the most
hyperactive of students. (They do go home exhausted and stressed out,
though, and please keep that in mind.) There are teachers who don't have
the capacity to handle even the normal children, but they became teachers
because they love children in limited quantities. That was then when they
were in school and classes were smaller--then the systems became overloaded
and these teachers' capacity for change and managing active students was
limited. From the average- to less-than-average-skilled teacher's point of
view, the active student is a nerve-grinder all day long, stressing the
teacher beyond capacity. If the teacher is to keep her sanity and her
health, she must nail down whatever sticks up so she can go about her
business without always having to step over, around or somehow avoid that
problem. If the student is disruptive on top of active, she must keep some
control over that student in order to teach the students who can learn what
she must teach. Even bad teachers know this, and they use the principal's
office as a discipline measure for students they can't control verbally.
That leaves the room quieter and maintains a learning environment for the
rest of the class. For those of you who spent a lot of time in the
principal's offices, or sitting in the hallway outside the classroom, or in
detention after school, that is the rationale of how you got there. Did you
"stare out the window", daydream a lot, or suddenly find that you didn't
know what was going on right now because everybody had adifferent book out
and the teacher was pointing to something that wasn't what you were doing
before? And how about all those assignments that never got done because you
forgot the assignment, forgot the book, forgot to take the assignment home,
got the assignment home but didn't have the book/paper, you did the
assignment and forgot to turn it in? The teacher knows you know the stuff,
but she has nothing in her files to prove it should someone from the State
ask for proof--and that is required in order to give you the grades. So, if
you defy the orders to do homework, you wind up in detention for punishment.
That is the teacher's point of view.

The parent's point of view is that here is this bright child who wants to do
well, to be good, but he just can't seem to figure out how to use all that
energy in useful, constructive ways. This child seems to have a motor going
that cannot be turned off. He can't sit still because something is always
moving, even if he is sitting somewhere. He twiddles his fingers, cracks
knuckles, grinds teeth, taps toes, bounces his heels and knees, swings his
arm over the back/side of chairs, taps pencils, snaps scissors, draws all
over the margins of every paper he touches, whistles, sings, mumbles, and it
is all virtually non-stop. Add to this that he talks in a LOUD voice and
can't seem to control it no matter what the consequences. He's the one the
neighbors can hear with all the doors and windows closed and the air
conditioning on full blast. He butts into his siblings' games, rooms,
drawers, closets, and lives as if everything in the world belongs to him.
He talks over others, can't wait for a turn in games, and is constantly
being told to "Get back here!" when he has to wait in line at cash
registers, movies, etc. He is always being called back to the table to
finish his meal and he's always being told to sit down because where others
sit, he stands and fidgets. Twenty minutes of homework is 3 hours of "Sit
down and do it!" (When it is done, parents don't understand why every
answer is correct in the first half and mostly wrong in the second half.) He
is like an electron buzzing around an atom--always "out there" somewhere,
constantly in motion. Okay, so that's only a teensy-weensy-bit to the
extreme--I just want you to know there ARE kids like this out
there--hundreds and hundreds of them. Take out a little of the voice volume
and take out some of the intrusiveness (going into other people's things)
and you have the photograph of the typical hyperactive child.

Can you see that in a class of 30 children who are supposed to be listening
to a 20-minute, canned, opened once a year lecture? Yes, I know you can.
We all remember THAT kid's name, don't we? My memory is of Paul, Frankie,
Carl, and Larry. What did Paul, Frankie, Jenk, and Larry think? They
wanted to be good. They tried to be good. No matter what they did or
tried, they couldn't get it right. There was something wrong every time.
They may have gotten the job done, but that success came with "Why can't you
just sit down like other people do?", "Who do you think you're fooling with
your hand always in the air when you don't even know the answers?" or "If I
hear that pencil tapping one more time, I'm sending you to the principal's
office for Defiance of School Authority." Life for these children was a
constant litany of correction of things they could not control or change
about themselves. In essence, it was as if someone said, "Get rid of those
freckles. I don't like them." From the child's point of view, he wanted to
know why he couldn't do what other children could do, sit, listen, pass a
test, do the project (because it did look like fun), remember to do the
homework, or remember to turn in the homework he did.

When the child cannot concentrate, focus on a task long enough to complete
it, cannot sit still, there are several things that can cause this (not
parenting, not TV).
a. First, most common, is that the brain chemistry that allows
concentration simply is not there. Dopamine, the chemical of alertness, may
be too high, causing the child to be over-aware of every little movement and
sound in the environment. Those of you who say you concentrate better with
music--perhaps music allows better focus for you because it covers over a
million little sounds that otherwise shatters your concentration. The air
conditioning going on and off, the birds chirping outside, the dog turning
around for a softer position, tree leaves clicking quietly in the
breeze--but like drums in your head when you can't focus, etc. The length
of time the brain can spend battling the stimuli coming from "outside" the
body so it can concentrate on the task to be done is limited, and when the
limit is reached, the brain allows those outside stimuli to enter,
concentration fades, and wrong answers, poor work, and leaving the task are
the result--i.e. the first 20 math problems are all correct, but the last
20, no different than the first, are mostly wrong--no focus there...for
potters, it is when the pots just don't come out right.

b. Second, some children who are hyperactive are what is called
"neurologically defensive". This means the sensory system is not fully
developed and the body is busy sending signals of irritation or discomfort
for things like sitting down with both feet on the floor. For the child,
too many nerve endings receiving the weight of the body's pressure against
the chair means there is discomfort, and to deal with it, the brain sends a
signal of the alarm for impending injury! Yes, this child moves. In his
brain, he MUST move to prevent injury or further discomfort. He may
actually be sensing pain after a very short period of time spent sitting the
way we expect him to. Some children can't tolerate more than 2-3 minutes
with a "both feet on the floor" sitting posture. Some children are driven
to become irrationally irritable by their clothing. Know anyone who kicks
off the shoes the minute he's in the house? Know anyone who goes outside in
the winter in bare feet because it's more comfortable than wearing shoes, at
least for the time it takes to get the newspaper? Know someone who won't
wear a shirt with a collar, long sleeves, those Polo shirts with the ribbed
cuffs, jewelry, including wedding rings? Neurological defensiveness. These
things are interpreted by the brain as discomfort. This is the child who
simply is unable to sit in a classroom as expected.

Remedy: Flexibility. All children are able to handle exceptions. Good
teachers or teachers with training about how to handle these things will
allow a hyperactive child to do his work standing at a counter area
somewhere in the classroom. They allow the child to go like a buzzsaw
through his work and they don't ask for a lot of drill. They have the child
do only enough to show he knows what was taught. On projects, he's given
what he can handle or what he does best, not impossible things. On tests,
he is given 2 or 3 sessions to do the work so his concentration fading has
no impact on his grades because it won't fade in such short sessions. He's
given things to do that use his boundless energy rather than being
constantly criticized for having it.

But teachers who don't know these things can be done or that the law
requires these accommodations for children with this disability are often
stressed beyond endurance and seek relief through correction, punishment and
exile of the child in question. These may be good teachers lacking
training, of these may be adults with no flexibility built in, or they may
be poor teachers just collecting checks. There are all kinds.

However, when teachers have done all the right things, and parents have done
all the right things, and the child is not learning, and the child is not
developing mentally or emotionally as he should because the ability to focus
and concentrate is so deficient that the child is at risk of becoming a
danger to himself or others (not able to recognize danger, risk), then
something must be done to help him. This is the child who either doesn't
realize the consequences of pushing/shoving on a narrow sidewalk on a busy
road, jumping from rooftops & trees trying to fly, riding bikes between cars
in fast traffic, or doesn't think of the consequences until too late. The
quotation, "By the time I remember the rule, I already broke it," applies
here. When the child either is at risk himself or risks others' safety
and/or he is at risk of not being able to learn, he is at risk also for
depression when he realizes his differences and deficiencies and inability
to help himself, and he is at risk for failure in life.

So we go for medical help. And there is help, lots of it. There are at
least 8 diagnoses that look like attention deficit disorder, and
misdiagnoses are frequent, but even so, the help for focus and concentration
is a critical component of treatment for all of them. Ritalin is the most
common drug, usually tried first because the medication is (really!) safer
than aspirin. It has been studied more intensively than any other drug on
the market (70 years of scientific studies). But thanks to L. Ron Howard
who tried to discredit both the psychology and psychiatry professions
because they bounced him out of California for practicing both without a
license, we have TONS of MISinformation about medications, psychology and
psychiatry, and the Scientology organization still mounts offensives against
these periodically--look for it, there will be yet another assault against
Ritalin, filled with misinformation and exaggerations. The truth is,
neither doctors nor parents want to give any child a drug on a chronic
basis. So it is always a last choice, even if teachers are screaming that
the child needs to be on Ritalin because they can't stand his
antics/activity in their classrooms.

Given that drug prescriptions are the last choice in any treatment plan, how
do we get to the notion that Ritalin is the school's attempt to control
children? Because in 70% of the children who take it, it WORKS.

There are many different causes for these symptoms; we are at the threshhold
of a new world in neurology and this will be the century of the brain as a
result of the new information we are getting. Someday we may be able to do
an injection of genetically altered cells that will allow the child who
simply cannot concentrate or sit still to calm down and do what he wants or
needs to do. Someday we may be able to use a medication that works only on
the faulty mechanism in the brain chemistry "plant". Today, we can
sometimes guess, and we have only broad-based medications that sometimes
work and sometimes don't and we don't know why it works or doesn't.

For the children and adults for whom Ritalin works, there are choices. If
the risk of failure in safety is greater than the risk of medication,
medicate! If the risk of medication means loss of creativity (for
occasional individuals, this may be the case), they may take medication only
on days when the do things like pay bills, taxes, school meetings about
their kids' hyperactivity, etc. For those who take the meds and feel that
it quiets the constant alarms about imminent danger to the body when they've
been sitting only 5 minutes, or that the world is suddenly calmer and they
can understand and function in what goes on around them, these medications
are a godsend.

No one who does not have a mental disability should criticize someone who
does, and no one has the right to criticize someone for wanting the
medication that makes their lives more comfortable or bearable.

We must remember a few things.

1. Teachers usually become teachers because they love children. It is the
system that is faltering and preventing them from dealing with children in
the ways they always dreamed.

2. We all seek comfort levels in our social dealings, our education levels,
our creative challenges, our work, etc. Teachers who are outstripped by a
child's needs and their classroom situation sometimes demand a child be
medicated because they don't know what else to do. Sometimes a teacher can
cope, but sees the child can't cope no matter what she does, so she
suggests/demands that the child be helped. Can't fault her for that.

3. Nobody, but nobody, likes the idea of medicating children. But nobody
refuses insulin to a diabetic child, and nobody should deny medication that
keeps a child safe and learning.

4. Unless you have this disability or have lived with someone who does, you
probably don't really understand it very well, which leaves you in no
position to criticize anyone. Watch and learn. We learn a lot with our
ears when our mouths are shut. When we know something, then we can offer
opinions, but remember that it takes a LOT of facts to form a valid opinion.
Opinions are not a substitute for facts.

5. People with a disability are not another class of people. They are
valuable members of society, often the most gifted, creative, sensistive,
and helpful people around. They deserve any help they can find or that we
can give.

6. YOU are not immune. A small head injury can leave you with these
symptoms, and Ritalin may be the medication that helps you. Hm! If you get
out of bed in the morning, you are at risk. Take notes here.

I'm not going to say another thing about it. I'm all said out. After 21
years of dealing with attention deficit disorder in my brilliant son,
perhaps (no, probably) living with it in myself, of dealing professionally
with hundreds of families and teachers dealing with children like this,
after having mental health professionals and schools invite ME to talk at
THEIR professional workshops, and after being on every-other parent support
organizations list to invite as a speaker/workshop leader, I think I must
have gathered enough facts to know what I'm talking about. There is no
conspiracy to "control" kids' minds. There is a system, there is a
socially-accepted methodology of teaching the majority of our youth which is
under a great deal of change right now, and there are children who are
different. And that is all.

Michele Williams
Education Consultant/Advocate
and by golly, a budding potter!

----- Original Message -----
From: "Marcia Selsor"
Sent: Thursday, April 04, 2002 11:01 AM
Subject: Re: Education Rant

> Nanci
> I did have some good experiences in public school.I had a 4th grade
teacher who
> let me draw all day in the pack of the class and then decorated the room
with my
> large pastels of invented birds. (I was a notorious bird watcher staring
out the
> windows.)
> It was the classes with 48 students in them when I was taken off the main
> oddly with kids in the close alphabetical range...selsor, thorton, thomas.
> of us way in the back of the room were put into a "retared classroom" as
it was
> called in those days but it was more for behavioural problems..difficult
> I developed an auditory memory which was discovered by my Psych Professor
> college.
> As for public schools, most of my family work in public schools or serve
on school
> boards.
> It is a tough job with little support often. I admire teachers. But not
all are
> capable as is true about any profession. Administrators also have a
proportion os
> good ones and bad ones.
> I have frends with kids in public school now where ridalin is dispensed
for the
> first 1/2 of the day. I think this is scary. This is the trend to control
> who is a little more difficult han the mob.There are many reasons for this
as you
> mention.
> Marcia Selsor
> Billings, Montana
> Nanci Bishof wrote:
> > I find it amazing that not one person on this list has ever managed to
have a
> > positive experience within public education.SNIP
> > Yes, if you have a class of from 1 to 5 students, there is far less
> > distraction and far more latitude you can provide to those students than
> > you have 35-50. And yes, just how many parents put the time or energy
> > helping their child by making sure they have done their studying or
> > encourage them to be respectful and behave appropriately to support the
> > rights of the other students or even provide them with the basics of
> > and paper and make sure they have it with them every day so they can do
> > work at school? nanci
> > a public school art teacher and math tutor
> >
> > Sorry, but this isn't a post I'm going to sit on to cool down before
> >
> >
> > Send postings to
> >
> > You may look at the archives for the list or change your subscription
> > settings from
> >
> > Moderator of the list is Mel Jacobson who may be reached at
> Send postings to
> You may look at the archives for the list or change your subscription
> settings from
> Moderator of the list is Mel Jacobson who may be reached at