"An education in drugs"

August 31, 1998


Summer may be ending; soon children will be out from underfoot. The watching, the worrying about accidents, the tending to injuries, the searching for things to do are all coming to an end. But no longer does Labour Day elicit a sigh of relief from weary parents.

Classrooms are not what they used to be; places where children are taught and tended by teachers concerned with lesson plans, grades, and discipline.

And no longer do parents fret only about whether Johnny learns to read or Mary learns to add. Now they must ask themselves whether Johnny is too active, or Mary is too quiet, or whether Tommy cares too much about getting an "A." Maybe Johnny needs drugs to calm him down, or Mary needs a self-esteem program, and maybe Tommy needs to stop all this worrying about his grades.

Such is the parents’ life now that psychology has gotten its fingers deep into the educational system, convincing teachers that they can look for psychological excuses for classroom problems and student failures.

Remember when students made careless mistakes in schoolwork, or didn’t listen, or fidgeted in their seats, or daydreamed as they stared out the window? Then they were told in no uncertain terms to "settle down" and pay attention or they would have to stay after school.

Now these same children are being diagnosed as suffering from Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and being sent to the doctor instead of the principal. ADHD, the most popular of a variety of available learning disorders, has a medical sound but it has no known biological basis. It is a label applied to a collection of observations made, most often, by frustrated or over-concerned teachers.

Convinced in workshops and training sessions of hidden explanations for problems and armed with the latest checklists to identify these disorders, teachers have become vigilant. If Johnny "does not seem to listen when spoken to directly," or Sally "often talks excessively," then give them each a checkmark. And if either of them gets six checkmarks, their parents should be told that they have ADHD and, according to current practice, need Ritalin.

But do these children really have a medical disorder? High energy is normal for many children, especially boys, and it is often found with those who are intellectually gifted. Too often now, it is misinterpreted as a psychological disorder, leading to the misuse and overuse of drugs.

Health Canada reports that use of Ritalin has increased 456 percent since 1991. Some teachers say that up to half of their students are taking this drug to quiet their behaviour. But do they need it?

Maybe not! One pilot study from Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital found that only two of every ten children diagnosed with ADHD really fitted the diagnosis. Even the United Nations has warned all governments "to exercise utmost vigilance in order to prevent ‘over-diagnosing’ ADHD."

And if very active Johnny isn’t Mom and Dad’s worry, then it’s quiet Mary. According to many psychologists and teachers, she may be suffering from low self-esteem.

The popular "me-first" psychology which pervades society frightens teachers and parents into believing that low self-concept can contribute not only to educational failure, but also to crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, and chronic welfare dependency. Such a belief led the California State Assembly to establish a task force to investigate self-esteem. Despite discovering that low self-esteem did not seem to be associated with these dire consequences, they poured money into an effort to artificially increase self-esteem.

Positive self-esteem is now considered so important for children's well being that many school systems declare it to be ‘the’ primary goal of education. The authors of one school curriculum said that "nothing is as important as self-esteem to a child’s well-being and success." Not writing; not reading, not arithmetic!

An international study found that American students, who ranked last in international comparisons of math abilities, ranked first when asked how they felt about their math abilities.

It would seem that the modern maxim in education is "It’s not what you can do that matters, its how you feel about yourself that counts." Any attempt to link feeling good about oneself to achievement is considered to be potentially damaging to children.

In a recent magazine article about kids and stress, parents were encouraged to avoid pushing their kids to succeed. A counselor suggested that one way to do this was to change grades given by teachers. "If I knew he did his best and still got a grade of seventy-five, I'd write an A below his teacher's mark."

Some psychologists are taking this idea one step further, suggesting that when schools put an emphasis on grades, they may be forcing children to cheat. In a recent article, Anderson, concluded that "when adolescents learn in environments that stress competition and grades, some students may begin to use cheating as a means of survival."

So, parents who encourage their children to do well in school can worry that, one day, they may be accused of forcing their children to cheat. And, of course, any teacher who grades according to performance risks being blamed, not only for a child’s poor self-esteem but also for any guilt feelings experienced by cheaters.

How are parents to cope with all of these psychological notions? How will our children turn out when they are taught to use drugs to fit in, or to delude themselves with a false sense of esteem, or to blame others for their dishonesty?

I am left with an image of a classroom in which no one fidgets, all the children feel good about themselves and no-one cares, or even knows, how well or poorly they are doing in any subject. Now that is something for all of us to worry about!



@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,