Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Passion (Not Drugs) As Treatment for ADD/ADHD

I’m having a respectful debate with Stephen Glassner on Twitter and over on his blog about the belief I share with Sir Ken Robinson that rather than anesthetizing students labeled with ADD/ADHD instead, we should consider "Fixing Boring Schools, Not Kids Who Are Bored." In my post on the topic I share how both I and 20-something multi-millionaire, Aaron Iba were both labeled as hyperactive/problem children (this was before ADHD had become a widely available condition to have). Yes, we both had issues listening to teachers drone on about things we could care less about, and sitting still all day and listening to 12 years of classes I never signed up for was maddening. Would drugs that dulled mine or his very active brains made this more tolerable? Sure. BUT THAT’S NOT THE ANSWER!

You hear that students with ADHD can’t focus. I say really? If there’s something they’re very passionate about, I’ve seen such individuals focus with laser precision for hours. For Aaron Iba it was computer games. His psychological eval said this was a huge problem. He focused on the games like nothing else mattered. That passion later made him the happy, successful passionate multi-millionaire, living in Australia that he is today. Their advice was to take away such “distractions.”

So, yes, while I acknowledge and agree that drugging kids helps them get through the unnecessary drudgery of school, I contend there is a better solution. The solution is making schools relevant, connected and interesting. As I recently shared in my post "The War on Kids. Zero Tolerance" for many, schools feel like a prison. In fact in the movie when shown photos of prisons and schools it often is impossible to tell the difference with prisons looking more appealing in many cases. While these drugs are helping students survive their days, there's evidence it is damaging their brains. If ADD or ADHD was an available condition when I was in school, I certainly would have been drugged which would have made my brain more dull and my teacher's lives much easier. Same with Aaron Iba and I have no doubt people like Einstein would also have been drugged.

In his post Mr. Glassner complains that while folks like Sir Ken Robinson share the frustration over the failure of schools, there are few answers...just problems shared. So, now I’ll move from the problem to some solutions.

First, purchase the book "The Element - How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything." Angela Maiers has also written a book on the topic of Passion Driven learning. I suggest you purchase that too. I might also recommend following the Twitter Tag #passiondriven

If you're wondering what a passion driven school looks like read
You Can Get a Dalton Education at a NYC Public School
and Immunization for an Uninteresting Curriculum Found at the iSchool and Hey Teacher! Leave Us Kids Alone!!!- There’s A School for That! and Lessons Learned at The Science Leadership Academy.

If you want to know important elements of passion based learning read Preparing Students for Success by Helping Them Discover and Develop Their Passions. If you’re wondering what it looks like when a student is driven by passion read Profile of a Passion-Driven Student.

My prescription for those with ADHD is simple.  Forget the drugs and empower students to pursue and develop their passions...either at their school, at home, or at a school that honors this type of learning.  Only after giving that a try, should meds be considered as treatment.

Newly added information:
I coincidentally, just found this piece of information about freedom/democracy schooling.
My child has been diagnosed with "ADD/ADHD" ; what about him or her?

Experience at democratic free schools indicates that this is not a problem. They find that when children are allowed to expend their excess energy through play, they can then focus. According to John Holt in Learning All the Time, research by specialists in learning disabilities links so-called "perceptual handicaps" with stress. Such research has shown that when students with supposedly severe learning disabilities were placed in a relatively stress-free situation, their disabilities soon vanished. Millions of children in the United States are on prescription medication, sometimes called the "school drug", to control their behavior and promote learning. Democratic free schools have found that there is no longer a perceived need for these drugs when children are not coerced into learning, and when the need to be responsible for their behavior comes from within. The democratic process in particular promotes development of this internalized sense of responsibility for one's own behavior through honest, direct interaction with a community of friends and peers.
More newly added information
When I read this doctor's thoughts on ADD/ADHD, I felt as though I had almost plagiarized his words though I had never read them.   
When parents hear me say that attention deficit disorder is a myth, they sometimes become very upset. They think I'm saying that their kids aren't jumpy, distractible, forgetful, impulsive, or disorganized. That's not what I'm saying at all! It's quite obvious to me that our nation's children have probably never been so hyperactive. 

The question is, what accounts for this? Is it a medical disorder called ADD (or ADHD as it's sometimes called)? 

I think not. I think instead that what we've learned to call ADD is instead a number of things all jumbled up together under this simplistic label. Kids can be hyperactive for any number of reasons: because they're anxious or depressed, because they're allergic to milk, because they're bored with school, because they have a different kind of mind and aren't being challenged, because they're overstimulated from television and video games.

I could go on. The point is that the ADD label makes it too easy to ignore what might be going on beneath the surface of things.
Studies suggest that many children hate taking Ritalin, yet you don't see this reported anywhere in the ADD literature. For kids who have that wide-focus attention span (e.g. paying attention to lots of different things rather than one single stimulus}, Ritalin can close them down to a fine point of attention, which is great for doing a math page, but can hamper more divergent forms of thinking associated with creativity. 
I'm very concerned that the literature on ADD has so much to say about what these kids can't do, and virtually nothing about what they can do. In my own informal research, I've seen countless examples of kids labeled ADD who are musicians, dancers, athletes, leaders, and creative in many other ways. Why don't we see these kids as basically healthy and creative individuals who may not function as well in certain kinds of environments (for example, the worksheet wasteland of many classrooms), but do great when given a chance to learn in their own way. Many kids labeled ADD in fact do great when they're fixing an automobile, or doing experiments in their nature lab, or performing in a theater piece. Many kids with behavior difficulties grow up to become great individuals. People like Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Sara Bernhardt, Louie Armstrong, and Albert Einstein. Why don't we start using models of growth to describe our highly energetic kids and throw this ADD disease label in the trash basket where it belongs?
In Rid of Him Chris Mercogliano co-director of the Albany Free School explains
My purpose will be to describe an approach to working with the kinds of kids who would otherwise be controlled by medication in conventional school environments that eliminates the need for any drugs whatsoever. It is not a new approach, but one which has been tested by time in the little school where I have taught for over twenty-five years known simply as the Free School.
Download Dr. Fred Baughman's free report here: ADHD fraud and the chemical holocaust against a generation of children.


  1. I recently had a brain injury and was prescribed ritalin to help with focus and brain fatigue.

    Having finally experienced some of what students experience I can attest that it is not as simple as you make it out to be.

    This is a very complex problem.

  2. Being treated for a brain injury is certainly quite different than a student in a traditional school being prescribed drugs.

    I think it can be as simple as I'm saying if we don't have drugs be the first line of defense. Providing alternative environments for children that let them pursue their passions should occur before drugging children. I agree drugging them works. I disagree it is best.

    Do you know many of the children don't need drugs on weekends and in summers? It is often used as a treatment to alleviate the symptoms schools cause.

    I wonder how many students are drugged in free/dom/un/schools? My guess is the percentage is far less than those in traditional settings.

  3. I'm with you in that schools need to empower students to pursue and develop their passions, but I cannot support the idea that modern medicine has duped all of us regarding ADHD medication.

    Yes, many parents (and teachers) seem overly quick to seek a prescription as a solution to behavioral and/or attention problems. However, to imply that pediatricians are "drugging" children simply so they can tolerate the tedium of school is pretty extreme; to imply that we parents who have chosen to help our children through the use of medication, under a doctor's supervision, are willfully damaging their brains and robbing them of their creativity is pretty insulting.

    ADHD is a medical condition, not an educational condition. While there is certainly much we can do in the classroom to improve learning for all students, let's be mindful that a well-crafted TED Talk is not a substitute for a medical degree.

  4. While I generally agree that some students find school boring, I also believe that the causes and consequences are much more complicated than common perceptions. Some children have little attention span because they are distracted multi-taskers. Some children struggle because school isn't a great fit for them.

    However, ADD / ADHD is a medical condition and there are a plethora of doctors who have studied it. Saying simply "no drugs are necessary" denies a medical reality. Simply saying "more passion" isn't much better than prescribing "more self-control" to an individual.

    Sometimes medication is a necessity.

  5. @Patrick Woessner and @John T. Spencer, I acknowledge ADHD is a medical condition. I also acknowledge that there are "some" people who "may" need meds. My contention is they should NOT be prescribed as the first resort or even second resort (as often is the case), but rather after other options are deeply explored. This does not happen enough. Upon exploring other options parents /educators often learn meds are not necessary.

    I don't blame parents or teachers nor do I think they are duped. I know there are children who can't sit in class and medication helps that. I was one of those kids and I am one of those adults However, rather than drug kids so they can sit in class, I say don't make them sit in class.

    The pharma industry is spending exorbitant amounts of money convincing parents and educators that these drugs are the miracle cure. They fund studies and hire doctors to tell them just that. And, for many they are the cure for student success in the industrial school model.

    Yes ADHD is a medical condition, but it is a condition that can be treated for some by letting them pursue passions. . There are many talented and successful individuals who were told they ADD or ADHD or hyperactive, etc. Many such people have found that when given the chance they were actually brilliant programmers, or dancers, or musicians or athletes, etc. etc. who didn't need medication when empowered to let passion drive learning.

    If other options are deeply explored and it is determined that medicating is in the child's best interest, in some cases it makes sense. However, I often find other options are not explored deeply. Instead, medication is the most commonly prescribed solution.

  6. Thanks, Lisa, for your clarifying remarks; I truly appreciate hearing different perspectives on this issue, even through I may disagree with them. At the risk of stirring the pot (or worse, sounding tedious), a few quick points if I may:

    I would be quite interested in hearing more about the alternatives to medication that should be "explored deeply" by parents and educators. In dealing with with my son and countless students over the past 20+ years, I've found these "suggestions" often to be (1) totally unrealistic for a teacher in a self-contained classroom with 30+ students (or a student load of 150 - 200 middle/high school kids) and/or (2) totally unrealistic for the child because he is physically/chemically incapable of regulating his brain functions.

    Good teaching practices might reach students on the cusp of ADHD, and any pediatrician deserving of his/her license would only prescribe medication to these kids as a last resort. For the rest, though, ADHD meds are not dispensed merely to alleviate the "symptoms that schools cause" but rather to allow these children to focus and function. It pains me whenever I hear the suggestion that kids should be taken off their meds on weekends and during the summer because they only need them for school; you either need them or you don't, and that determination should only be made in consultation with an MD.

    Hopefully we can all get on board with the idea that good teaching benefits every child, not just those with attention issues, and collectively acknowledge that ADHD should not be a "catch all" label for behavioral issues. When it comes to diagnosis and treatment, though, I'm not comfortable with the assertion that passion is a viable solution for a psychiatric disorder.

  7. Pat,
    Thanks for chiming back in to this important conversation. This is an area of personal frustration to me for many reasons beyond what I’ve shared on my blog. The reality is that I know of children whose doctors are the ones that prescribe weekend/summers off meds. Ugh.

    You are correct too. In the traditional school setting, many people’s hands are tied. Teachers, parents, students. The way most industrial models of school are structured, what you say is correct. I’m saying we need to offer more alternative models for students.

    If you’ve been following my blog lately, you’ll see I’ve become deeply interested in free/dom/un/home schooling. My suspicion was that the numbers of children in such environments on ADHD meds would be much lower than those in traditional settings. Surprisingly, and coincidentally, I just added an addendum to my post that touched on this very issue. Please re-read the end of my post.

    The alternatives that I recommend are finding a school that addresses the child’s needs. One that honors his/her passions, like those I wrote about in my post. Or...if possible, providing such opportunities outside of school. I understand having a parent at home is not feasible for many families, but for some it is. Also, after the age of 14-or-so, for many adolescents, a parent home the whole day is unnecessary.

  8. I'm curious if you have any specific online resources where parents and teachers can direct students or find ideas to help them. I've heard much about how online learning can help students who don't fit the system because of personal issues, bullying, medical reasons, learning disabilities, etc., or because they were more advanced in some subject areas. Some of those "trouble" kids actually graduated early from high school as a result. Is there any kind of clearinghouse web site for this info?

  9. wondering if you've seen John Hagel's post on the neurobiology of passion: http://edgeperspectives.typepad.com/edge_perspectives/2011/01/passion-and-plasticity-the-neurobiology-of-passion.html

    a lot of great insight into passion on his blog. especially in regard to how we can move forward with it as a legit means to thriving.