Mainstream, Part 2
T.K. was so eager to be in a real school with regular kids and lockers. I will never forget the mix of joy and trepidation on his face as he scampered down the aisle at Target picking out posters and Pokemon figures for his locker, iridescent green book covers, psychedelic pencils, his first protractor. He so desperately wanted to fit in, and so desperately feared he would not. But the problems began on day one. Most teachers made no modifications to the homework load; T.K., a slow worker intent on succeeding, was up well past bedtime trying to complete assignments. Many never even got started.
From there, things went downhill fast. We’d stay up until 11 to prepare for a quiz until he knew the material down cold. But most of his teachers were unwilling to modify test-taking procedures: T.K. went blank on paper and brought home F’s and D’s. They didn’t provide assignments in writing: T.K. wrote the instructions incorrectly, turned in the wrong work. He forgot to bring home his books. He got distracted by the Pokemon figures in his locker and showed up late for class. The teachers got annoyed and angry. When he left his science folder in his locker and asked to go get it, his science teacher said no, then grumbled loudly enough for his classmates to hear: “Because it would probably take you about 40 minutes.”
T.K. came home in tears. We had prepared him for teasing from kids his own age, but not from his teachers. “I used to love science,” he cried. “I really wanted to like her, but she’s so mean.”
The stress got to him. When I told him it was homework time, he’d throw his notebook to the floor, papers flying. “Why should I work so hard if I’m only going to get a D,” he’d ask. I tried to tell him that grades didn’t matter, as long as he tried his best. But the damage was already done: He felt stupid.
Then the phone calls from the school officials started. T.K. had told other kids to “shut up” in class. He couldn’t pay attention; his answers and comments began to make less sense. He flew into a rage when the geography teacher handed him a hefty assignment, slamming it down on her desk. Halfway through a particularly difficult science test, he left the room, punched his locker with his fist and banged his head on the wall. They were concerned about his participating in an overnight field trip because he couldn’t manage his own medication.
The tutor met with the teachers. She told them T.K. would do fine if they would only abide by the basic classroom accommodations I had suggested. The science teacher flatly refused. “I don’t have the patience for this,” she said. And T.K. no longer had the will. “I just want to be with kids who are like me,” he finally confessed on the way home one day. “I’m not comfortable in this school.” And neither was I.
Sadly, the real world is not a friendly place for children with problems like ADHD. There are too many people who refuse to believe it exists, choosing instead to blame parents and kids for its symptoms. Our situation blew up because some of those nonbelievers were among T.K.’s teachers. Totally disregarding all scholarly research and evidence, they framed his behavior as poor discipline, laziness and willfully bad behavior, then got frustrated and angry when he didn’t respond to their “methods.”
I wonder what will happen in Colorado, where the state’s school board recently told teachers not to recommend medical treatment for ADHD, and to employ “discipline” in the classroom instead. These teachers are going to get frustrated and angry, too, because that approach is not going to work. Research and experience clearly demonstrate that children truly afflicted with ADHD and similar disorders don’t respond to punishment/reward-based discipline, in large part because of their neurologically impaired memory and diminished insight.
Fortunately, we found T.K. an excellent new school for special needs kids, one that not only accepts his differences but also helps him use them as part of the solution; when T.K. takes tests orally, the verbal interchange somehow jogs his memory and helps him find the correct answer. His teachers treat him with respect, never blame him for his symptoms and help him take as much responsibility as he can handle. With the same accommodations I had asked of the mainstream school, T.K. is happy and thriving again. And once again he sees himself as a good kid and not a troublemaker. And smart.
But what happens to the millions of other ADHD kids whose parents don’t have the wherewithal to advocate for them, or to afford special schools, or who don’t live in communities where excellent public or private special programs exist? They drop out. They think of themselves as stupid. Many end up in dead-end menial jobs. Others end up in prison; studies show as many as 76 percent of male juvenile detainees have ADHD. And teachers hold the keys as surely as prison guards do.
Perhaps part of the problem is that there is so much misdiagnosis. Too many parents and teachers cry “ADHD” when normal kids behave badly. But the larger issue is that brain-based disorders make us uncomfortable. We only seem to believe and embrace the suffering when their problems are visible physically.
Clearly, it’s time for society to catch up with science. As the surgeon general recently announced, more than half of Americans suffer from a psychiatric disorder at some point in their lives, yet most don’t get treated because of stigma. And stigma exist in large part because of the ignorant conviction that psychiatric disorders like depression and ADHD are signs of weak will and moral failure, not neurobiological — and treatable — problems.
Originally published in The Washington Post, Tuesday, March 14, 2000.