Thursday, April 14, 2011

No ADD or ADHD Here

I recently read that 90% of the world's Ritalin is consumed in the US. For those who don't know what Ritalin is, it's a stimulant that's commonly prescribed for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This goes hand in hand with a book that I finished a couple of months ago called Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker. One of the chapters in Whitaker's book deals with the rise of ADD and ADHD in the US over the past 30 to 40 years and how children are being medicated with psychoactive drugs at younger and younger ages.

Why is so much Ritalin (and Adderall, another drug for ADHD) being consumed in the US but not in other countries? I've never heard about kids having ADD or ADHD here in Germany. A friend of mine who lived for many years in Taiwan said that those disorders are unknown there too. A Facebook friend from Russia said that nobody had ADD or ADHD there. What's so different about the States that kids are getting diagnosed with ADD/ADHD and given drugs? I can only compare the States with Germany and I find a lot of differences, especially in school situations.

One of my theories for the rise in ADD/ADHD is that schools in the States have cut out recess in order to fit in more academics. Kids are expected to sit still for long periods without a break. One of my friends in Oregon has a daughter in 6th grade who goes to school from 8.15 am to 3 pm with only a lunch break. My son is in a Gymnasium, which is a German school for high achievers. He gets a 15-minute break every 90 minutes. During the breaks the kids can go outside and play or just hang out in the hallways with their friends. On Mondays he gets a 1 hour 45 minute lunch break and Wednesdays his lunch is one hour (the other days he finishes school at 12.45). Germans realize that kids are more focused and energetic after a short break. German elementary schools also have a recess break. My son's elementary school day averaged 4 hours. But there was a 25-minute recess period in the middle of the school day. On most days, even when it was very cold, the kids played outside.

I don't understand how American teachers expect kids to sit still and concentrate for the whole school day. Imagine if you were at work and had to be attentive and think hard for your whole shift without being able to get up and move around or otherwise take a break. Your work would suffer and you wouldn't be able to concentrate. After a while, you'd probably squirm in your chair trying to stretch your muscles. There's a reason that breaks are mandated for adult workers. Yet in the States kids must sit still in class and concentrate on their work for almost the whole school day. No wonder they get fidgety and their teachers think they have ADD or ADHD.

Another possibility for the rise in ADD/ADHD in the States is that classes like art, music, and sport (PE) have been cut out to make room for academic subjects and also to prepare students for their annual standardized tests. A Sport class that gets the children moving is a good way to burn off excess energy. Art and music may seem frivolous, but they're also fun and give kids some "down time" during the school day. Again, my son's school does it right. One would think that a school for high achievers would cut out the arts and Sport. Nope. Those classes are an important part of the curriculum and are required in Bavaria. German educators realize that kids need some down time during the school day. For example, having a music class between biology and Latin gives the students' minds a break between rigorous classes.

I also believe that teachers in other countries understand that kids will be kids and not robots. I think if I was living in the States, my son would possibly be diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. His first and second grade teacher said that he often looked out the window and appeared to be daydreaming during class. But when he was called on, he gave appropriate answers. He was listening to the teacher but wanted to look out the window for a more interesting view. Last year his teachers said that he was one of the class clowns and played around a lot in class instead of concentrating on his work. He still likes to chat with his neighbors in certain classes. But none of his teachers ever suggested giving him Ritalin or Adderall. They simply told me to talk with him and have him tone down the clowning around and chatting with his neighbors. After reading about the effects that long-term use of drugs like Ritalin can have on a person's brain, I'm glad that I live in a country where kids aren't drugged for displaying age-appropriate behavior in the classroom.


  1. As a teacher in the states, I agree with most of your comments. We know kids need more recess and breaks, but we are told how many minutes we are allowed to give them each day. The beaureaucrats are the ones who think kids need to be "actively engaged in learning" every minute of the day. It is hard to meet the demands of the curriculum in the time we have, but teachers do try to find creative ways to get kids up and moving whenever possible.

    I do have to disagree with one comment. Music and art are not "down time". Music requires focus and discipline to learn and perform, and it does not give their brain a break. The arts use different parts of the brain in different ways, which enhances students' performance in every area of their education. German educators realize the value of arts education in the development of the whole child.

    I could go on for pages about ADD/ADHD, but I won't. :) But teaching children to focus and control themselves from the start is a big part of my humble opinion.

  2. I didn't mean to imply that music and art require no brainpower. They do. The kids have to learn the words to songs, listen to different types of music, learn about musicians and composers, try out playing different instruments, and learn about various drawing techniques and artists. But in my son's view, those classes are fun and he considers them to be a break from his main academic classes (Latin, math, German, English, biology, history). After a period of art or music, his brain is recharged for a period of Latin or math.