Events, features and things to do for families in New Hampshire
Parents and teachers struggle to manage children diagnosed with ADHD
By Jeff Woodburn
“Listen!” shouts the frustrated coach for the umpteenth time. The dozen or so 4- and 5-year olds bobble around the court, but no one is listening and they're not playing anything that resembles basketball.
Are these kids ill-mannered or just not developmentally ready to learn the rules, coordinate their bodies or comprehend their coach’s commands? Or is it something more? Where is the line between being distractible and an ADHD diagnosis?
While many things are uncertain, two things aren't. Studies reveal New Englanders are a competitive, anxious and worrisome bunch and they rely heavily on prescription medication to either calm their children’s jittery nerves or keep them focused on success. In this competitive world parenting can sometimes look like product development.
This is the struggle for parents raising children in a climate that is increasingly busy, stimulated and competitive.
“We are living in an environment that is really more about immediate gratification and stimulations, and we become dependent on it,” Jim Esposito, a therapist from New London, said.
Ironically, since ADHD was broadly recognized some three decades ago, our society and our schools have become a place of mounting stress about success, safety and all the stuff that robs us of any semblance of peace.
The ADHD kid is “overwhelmed by the pressure of this setting,” Bernd Foecking, headmaster of the Hampshire Country School in Rindge, said. Hampshire Country School is a small alternative boarding school that specialized in educating students with ADHD, autism and Asperger’s syndrome.
There is “too much noise, variables, frequently changing point people,” he said. Not only is this troublesome environment, but also some experts say the ADHD brain itself simply shuts-down when faced with such commotion.
Parents and clinicians agree school is the toughest challenge for the young ADHD mind.
Karen Duffy, an ADHD coach from Dover, said most of her work revolves around teaching parents strategies that work for children with organizational challenges. As children progress from primary grades to middle school, organization becomes important as they try to adapt to multiple teachers with very different styles, rules and expectations. Schools are an institution created and served by mostly first-born, left-brain, linear thinkers.
"This process fits perfectly for them," Jack Agati, of Londonderry, former special education director and human relations trainer, said. "It is hierarchical, rewards an adherence to basic repetition, good organization and self-discipline.”
Still, schools have made important strides – including focusing on hands-on, student-centered instruction, greater diversity of assessment and teaching tools and identifying ADHD and other learning differences as conditions that legally entitled students to more services.
Kathryn Powers, a therapist from Derry, remembers the “old days” before the diagnosis was widely known, when ADHD students were "seen as trouble or bad kids" because they just couldn't fit in. While many had bursts of energy and would hyper-focus on certain topics of interest, it was often fleeting and left many teachers confused and understandably frustrated.
Their inattention and impulsivity was attributed to a lack of self-control or worse intelligence. This drumbeat of failure took its toll, and, as Powers, said, often their “self-esteem was shot.”
If that wasn’t hard enough, then Duffy said, “the teenage thing – kicks in. They want to fit in.”
But, many could not and the statistics are astounding. Teens with ADHD on average make every imaginable bad choice at a rate far greater than his peers. Just imagine, the normal teenage brain as an alcoholic cocktail, full of immaturity and raging hormones, and then remove whatever sobering qualities. It’s like the difference between a mixed drink and a shot. Now, add a buffet of choices ranging from experimental drugs, sex and learning to drive.
Finally, the disorder was recognized as medical, not psychological condition, and medication became increasingly popular. The widespread attention on this disorder helped many families find solace, but it wasn’t without problems.
Times have changed, and medication is nearly universally accepted by professionals as being part of the solution, but “it is not a be all and end all,” said Barbara Publicover, of Windham, who has two sons with ADHD and co-facilitates a support group.
She was initially resistant to medication, but said, “I do know that medication works. We’ve taken medication holidays and it’s a disservice to them.”
Ken Snow, a social worker at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester, agrees drugs “minimizes the symptoms,” but one of his young patients has a simpler explanation, calling it simply “her sit-down pill.”
Yet, the volume of medication that is used in New Hampshire, more than most other places, troubles Dr. Rickey Silverman, psychologist from Hampstead, and overdiagnosis and over treating ADHD robs children of an essential part of growing up.
“The long-term harm” Dr. Silverman said, is that young people “don’t figure out how to cope with problems of life”
Jeff Woodburn of Dalton is a teacher and writer. He's taught in middle and high school settings. Previously, he owned an award-winning real estate firm and was prominent in state politics. He and his wife and four children live on a small hill farm, where they raise poultry.
Last updated by Morgen Thiboult Feb 4, 2011.