Better Learning Through Chemistry

Beleaguered schools, parents, and doctors are getting Ritalin Religion when it comes to medicating unruly kids.

Every morning Cathy McCormick awakens her 8-year old daughter Sandra with a soothing body massage, lingering to provide gentle pressure on the knees, ankles, and elbows. For breakfast--and every other meal during the day--McCormick makes sure Sandra adheres to a diet loaded with vitamins and low on dairy products and unnecessary sugars. In the materials that Sandra takes to school, her mother has made bookmarks with drawings of a child sitting quietly at a desk, and other picture-reminders about still hands, closed mouths, and open ears. Some of the other children at school have asked if Cathy can make bookmarks for them too, but these are meant to be special to Sandra. You see, Cathy McCormick is doing everything she can to keep her daughter off drugs.

Sandra churns through her days and nights like a locomotive with a jammed throttle. Glib and precocious, she chats up strangers with the earnest affability of a conventioneer. Sleeping straight through the night is a rarity for her. Her mother says that, until recently, when she would help Sandra slow down enough to get dressed in the morning, her daughter would occasionally "go ballistic," yanking off her socks and shirt.

It was not surprising, then, that when the McCormicks attended an October parent-teacher conference in the Twin Cities suburb where they live, Sandra's second-grade teacher suggested that she might suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. But Cathy was taken aback by how readily drugs were invoked as a potential remedy. "Ritalin was mentioned three times in my first meeting with school officials," she says. "And each time I said I am not in support of drug use until after we try other methods."

McCormick is no stranger to the world of kids and schools and behavior problems. She's a special-education teacher at the other elementary school in town, working in a classroom with eight children diagnosed with learning difficulties that are more severe than her daughter's hyperactivity. Assisted by eight teacher's aides, only two of McCormick's students are on medication.

After the conference at school, McCormick fashioned an intensive program to combat Sandra's hyperactivity without using drugs. In addition to the massages and diet, she had Sandra focus on changing certain troublesome behaviors through a pattern of reminders and rewards. "It has really taken the edge off," she says. "If she only gets up from the table once during supper, or sleeps through the night, she gets a sticker. When a row is full of stickers, she gets to do something she wants, like stay up later one night or say what we all eat for dinner. For school, we focus on her not losing her pencils and on keeping her desk area neat. She has really taken to it; she loves getting those stickers. It's working out really well," McCormick says, then adds wryly, "Of course, the people at her school don't think so. There hasn't been a lot of support for what we are trying to do."

When she laid out her plan in a late November meeting with the school psychologist, he argued that the dietary restrictions would make Sandra different than the other kids and hurt her socialization. On Ritalin, apparently, she would fit right in with the rest of her class.

"Some children need medications; I understand that," McCormick says. "If I saw that my daughter was failing at school or that her self-esteem was falling apart, then I'd look at it more seriously. But on her last three math tests she hasn't scored any lower than a 93, and while she is struggling with her reading and writing, she is not failing. She'll come home and tell me in detail what happened that day, including what the teacher was wearing, so it's hard to think she's missing something. She just learns better when she is moving and that's a hard learning style for her teacher to deal with. But that's not a reason to give her drugs."

Or, as Sandra's father, Dave McCormick, says, "Sometimes I wonder how any of our business leaders made it through school. Look at the employment ads; what kind of people are they looking for? 'High energy, highly creative, self-motivated' people. But how do you stay that way if the attitude of the school is to keep everybody moving down the middle of the road, without going too far one way or the other? What the schools want is for kids to act in ways that are convenient. And if they don't, well, they can always drug them."

It is ironic that as intensive anti-drug propaganda campaigns such as the DARE program continue to be widely implemented in the schools--on the grounds that the best time to educate children to the dangers of drugs is when they are young and impressionable--the medicating of our nation's youth has suddenly become a booming business. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there are now twice as many children taking Ritalin, a potentially habit-forming stimulant treated as a controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency, than there were just five years ago. Approximately 90 percent of the 1.5 to 2.5 million children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are given medication--primarily Ritalin--for their condition.

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