Talk to an adult with ADHD about their early school experiences. “I hated it,” they’ll say all-too-often. I’m not sure schools today would illicit a more positive response. Instead of adapting the school to the kid, the kid is adapted to the school, through Ritalin, restraint and ridiculously ill-suited pedagogical practices. Plainly put: school sucks for a lot of ADHD kids.
Luck of the drawing board…the perfect ADHD school!
By a random roll of the dice, public school, for me, was fabulous. One of the best times of my life.
I had no way of knowing it then, but good fortune had landed me in the perfect ADHD school.
Gymnastics, basketball, and track and field all helped burn off my hyperactive energy. Today, we know that exercise is great for this; back then, I inadvertently stumbled – or I should say, tumbled – into symptom-reducing activities.
Creativity was another outlet which compensated for my ADHD traits without anyone realizing it.
And Dorset Public School, in the small village of Baie d’Urfé, just outside of Montréal, Québec, circa 1970, was a mecca for creativity. We were constantly creating and performing radio or stage plays, even math was magical.
One of my earliest memories was a school trip to an art gallery in Grade 5. I stood in awe before Emily Carr’s bold, wild images of towering Douglas Pines and dark, sensuous forest. I fantasized about her solitary life in a cabin in the woods; her time among the Haida in the Queen Charlotte Islands; her paintings of totem poles, mystical and full of power.
Making it strange
In English class, one of my favorite writing exercises was called, “Making it Strange.” Making it strange? Strange is where I live, baby. In school, that was a good thing.
At home, not so much. Every time my mom said “You say the strangest things,” I shrank into myself. If an ADHD kid is also ridiculed at school for being weird or strange, it’s a double whammy.
ADHD and sensitivity at school…
Especially if they’re highly sensitive, as many are.
A comment in my own Grade 3 report card struck me:
“There is an intensity of feeling about her which she brings to even little things. This is probably part of her temperament and I mention it only because I sometimes think that she worries too much about things that don’t deserve that much concern…”
Researchers suggest that 10-15% of the population have a genetic disposition for the trait of sensitivity. When combined with ADHD, the results can be devastating. In a school that is less than ADHD-friendly, kids can suffer immensely.
Denise’s story echoes the experiences of many ADHDers.
Now 23, Denise says that in public school, teachers made an example of her. “Even though I was so well behaved at home,” says Denise, “at school I was thought to be a bad kid.”
Denise remembers being pulled into the hallway so often in Grades One and Two that she fell behind in school.
Denise’s formal diagnosis, which came later, was ADHD without the hyperactivity component.
Don’t hate me because I’m hyperactive…
“My hyperactivity was internal when I was a child,” says Denise. “I doodled my hands off, my hands flew a mile a minute. I inadvertently distracted the children around me, they were like, ‘That’s interesting. Wow, what is she doing?’”
Her quiet hyperactivity may be what brought Denise grief in the classroom.
“The hardest part about being undiagnosed was being punished by the teachers,” says Denise. “I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s and there was constant punishing when I wasn’t even trying to be a bad kid. I was put in the corner and the hall and all that.”
The punishment continued both inside and outside the school.
“[The other kids] mistreated me,” says Denise. “My self-esteem was hitting rock bottom by the time I was six years old.”
Solutions for school? You do the math…
I don’t have solutions for ongoing problems in the classroom. Given fiscal, social and political realities, it’s not surprising that the situation isn’t improving as fast as some of us would like. But we can at least listen to the stories of adults like me and Denise to find clues about what works and what doesn’t for ADHD kids.
And parents can seek out schools with curricula, like Waldorf, that offer an alternative to mainstream schools, with an emphasis on creativity, accelerated and vibrant academic approaches and lots of movement and stimulation.
Or we can just keep drugging our kids.