Ross Rosenfeld of Lynbrook is a former New York City English teacher and the founder of Ross Tutoring.
Recently, yet another parent discussed with me the possibility of medicating her child for ADHD. As an educator, I continually face this issue: Should a child be medicated for attention problems and, if so, when?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnoses rose an average of 3 percent each year from 1997 to 2006. About 5.4 million children ages 4 to 17 have at some point been diagnosed with ADHD, and about two-thirds of children who currently have the diagnosis are on medication. Over 7 percent of kids 6 to 11 have been diagnosed with the condition, which means that a typical school classroom will have at least a couple kids who have been diagnosed.
There are legitimate arguments for and against medicating children for attention problems. But my experience as a former teacher and current tutor suggests that children 10 and under should rarely, if ever, be medicated for attention problems. There is a tendency nowadays to rush to medication as a solution, and doing so for young kids is irresponsible.
The parent I spoke to recently has a 7-year-old daughter, whose teachers complained she was uninterested at times, occasionally rolls on the floor, and generally has trouble paying attention. I've seen this student 40 or more times in tutoring sessions over the past few months, and she is making significant progress. She's also shown herself to be a calm and pleasant child, with occasional acting out. I'm confident that she'll be all caught up pretty soon. I proposed to the parent that there might be a different cause for her daughter's attention problems: Namely, that she's 7.
She also has a late birthday, which can affect the diagnosis. A recent study from Michigan State University revealed that kindergartners who were the youngest in their grade were 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than their older peers.
Some children mature faster than others. Some children simply don't like school. At 6 or 7, it is difficult to tell (especially absent a brain scan), if a child has ADHD or simply is not mature for his or her age.
Instead of turning first to medication, parents should consider alternate strategies. After all, the medications available for ADHD today do not cure the problem; they simply suppress it. The only way to cure the problem right now is by teaching children how to deal with it. They must learn to concentrate.
This is particularly important given that, though there have been conflicting studies, there is some evidence to suggest that the educational benefits of commonly used medications to treat ADHD wear off within two years. Many children who take them initially show promise, but soon plateau. Parents are often then faced with the decision either to increase the dosage or scrap the medication.
What's it all for? Are we truly making children's lives easier by building a dependency on these drugs? Does an 8-year-old really need this in his life?
Parents of young children should remember: You have time. Your second grader isn't taking the SAT next year. You can wait and see what happens. Perhaps your son or daughter will mature significantly over the next year. Perhaps a new strategy will work. The point is, grades are not being sent off to colleges right now, and students still have time to make up for lost learning. You should be using this time to find out what works. Maybe your child just needs more structure. Before turning to medications, try alternative teaching and discipline strategies.
Whether older children -- 11 and above, let's say -- should be medicated is an entirely different debate. But educators shouldn't suggest medicating as a first resort. And any parent who hears such a suggestion should think carefully before adhering to it.