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ADHD and the War Against Boredom

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This post is by Anthony Conwright, who teaches humanities at High Tech Middle Media Arts in San Diego.


When I was helping to collect medicine for sixth-grade camp, I saw that one of my students had a bottle of ADHD medication tucked inside his medicine bag. My mind began to spiral: Does my eleven-year old student need to take medication to "make it" in my humanities class? What message am I communicating to that student? Does he think he has to medicate to be successful in the classroom or, worse, in life? If a student is taking ADHD medication to pass my class, is it a reflection on the student or on my curriculum and class? How many other students have I had a hand in medicating?

According to 2011-2012 data from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.4 million children ages 4 through 17 have received an ADHD diagnosis at some point in their lives, and about two-thirds of those with a current diagnosis receive prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall. Why so many?

The problem may come from the experiences that children have in classrooms. Aesthetic experiences are those in which senses are heightened and are at their peak: students are engaged in activities that require the use of multiple senses. Anesthetic experiences happen when senses are shut off and students are deadened to what is happening: students are not using their creative gifts and are conforming to adult-mandated task. Too often, our classroom experiences are anesthetic--a difficult situation for students who do not learn easily by reading textbooks, answering questions, and disengaging their creative gifts and passions. Too often, these students are diagnosed as "unable to focus" or labeled "defiant" for resisting boring tasks in which they have no voice. Unfortunately, when there is a lack of focus some parents and teachers rely on ADHD medication to solve the problem.

This is not to say that ADHD does not exist, but in what other circumstances does society allow the administration of pills as a way to induce compliance? The current system labels normal middle school behavior as abnormal. As a teacher, I participate in a system that penalizes students with active minds, which is ironic because that's what I want as a teacher! So, why "zombify" my students?

I knew the side effects that my student must be going through: the loss of appetite, potential heart palpitations, insomnia, and mood swings; they weren't foreign to me, as an adult who takes ADHD medication. In fact, I take the same medicine my sixth-grader was taking, which led me to believe that it was I who needed to make a change--not my students.

I noticed that most of the students who had a hard time focusing in my class loved art, were creative in some capacity, or enjoyed working with their hands. I began to collaborate with other teachers to integrate math, science, and art into my humanities projects. Of course, there were students who had a difficult time focusing during the entire project, but those same students found success during the art activities or other creative portions of the projects.

Perhaps it takes creative thinking, more than pills, to win the war against boredom. Creative problem solving only requires teachers to step back and ask, "Is there a better way of doing this?" Or maybe a more empathetic approach, which means asking ourselves, "How did I feel the last time I was bored?" 

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