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Fidget, Jiggle, Twiddle, Wriggle: Bring Back Activity in Schools

I distinctly remember my introduction to the concept of attention deficit disorder. It was in the late 1980s, when the mother of one of my students asked for a meeting with all of his teachers. She arrived with folders for each of us, including a packet of materials and a photocopied letter from the boy's physician, describing ADD, and explaining what we needed to do to keep him focused in class.

There was also information about the medication he was now taking to reduce his restlessness, but her main reason for requesting the meeting was to tell us that her child was not "bad," but disabled.

She was well-prepared, and came into the meeting with great determination and a list of things he needed—extra time, special consideration for turning in work that was carelessly done or incomplete, and a different kind of instruction than most of the people around the table were providing. She laid out her case and her demands. Then waited for our response.

The principal politely asked her to give us some time to digest all the information she had shared. She left the room, and the conversation was focused mainly on the ADD diagnosis:  Was this a thing now? How much responsibility did we have to meet all of this boy's needs—and were the proposed solutions even the right response? How did implementing the things she was insisting we do impact other students in the boy's classes?

Nobody disagreed with the analysis of his innate inability to pay attention. The child was what until then we'd been labeling "hyperactive." His teachers had all, independently, dealt with his issues—everything from a stress ball to rubber bands around his wrist for snapping (snap, snap, snap) to multiple visits to the principal's office. 

On the theory that keeping him physically engaged helped him focus, I once asked him to put all the percussion equipment on a rolling platform and take it to the gym for an assembly later that day. Outside the band room door, he arranged a drum set on the dolly, and got another, equally fidgety, percussionist to push him down the hall, playing the drum solo from Wipeout, as only an 8th grader can.

That didn't go down well. So now, were we obliged to see this as natural and let his misbehavior slide, in the name of a medical verdict? Opinions varied, from "perhaps we need to learn more about this attention deficit disorder thing" to "the kid is sandbagging and has mama wrapped around his finger."

Schools and teachers have come a long way since then. A revolving plethora of descriptors and remedies have been proposed and tried, to address the needs of students who find it difficult to focus in the classroom. Most have limited success, some have negative side effects.

The definitions of ADD and ADHD have been explored, questioned, rebutted and reaffirmed. I have some empathy for parents here, even those who waver between making excuses and making demands.  There is no drug, no packet of information, no fidget spinner that will keep your beloved child engaged and on task all the time.

I would argue that all educators, especially those entering the field, should be thoroughly familiar with all aspects of ADHD. Somewhere north of 11 percent of all children20 percent of all boys in American high schools—have been diagnosed as having ADHD, a 42 percent increase over the past eight years. All forms and flavors of attention deficit are most definitely on the rise.

The first question we should be asking, however, is not what to do about this, but WHY?

Public schools—under Nation at Risk, NCLB, RTTT and whatever acronym we'll be dealing with next—are moving steadily toward rigid, accountability-based instruction and curriculum, quite literally living and dying by test data, our new educational product. Public school classrooms are caught between a policy rock and a hard place of practice. 

The hands-on, exploratory pedagogy that fits today's hyper-stimulated children doesn't reliably produce good test scores. Repetitive drilling doesn't produce good test scores, either, but somehow it feels right to put kids' noses to the grindstone, rather than letting them run around, talk to each other and make stuff. When your school could be closing in June, it doesn't seem prudent to let students "release energy"—we have zero tolerance for goofing around and trial and error as a way of knowing.

So, Big Pharma and edu-entrepreneurs to the rescue, with a dollop of "research" to back up their claims of cures for twitching and boredom, or designer pharmaceuticals to level your kindergartener out so he can make it through the day.

Google "fidget spinner" and you'll notice that mainstream media also loves a good story about the Next Big Thing for Squirmy Kids. There are pedal desks and seat balls and standing up in class, plus dozens of scientific toys for the twitchy. And let's not forget consultants. So many consultants.

There's money to be made, books to be written, tests to be developed/normed/administered and data to be analyzed. It's the usual American approach to health: deal with the symptoms, not the causes. And make a buck while you're at it.

Out with activity-based courses—choir, art, orchestra, physical education, auto shop, and life skills. Recess? We can't afford it. 

I keep thinking about Finland's traditional practice for elementary children: 15 minutes in every hour are set aside for active, free play. One in a thousand children in Finland is medicated for ADHD, compared one in 10 in the United States. No matter how you spin that, it's breathtaking. 

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