Wednesday, April 24, 2013

ADHD, Ritalin, Valerian Root, Homeschooling, and Objections

How's THAT for a title?

I was talking the other day with someone whom I care about very deeply and utterly respect. I won't go into the details of this person, but I will say that this person is by far my strongest mentor in life. Dude was there and being his usual self.

Have I explained my angel to you yet? He's fantastic, really. He is six years old, bright as sunshine, sharper than a tack, sweeter than honey, and a COMPLETE "pistol" as my mom would say. For a start, he is a six-year-old boy. That in itself is enough for a whole lot of crazy cakes waiting on my plate. But wait! There's more. He has attachment issues (enough that it matters to his therapist, not enough to really label it a "disorder." We know exactly where it stems from, and we're doing the best we can to work with him on it.).  He ALSO has ADHD. Not surprising. His father and I also have ADHD. So, combine those things, and it's a mess. He's tough to handle on a good day. Now, I am not complaining. It is what it is, and we do the best we can.

But anyway, tangents aside, we were discussing his behavior, his social skills, and all that while he was outside playing. He's really well behaved for a kid with the challenges he has. But he has major challenges, so he's not actually "well-behaved" at all. Ever. We're working on it. But I digress. This person, whom I deeply respect and admire as I have mentioned, has been a completely invaluable resource this school year. She taught in early childhood classrooms for most of her adult life, and she has a slew of brilliant ideas for my little man. She has helped us with lessons, field trips, projects, presentations, you name it! But, sitting there the other night, watching my son's typical actions at the end of a long day, she points out that in a classroom he would have to learn to sit still and be quiet, and all the other things kids learn in primary school classrooms. She tells me "I don't believe in homeschooling for most kids, and this is why."

So I want to answer this to some degree. Obviously, I disagree.

I had intended at the beginning of the school year for him to start in the local primary school. I love the way the school system here is designed. Primary is K-2, then elementary is 3-5, middle is 6-8, and high school is 9-12.  Now, if I designed it, I might separate out the 8th and 9th graders and put them in junior high, but that's me, and obviously, I am quickly becoming a homeschool mom, so my opinion doesn't matter a lot there. But I do love that K-2 is in their own school.

Well, we started the process of signing up for Kindergarten in the primary school, and it was a nightmare. Dude was just beginning to recover from a pretty traumatic event in late spring/early summer, and was just starting therapy. We went to the school for his first assessment, and he refused to cooperate. Now, this was a simple assessment. Count the blocks. Count them by twos. What sound does each letter make? Write your name. Stuff like that. Simple things that he could do forwards and backwards. Well, true to form, he refused to participate at all. But, also true to form, instead of saying "I don't want to" he said "I don't know."

Let me back up. When we got there, he was actually pretty excited. But then they told him he had to go with them, but Mama couldn't come with him, and he FREAKED OUT. I have mentioned the disordered attachment issues, right? Well, a big part of that is a very POTENT fear of being separated from his mother and he had JUST, less than a week prior, been pretty darned traumatized in a situation that stretched the limits of that fear.  I had explained this to the school before we even arrived, and reminded them when we got there, but there was no budging, and Dude would NOT comply with the testing process.

So, afterward, the teachers approached me and told me that he did not even know how to write his first name. That's complete nonsense. He knows how to write his name. Moreover, he knows how to write his full legal name (which is not the name he goes by, and the child has two surnames for crying out loud) AND he can spell, if not write reliably by that point, his baptismal name: Angelos. He can count to 100, group items with according to whatever category you tell him, and count by twos without help. He knows not only the NAME of each letter, but the sound(s) it makes, and can tell you a few digraphs like -ph and -th. So I showed him the same cards in front of them, turning it into a game for him, and he knew far more than they asked him to know.

But that wasn't acceptable to them, and they wanted him assessed to be placed in special ed. I spoke to the therapist, and I continued to speak to the school about this. I refused to have him assessed for special ed. He doesn't need it. He just needs somebody to understand that he DOESN'T have a problem learning. I refuse to have him treated as if he is "dumb" or "bad." Because, you see, they labeled what happened as "misbehavior." Also, they refused to allow him a SECOND assessment once he'd had a chance to recover somewhat from his recent trauma.

Given his issues, I decided that schooling him at home would be better for him emotionally. I could have held him back a year and kept him at home, but then he'd be starting Kindergarten at almost-seven, and that's not a good idea either. Especially when you consider that he FINISHED the state's kindergarten requirements and the curriculum of a state school in OCTOBER. I have no regrets about my decision to keep him home, and I intend to continue to do so.

But what about all those classroom skills?

A dear friend and I were recently musing about the types of education available versus the types of students by learning type.  She asserts that the traditional public school classroom crushes little boys. I don't disagree. The public school classroom is designed for visual learners. Yet, 70% of little boys are kinesthetic learners.

I am going to quote directly from the linked page for a moment:



If your child learns best by doing:
  • He works best in short spurts
  • His body may be in constant motion and he has high energy
  • Let him touch things
  • Use movement, games, songs, or silly rhymes to help him remember and learn new things
  • Kinesthetic learners learn bet by moving their bodies, activating their large or small muscles as they learn. These are ‘hands on’ learners or the ‘doers’ who actually concentrate better and learn more easily when movement is involved. the following characteristics are often associated with kinesthetic learners.
Kinesthetic learners:
  • often wiggle, tap their feet, or move their legs when they sit.
  • were often labeled hyperactive as children.
  • learn through movement so they often do well as performers, athletes, actors, or dancers.
  • work well with their hands so they may be good at repairing work, sculpting, art, or working with various tools.
  • are often well-coordinated and have a strong sense of timing and body movement.
So, I don't know if you've checked around, but Kindergarten is not what it was *cough* years ago when I was there. It is no longer about stations to play in, do free art, home living, exploratory science, and movement. The kids at our local school, in KINDERGARTEN, are allowed free play for twenty minutes a day during recess, if it's not raining or very cold. Other than that, starting at the kindergarten level, they are expected to keep their seats, stand in line, and remain relatively quiet. They're not allowed to socialize at lunch even!

I understand the reasons the schools do this (okay, sort of. No. Not at all.), but does that sound at all like an environment where a kinesthetic learner is going to flourish? Overwhelmingly, the list above describes little boys. So, it would follow that, overwhelmingly, little boys are going to be in not-so-little trouble at school.

Let's throw some ADHD into that mix, shall we? It's no small wonder that so many school children are being medicated so young. I think it's a tragedy.

But classroom skills are necessary for professional life! Are they? Are they really?

Certainly there is value in learning to work as a team, to wait one's turn, and to listen politely when others (teachers, leaders, and fellow students) are speaking. Those are basic life skills. I don't feel they require a public school classroom to develop. There are groups at church, sports teams, scout groups, and social outings that help. Is my son behind in this area? Yes. But again, consider that in addition to being a six-year-old, he's also an only child, and he has those challenges we talked about earlier, not least of which is ADHD.  To be honest, I am thirty-two years old, I have ADHD, and I struggle with those things at times. For someone with ADHD, those skills don't just CLICK because you sit in a classroom and get in trouble for NOT having those skills. They take a lifetime to develop. I'll let you know when I've got it down perfectly myself.

But when we think about classroom skills at the primary level, we're not thinking about the same things, I think. Someone told me that those skills learned in the primary grades (being quiet, being still, waiting in line) are NECESSARY JOB SKILLS. Moreover, they were also necessary for success in college.  I've been in and out of college for a while. In fact, I am in college now, and I've got to say, I have not had to raise my hand and ask permission to use the bathroom since 1998.

The Association for Psychological Science conducted a survey, asking professionals what skills they most wanted their college-educated new employees to possess. Here are the results.
  • Monitoring one’s own emotional expressions and responsiveness (e.g., showing interest in and motivation toward the task at hand)
  • Maintaining composure when challenged
  • Speaking and writing in a manner appropriate to the audience (e.g., different levels of formality in different contexts)
  • Being receptive to feedback and constructive criticism (e.g., a willingness to learn and improve)
  • Awareness of personal responsibility as a listener or audience member
  • Respecting others’ professional position, particularly those in authority (e.g., referencing people formally unless instructed otherwise)
  • Being on time
  • Being prepared for the task at hand
  • Being courteous to everyone, regardless of rank or position
  • Appreciating services received and expressing that appreciation
  • Making proper introductions
  • Dressing appropriately
I, frankly, fail to see how those are skills that a home-educated child would be lacking, if educated properly. Dude is six. We're already working very hard on manners and etiquette. Sure, it isn't showing much in social settings, but he's getting there.

Those are skills for business, though, and for AFTER college. Here are some recommended skills to develop in the first year of college:

  • Attend every class and be on time.
  • Learn how to adapt to different instructors
  • Take responsibility for your own learning
  • Be prepared for class
  • Be an active listener
  • Sit in the front of the class if possible
  • Communicate with instructors
  • Bring your book to class if the lecture follows the text
  • Learn note-taking skills
  • Listen for cue words in lectures, such as "this is important"
  • Go over your notes after class
  • Join or set up a study group
Nothing about sitting quietly in your seat and trying to learn the way everyone else does. Yes, students have to learn to adapt, but in adapting, UVU is very specific that the student is responsible for his own learning. I went to public and private schools, and we were certainly not taught to take responsibility for our education. We were taught to fake it and pretend.

But the point I guess I am trying to make is that no amount of desk-sitting or line-walking or finger-on-the-lips-hand-on-the-hips quiet and calm is going to get my primary student ready for college, business, or a trip to Steak N Shake with grandma. What is going to get him ready for college is learning, for business is college, and for a trip to Steak N Shake with Grandma is just practice and patience. 

Adding in the ADHD does make things more challenging. It challenges us as homeschoolers in ways I am sure that classroom teachers wouldn't be challenged. Yet, I am certain that the public schools management is not as effective long-term. 

I haven't really done the research but my experience tells me that teachers or school administrators are often the ones who suggest putting children on medication - usually amphetamine-based stimulants - to manage their AD/HD symptoms at school. While I understand the reasoning, I don't accept it. I just don't. I have had ADHD for something along the lines of 32 years, and I've been medicated and unmedicated. I can honestly say that what truly helped ME was the coaching I had in coping skills and ways to manage without getting too anxious. Dude is a different kid, of course, but I have been researching ADHD medications of late, and I am not impressed. 


One researcher points out that "a smattering of recent studies, most of them involving animals, hint that stimulants could alter the structure and function of the brain in ways that may depress mood, boost anxiety and, contrary to their short-term effects, lead to cognitive deficits. Human studies already indicate the medications can adversely affect areas of the brain that govern growth in children, and some researchers worry that additional harms have yet to be unearthed."  He also points out that "traces of a sinister side to stimulants have also surfaced. In February 2007 the FDA issued warnings about side effects such as growth stunting and psychosis, among other mental disorders. Indeed, the vast majority of adults with ADHD experience at least one additional psychiatric illness—often an anxiety disorder or drug addiction—in their lifetime. Having ADHD is itself a risk factor for other mental health problems, but the possibility also exists that stimulant treatment during childhood might contribute to these high rates of accompanying diagnoses."

Could that explain the OCD I also suffer from?

To take it further, in the words of a physician: "I have seen many such people, mostly young men, in my own practice. This boy was on Ritalin as a child and then Adderall as a teenager. Now he spends most of his time playing video games on his parents’ 55-inch flat screen. He’s 29 years old. He’s guildmaster of his guild in World of Warcraft, but in the real world, he’s nobody. His parents are frantic, but he is content. That may be the end result when the nucleus accumbens is damaged. Medications are not solely to blame for this phenomenon – there are other factors in play – but the fact that this boy was on stimulant medications for many years is most likely a contributing factor."  (of note: This same physician points out that the current teaching methods are doing more harm than good for most boys!)

Do we want this for our children?

Side effects can also include:

  • Insomnia (have that already)
  • Nightmares (check)
  • Loss of appetite (now, he's got a good appetite, most of the time, but not at other times, and he certainly cannot afford to lose any weight)
  • Rebound  effect: when symptoms such as irritability (HAVE THAT) and aggression (THAT TOO!!!) get WORSE than they would have been without the medication.  Yeah, because that sounds like a WONDERFUL idea. Let's do THAT. I enjoy the screaming fits and getting bruised up by my beloved child. Sounds great. Sign me up.
  • Cardiac risks (NO! What?! No!!!!!! Seriously???)
It's just not something I think we need to have to face. 

Psychology Today did a very compelling survey of ADHD children and homeschooling. The results were pretty much what I was personally expecting, but not, I think, what others might expect. They conclude that children who are not in a brick-and-mortar school typically manage ADHD WITHOUT medication. Their second conclusion was one I found particular compelling: "The children's behavior, moods, and learning generally improved when they stopped conventional schooling, not because their ADHD characteristics vanished but because they were now in a situation where they could learn to deal with those characteristics."  They also conclude that many ADHD children have a high-need for a much more self-directed education and that they will hyper-focus on tasks of interest. 

Long story short? These kids are getting a BETTER education at home without having to take hardcore drugs that completely alter their personalities. Not just alter when they are on the meds, but have an intense period of "coming down" at the end of the day.

So we manage Dude's moods and hyperactivity with a very simple protocol. It's chamomile, mint, and lemon balm throughout the day. Magnesium and zinc are added in small quantities to help with attention and focus. Valerian root is added at night to help with sleep troubles. His doctor gave the okay to add a small amount of melatonin when the insomnia is at its worst. Also, staying active helps. Finding lessons for his kinesthetic body and tactile wandering hands is a struggle, but we're working through it. 

All those other things take time, practice, and exposure, and he's getting those.  But I think the science is clear. It's pretty evident that home education is BETTER for kids like mine, not worse. Studies suggest that what I have chosen for my son will help him more in the long run for so many reasons.

There are so many more things I want to speak to, but I have written a short novel already. I may write more on all of this later, but for now, I have to get back to work or catch a nap before the man wakes up in a few short hours. Please continue to keep us in your prayers.