A Modest Proposal, or: Should You Hold Your Son Back?

Back in 2002, when I was pregnant with my first and due in October, my then-boss and I got to talking about boys’ education. He didn’t have any children, but his sister did, and he mentioned how she’d put her boys into a special pre-kindergarten preparatory program – kind of like remedial pre-school, with tutors – because they were boys born at the end of the school year, and she was worried they wouldn’t be ready to join their class with their peers. In Ontario, any child who turns four by December 31st of any given year is eligible to start junior kindergarten that year, which means that her children would start kindergarten at age three.

At the time I thought this was something wealthy parents did to ensure their offspring’s eventual place in an Ivy-league university. But, now that I have two boys with fall birthdays I think I understand what she was worried about: besides her obvious desire that her boys do well in school, there’s also the potential double-whammy of emotional immaturity relative to their older peers and the fact that her children were boys (conventional wisdom being that boys tend to be less mature than their female peers anyway) to consider. Add ’em up, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. And it’s called ADHD.

Don’t understand that fear? Using longitudinal data about 12000 U.S. students, two recent studies published this year suggest that the youngest kindergarteners in any given year were nearly 60% more likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest children in kindergarten, and that by grade five, the youngest were nearly twice as likely to have been prescribed stimulants such as Ritalin. By taking the incidence of ADHD in the population as a whole, the studies authors estimate that nearly 1 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD simply because they are the youngest in the class.

Youngest, and least mature. Most likely to need extra attention from a teacher. Most likely to be disruptive. But, also, just as likely as an older child to act in a way that is age appropriate. It’s just that the age appropriate behaviour of a just-turned four year old is hardly the same thing as the age appropriate behaviour of a nearly six year old, and it’s the behavour of the six-year old that is expected in a kindergarten classroom.

So what would happen if schools were more flexible in allowing parents to determine when and at what level their child should start school? In those jurisdictions where the age of enrollment is determined strictly by the year a child is born, a child won’t necessarily get to start when and where they’re most ready (Of course, the fact that few low-cost pre-kindergarten programs exist is a major issue for most families, who may not have any option financially but kindergarten once a child reaches school age, but that’s another blog post altogether). For boys who need a couple of extra months to mature before they start school, a flexible approach may make all the difference.

Of course, it’s not only boys who may be immature or not ready for school, and it’s not only boys who are diagnosed with ADHD, but if boys are diagnosed with ADHD nearly twice as frequently as girls (so say the statistics coming out of the US), and, apparently, so many children are misdiagnosed simply because they’re immature, then maybe, just maybe, by allowing parents to hold late-born boys back a year, we may provide those boys with the growing room they need to be better prepared for school.  And for all kids, isn’t there some logic in allowing for an approach to starting school in which the child’s readiness, and not their birthdate determines at what level they begin?

(photo credit: Woodley Wonderworks http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2908834853/)


For the Love of Learning

On Monday of this week, my husband Ben and I visited our son’s school to meet with the principal about some concerns we have.  Along the glass wall of the office ran a long backless wooden bench.  When we sat down to wait for our meeting, Ben’s body stiffened.  I turned to him.  “I spent a lot of time on benches like these when I was in school,” he said, “and I thought my time on them was over.”

Ben was labelled a “problem” child, a “bad” child.  And often his behaviour was, well, bad.  He smashed a wooden block on the head of a mean child, bit his kindergarten teacher on the hand when she was dragging him somewhere, and threw a snowball across a field where it struck his principal in the face.

The behaviour needed to be addressed, obviously.  But rather than consider why he acted so outrageously and use that information to inform a response, the assumption was that he was just “bad”, and the response simply to control him.  No one questioned the requirement that he be still for extended periods of time when his body ached to run, that he sit cross-legged on the carpet when it hurt his legs and for periods during which he couldn’t focus anyway.  No one cared about an irrelevant curriculum.

Like many boys, and some girls, Ben needed to move.  But he was restrained from moving, and that energy got pushed out sideways.

Oh, and yes, he was plied with Ritalin.  Which had all manner of predictable and long-term adverse consequences and about which it would be better if I did not get started.

I have an appreciation of the many wonderful teachers working for and with children against some very difficult odds.  I loved school, and remember clearly a few teachers who had a really meaningful impact on me.  But even the best teachers have an easier time if their class is fairly cohesive as a group, because there is such limited time for individual students.  And, of course, there exists the other kind of teacher too, the one who doesn’t like to teach and doesn’t even really like kids.  During a recent shop for art supplies for the children, my heart sank as I overheard two teachers loudly laughing about the artwork of their Grade 8 students and the teachers’ feigned interest and encouragement at the children’s efforts.

I agree with Beth-Anne’s comments yesterday that our public education system would benefit by allowing active boys to be active boys.  There are a host of ways to release and express those physical energies so that they can be better harnessed later on.  There is more to a boy or girl child than the academic mind, just as there is more to being smart than knowing how to memorize, write sentences, and do sums.  There are other intelligences to discover and build upon, including the intelligence of the body, of emotion, of the spirit.  I did well at school, and it served me well in securing a higher education and employment.  But it didn’t prepare me especially well for life generally, and both our schools and our society will be better served when our definition of intelligence is broadened, and our appreciation of divergent student strengths honoured.

When I became the mother of a son, and then the mother of two sons, I made a commitment to ensure that their education would be a better experience than what my husband had endured.  How do I plan to do that given the limits of some aspects of current public education?  By keeping close watch and participating in what’s going on at school.  And if it’s not satisfactory, being prepared to take them out and learn with them ourselves.

I was so pleased to recently see that homeschooling options had moved sufficiently away the educational fringe to be respectfully portrayed in the mainstream parenting magazine Today’s Parent. There is something compelling and undeniable about the unschooling movement when it asserts that “the world is your classroom”.  Math can be learned from taking the measurements to build a birdhouse, follow a recipe, or plant a garden.  Biology can be learned through sports, drawing, and playing with animals.  Reading and writing can be learned by reading and writing with the people who love you the most.  And unless you live in remote lands, there are opportunities to make new friends and be a team player everywhere.

Homeschooling may seem radical to some, but to me it’s more radical to allow someone or some system dumb down the strengths of children.  Learning comes so naturally to them (did you “teach” your children to walk? run? talk?) that there really is something wrong when that natural impulse is quelled by the very institution that purports to foster it.  Is there anything sadder than an 8 year old so jaded with school and learning that he (or she) doesn’t want much to do with either anymore?

For me, the highest goal of education is to instill a love of learning itself, for life.  It might just be that the people best placed to do that for my children are the people, nestled comfortably within a supportive learning community, who love them the most.

As for my husband, he became a squash professional when he grew up.  Although he has shifted from full-time to part-time work in order to spend more time with our boys, he loves being on the court, where he easily connects with people, especially little people, as a squash coach.  He continues to live largely in his body; he can no more sit for hours on end now than he could when he was a child, nor does he have any desire to try.  The difference is that now no one is punishing him for being who he is.

We’ve also noticed that his body has stayed pretty much the same for the last 20 years, which can’t be said for many men inching their way to 40.  There’s a health and vitality that surrounds Ben when he comes back from moving his body, doing work that he is designed to do, and that can’t be said for most of us either.  What exactly did he lose and what did he gain by not being able to conform to the mould of school?

Ben is with our kids most days, and I notice he makes a point of taking them outside everyday, running them around for hours, biking, gardening, going to the swimming pool in the summer and the dead of winter too.  By two, both kids knew how to hold a racquet.  I notice that familiar health and vitality that surrounds the kids when they come home, where I do most (but not all) of the reading, writing, drawing, crafting, and cooking with them.

Ben’s school history stays alive with me as I watch my boys grow.  We’re hoping for the best with public school, and will strive to make a positive contribution of time and energy there.  We would love the assistance of a school that is supportive of our values and our children’s needs to help us educate them.  But if there’s an impasse, I’m not afraid to try something else.  Deep down, there’s a part of me that believes that taking the education road less travelled might not just make all the difference, but be a truly enriching route for all four of us.

Whatever happens, no one is going to tell me or my boys that they are “problems” or “bad” or “can’t learn”.  It’s just not an option.

Are There Really More ADHD Kids or Just A More Intolerant Education System?

The Globe and Mail ran a six part series on boys and education.  As a mother of three boys and a former teacher, I was interested in reading the opinions of various experts.

The stand-out point for me was the discussion surrounding the alarming number of students being medicated for Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder (ADHD).  Along with the rise in diagnosis is the number of children being prescribed Ritalin with the majority of cases being identified in young boys.

The article identifies that the only way ADHD can be diagnosed is by reviewing reports authored by parents and teachers about a child’s behaviour.  The question that comes to my mind, is it possible that we have created an educational system that stifles a boy’s natural instincts (to be fair, some girls too) to be physically active and in constant motion?  Is it possible that we are trying to manipulate a square peg in a round hole?

Generations ago children played outside, walked to and from school, were responsible for helping with household chores.  In effect these actions helped to “get the beans out”.  Maybe our sedentary lifestyles, complete with video games, t.v., car-pools and heavy after-school programming has attributed to children being under-stimulated, both physically and emotionally.  After all, playing outside for hours on end not only encourages children to use their imaginations but also to be active.

Who knows?  Maybe thirty years ago there were just as many ADHD kids but we just didn’t have a name for it.  Maybe those kids were labeled “bad”.  Regardless, if the numbers of boys being diagnosed ADHD is on the rise, then do we not owe it to our boys to review the education system where they spend between six and eight hours a day?

I grew up in the “girls are just the same as boys” era.  We were told that we were the same as boys and could do anything that our counterparts could do.  But now, as the mom of three boys, I see that message is flawed.  Yes we can do the same things boys can do but there are some fundamental differences between the sexes.  Leonard Sax and Barry McDonald both have researched and written extensively on the subject of boys and gender differences.  I have found their findings to resonate with me and have helped me to understand my boys’ behaviour.

For example, they physically are not able to sit at the dinner for 20 minutes without fidgeting, they have to jump on couches, everything must be tossed into the air like a ball (forks, shoes, books, etc.), physical contact is necessary in relaying their messages especially when they are toddlers . . . it’s not their fault.  It’s in their genes.  It’s in their wiring.

I understand that there are societal norms that my boys have to adhere to, but I want to know that the education system is taking steps to understand how the sexes learn differently.  Prescribing drugs is a dangerous band-aid solution that may  simply prove to only sedate our children while damaging their self-esteem.

photo credit: http://encefalus.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/ritalin.jpg