Nine million prescriptions were written last year in the United States for school-aged children for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). In 1975 roughly 150,000 children were taking Ritalin. In 2003 about 6 million American children took Ritalin.
Drugging children to get them to behave seems to be the trend. What we have learned in the past ten years with information from fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) of children’s brains is how rapidly the brain is changing and developing. Neurologists call this brain development ”brain plasticity.”
Children are learning how to concentrate, and neural pathways are being created in the brain structure for concentration. We need to ask, are we using drugs to change behavior or our children’s brains? Surely there is a better way.
A study using fMRIs on monks’ brains showed that during meditation the monks’ brains changed dramatically, suggesting that mental training changes the structure of the brain.
Dr. David Stein, author of Ritalin Is Not the Answer and father of two sons diagnosed with ADHD, says that our children have learned to be inattentive instead of learning to pay attention. Children with ADHD haven’t been shown how or when to pay attention. Stein lists these behaviors that parents and teachers associated with ADHD:
Active Manipulations: Not doing as told (non-compliance), defying commands (oppositionalism) and having temper tantrums.
Verbal Manipulations: Making ”poor-me” statements and negative statements, nagging, interrupting and reporting physical complaints (saying they are ill or hurt when in fact they are not).
Inattention Behaviors: Displaying helplessness and dependency, dawdling, exhibiting poor reading skills, performing poorly at school and not paying attention.
Other Common Misbehaviors: Tattling, fighting with siblings, showing aggression and lying.
In his Caregivers Skills Program, Stein recommends visiting with the child and going over this list, saying something like, ”My job is to help you learn how to pay attention. Here are some behaviors that show me that you are not paying attention. When I see you doing one of these things, I’m going to ask you to go to a chair and sit for ten minutes. Then I will come and ask you why I sent you to the chair. If you can’t tell me, I’ll ask you to sit for another ten minutes or until you can tell me.”
”The chair” is a place where the child is safe and comfortable (Stein recommends an upholstered chair) but cannot see, hear or do anything distracting. No TV, radio or music. No window out of which to gaze. No books or toys. And no talking. Just the chair, the child and his or her thoughts for ten minutes.
An example: We’ve asked Tommy to get his pajamas on. He makes no effort to do so. We give no second reminders. We simply say, ”Tommy, please go to the chair.”
Tommy starts to cry. ”But Mommy, what did I do? I don’t want to go to the chair.”
Kindly and silently, we walk Tommy to the chair, and then say, ”Ten minutes.”
If Tommy talks or gets out of the chair, we add another ten minutes to his chair time for each infraction.
After ten minutes, we return to the chair and ask, ”Why did I send you to the chair?”
Tommy should say something like this: ”Because you asked me to get my pajamas on. I didn’t turn off the TV, and I started watching another show.”
If Tommy says, ”I don’t know,” we kindly say, ”Ten more minutes.”
I have used Dr. Stein’s program successfully with three- to nine-year-olds. My experience is that a child will do a 20- or 30-minute session in the chair only once. For children under age five, five minutes instead of ten is appropriate.
Dr. Stein’s technique trains a child to think and pay attention. Those ten minutes in the chair are spent creating mental pathways for concentration. With Dr. Stein’s program, as the adults in charge, we can unemotionally direct the child to appropriate behavior. No raising our voice. No saying, ”How many times do I have to tell you?” We make requests once.
Dr. Stein makes recommendations for situations requiring stronger measures. If a child continues to be disruptive, consult a pediatrician or family counselor for guidance in establishing effective training techniques.
Let’s teach our children to pay attention instead of paying for drugs. Let’s use brain plasticity to help our children learn to attend and to ”be here now.”