Not To Deal with Hyperactivity
By Dr. Gabor Maté
The report of a Port Hardy teacher taping a seven-year-old hyperactive boy's
head to his desk ought to ring alarm bells about the ill-preparedness of our educational
system to cope with the increasing number of children struggling with attention
deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other neuropsychological problems.
This particular teacher's response may not be typical either of her or of teachers in
general. It does, however, exemplify the helpless frustration many educators feel when
confronted with the disruptive and out of control behaviour of the troubled child who,
single-handedly, appears to have the power to make shambles of an entire day's lesson
plan. If we are to avoid the shaming attitudes that so often make the classroom experience
of the ADD child a humiliating misery, we need to conduct a compassionate inquiry into the
emotional life of the child and appreciate the physiological and psychological impulses
that drive his behaviours. Beyond that, school boards and governments must avoid
making individual classroom teachers solely responsible for what is clearly a growing
problem of societal dimensions.
Children with ADD or other learning disabilities do not, for the most part, act the way
they do out of conscious choice. Far from committing wilful misdemeanors, the child is
acting out impulses which he little understands and over which he has little
control. The hyperactive seven-year-old in Port Hardy cannot sit still for the
simple reason that his brain will not let him. The part of his cerebral cortex, or grey
matter, that is meant to inhibit the impulse to fidget and move about is not up to its
task. Blaming such a child for his restlessness and trying to control it with
punishment or coercion will not work. In the short term he may be helped by medication,
but the long-term question is how to enable him to develop so that he can acquire some
psychological rest and impulse control. Schools cannot on their own meet these
highly sensitive children's hunger for attention, love and acceptance, but they can begin
by not making the problem worse through ill-conceived disciplinary measures.
How to deal, for example, with the child who compulsively acts the part of the class
clown? Like all ADD traits, this behaviour has its inner logic, unseen by the
child: if he cannot gain the spotlight by achievement, he will do so by acting the
fool. Lacking the acceptance of the adult world, he will strive for the attention of
his peers, at whatever cost. The solution is not to chastise and humiliate him in
front of his classmates, but to give him the message that he is fully accepted as a valid
and valued member of the school community no matter what his shortcomings. He is
valued for who he is, not for what he may be able to achieve. Difficult as it is for the
overworked teacher in the hubbub of the busy classroom, reaching out to such a child each
day, even for a brief moment, will go farther than any number of sternly delivered
It is often noted that many children with poor attention skills can function quite
well in the presence of a caring adult. The reason for this apparent paradox is that
emotionally nurturing interactions produce positive changes in the child's brain
chemistry. Dopamine, the brain chemical deficient in ADD--important for attention and
motivation--can be supplied not only by a Ritalin pill, but also by a nurturing
interaction with an attentive adult. Time and time again children and teenagers with
attention deficit disorder have told me how much better they are able to perform for
certain teachers who speak to them with warmth and respect and who treat them not with
condescension or cold authority, but with empathy and reassuring humour. A teacher can
work wonders if she sees and hears the vulnerable and hurt child behind the bored look,
the off-putting tone, and the seemingly defiant gesture.
Not everyone's brains work the same way. It is folly to impose uniform expectations as if
there were no differences in brain chemistry, emotional needs, or maturational levels from
one child to the next. There has to be enough flexibility in the system to allow for
individual thought patterns and learning styles. In these days of cash-register approaches
to education among the first to be sacrificed have been learning assistants and teachers'
aides--the very people who could give classroom teachers some respite and offer the many
needy students in our schools patient tutoring, individual contact, and emotional support.
The most troubled of these children are increasingly lost, desperate, angry, and, sooner
or later, almost beyond help. If such policies continue, the cost to society will be
enormous, to the children devastating.
The incident in Port Hardy should wake us all up.