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Drug-Free School Zone

By Chris Mercogliano

I am in absolute agreement with Bruce E. Levine: it isn’t ODD at all that our society has stepped up its efforts to pathologize young people with biopsychiatric labels like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), when they either cannot or will not march in step with the majority culture, and then dose them with the corresponding biopsychiatric drugs.

Teachingtherestless As Levine reminds us with his deft bit of historical research, America has a long tradition of marginalizing anyone who deviates from established norms—which currently are narrowing at an alarming rate. Or as French philosopher Michel Foucault pointed out in Discipline and Punish, the control of its citizens has always been a primary aim of the state, and what we are witnessing in modern times is the evolution of increasingly subtle ways in which to do so. Today, instead of relying on brute force as was the case in the days of pharaohs and emperors, social institutions like schools, the military, and the mass media subliminally enforce a conformity so pervasive that overt forms of control are no longer necessary. All who resist and refuse to take their places in the social and economic machine, according to Foucault in Madness and Civilization, are labeled with some form of abnormality, and then, as I argue in my book, Teaching the Restless, about the ongoing ADHD hoax, they are medicated with powerful psychotropic drugs that extend society’s control all the way down to the biochemical level.

This business of labeling and drugging kids who won’t sit still, can’t keep up, or don’t fit in became a deep concern of mine in my role as a teacher at the Free School, a noncoercive, democratic, inner-city school for sixty-five students ages two through fourteen in Albany, NY. In the early 1990s there was a sudden spike in the number of students who came to us having been labeled in their previous schools, and so, curious as to why, I embarked on an exhaustive review of the already considerable ADHD literature.

The notion of a sudden epidemic of children—primarily boys—whom mainstream scientists and medical professionals claim to be suffering from a chemical imbalance in their brains, most likely genetic in origin, just didn’t wash with me. In evolutionary terms, how could as many as ten million kids have come down with a neurological disorder virtually overnight? The idea defied reason.

Then I came across an article by Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer Natalie Angier. In “The Debilitating Malady Called Boyhood,” Angier suggested that there has been a radical shift in our culture’s definition of what constitutes a “normal” boy. The nineteenth-century Tom Sawyer / Huck Finn archetype—brash, willful, naughty, rambunctious, aggressive, and always dirty—is no longer acceptable. Today, psychologists, pediatricians, parents, and teachers alike increasingly view the temperamental and behavioral distance between such boys and an ever narrower definition of normality as evidence of a medical problem. Such boys, they believe, are sick enough to require medication.

Meanwhile, in my school we permit Sawyeresque behavior in children as long as it doesn’t violate the rights and sensibilities of others. We don’t label a child who is constantly on the move “hyperactive,” which is a prescriptive term. Instead we say that he or she is “highly active,” which is a descriptive one. And since the school is always buzzing with noise and activity, highly active kids don’t really stand out all that much and are not considered to have or to be a problem. Moreover, we’ve noticed that when highly active children can run, jump, climb, yell, dance, dig holes in the sandbox, and hammer ten-penny nails into two-by-fours in the wood shop to their hearts’ content, they gradually settle down and develop the ability to modulate their energy level and control their own impulses. The trouble begins when you suppress their need to move and do.

Similarly, we say that kids with minds like hummingbirds, who aren’t yet inclined to spend long stretches of time reading, writing, and figuring, are “flighty” or “easily distracted,” not that they have attention deficit disorder. The interesting thing about these children is that given the chance to pay attention to what they want to pay attention to, they will often spend hours at a time working on a drawing, or a birdhouse, or a new skateboard move. When it is their choice, they will devour good books and stories and keep asking for more. But if you try to force them when the desire and excitement are missing, indeed that is when the trouble begins.

While I wholeheartedly agree with author Thomas Armstrong that the so-called “ADD child” is a myth, it doesn’t mean that many of the children so labeled aren’t suffering from some sort of emotional, social, or cognitive distress—and usually an individualized combination of the three. It’s not easy growing up in today’s high-speed, fear-driven world. A great many kids for a great many reasons aren’t receiving all of the nurturing they need, and it is causing gaps, and pauses, and stops and starts in their development. And then they are herded into school settings where teachers are no longer able to care about them individually and adapt strategies that will enable them to learn and to bond with their peers.

Meanwhile in my school, especially in our preschool section, we are far more concerned with outbreaks of PDD—Poopy Diaper Disorder—which quickly leads to DDD—Droopy Diaper Disorder, both of which are very real and have a clearly identifiable biological basis. And then in all seriousness, we try to pay careful attention to signs of what Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, calls NDD—Nature Deficit Disorder—because it truly is reaching epidemic proportions as today’s children spend more and more time indoors interacting with one kind of electronic media or another. Because what my thirty-five years of working with every imaginable type of child has taught me is that when schools address children’s physical, emotional, and social needs—flexibly, so that no one is left behind—it is absolutely unnecessary to drug them into attentional focus or behavioral submission. The learning process builds up a momentum all its own and doesn’t need to be relentlessly measured and controlled.

Chris Mercogliano is the author of In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness. He has been a teacher at the Albany Free School since 1973 and codirector since 1985. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, and he is also the author of Making It Up As We Go Along, and Teaching the Restless: One School's Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed.