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, the latest figures available, 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 10 years with information from FMRI’s (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 FMRI’S 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 temper tantrums.
Verbal Manipulations: Poor-me statements, negative statements, nagging, interrupting, physical complaints (saying they are ill or hurt when in fact they are not).
Inattention Behaviors: Not paying attention, helplessness and dependency, dawdling, poor reading skills, poor school performance.
Other Common Misbehaviors: Tattling, fighting with siblings, aggression, lying.
With 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 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 10 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 sit for another 10 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, music. No window to gaze out of. No books or toys. And no talking. Just the chair, the child and his or her thoughts for 10 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, then say, ‘Ten minutes.”
If Tommy talks or gets out of the chair, we add another 10 minutes to his chair time for each infraction.
After 10 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 and 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 five 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 10 may be appropriate.
Dr. Stein’s technique trains a child to think and pay attention. Those 10 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.”