Imagine a hive of bees buzzing in your head all day long. Or perhaps rather than bees -- sorry if I invoked a scary image for you -- you were continually drawn away from your work by someone trying to distract you: "Hey! Look at this! Wait, no, look at this! Look over here! Go there! Get up! Sit down!"
Now imagine that the distracter is removed, the bees silenced. What could you accomplish in a day? For my 10-year-old fifth-grader, Gwen, that’s what her ADHD medication has done for her. And it truly has been a miracle.
I started Gwen’s story in my Nov. 17 column, explaining that she had been coming home with D’s and F’s on her papers and was struggling organizationally. This resulted in testing for ADHD and learning disabilities. I continued her story in my Jan. 19 column with the results of her testing -- she had fallen short, by a mere few points -- of an ADHD diagnosis.
However, that testing did reveal behaviors I was seeing at home: Gwen was up and down out of her seat, was often distracted and had difficulty paying attention and following directions. In addition, she wasn’t completing her classwork in the same time frame as her classmates. On a math page with 15 examples, she would complete five and then have to move on to a new page, the 10 examples on the first page left unfinished. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you were given the same work as your colleagues but could never finish it, although everyone else did.
I pressed forward despite the testing results, forwarding the information to her pediatrician, Dr. John Dallenbach, and making an appointment for a consultation. Dr. Dallenbach agreed with me that trying Gwen on ADHD medication was in order. He prescribed 10 mg of methylphenidate extended release for the first week, expecting to see little change because of the low dose. And yet there was a change, albeit a small one. In that first week, the teacher reported Gwen was exhibiting less of what I call "yo-yo" behavior -- up and down out of the seat, pencil sharpening, bathroom requests. We decided to up the medication to 20 mg. And that’s when the miracle occurred.
The first week on the new dosage, I asked Gwen if she had homework. Gwen said no -- she had finished her math in school (they are given time to work on homework, but until this point Gwen always had to finish it at night). She then said, with wonderment in her voice, "You know, I think this pill is working. I NEVER finish my math!" The stomach aches, the headaches, the I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school refrains, the wails of "I’m stupid!" all came to a stop.
There were amazing reports from the teacher, as well. Gwen was able to continue to read independently while the teacher was involved in a quiet conversation with a colleague nearby, something she couldn’t do before. She reported Gwen was now focused in class, neither distracted nor distracting others.
In addition, there have been changes at home. Gwen gets ready for school at my parents’ house because of my long commute to Drury in North Adams. My mother marveled that Gwen no longer got "lost" in the bathroom, a common issue that often made her late. These days, she can complete her morning routine one task after another without being prodded and rushed. Mornings now are serene and smooth.
I have seen changes in her writing, as well. I recently pulled two practice open-response essays out of her bag, one from before the medication and one post-medication. The first essay was four sentences long. The second filled the page and included two direct quotes from the reading passage. In addition, for her graduation from her school’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, all students write an essay, with one from each class chosen to be read at the ceremony. Gwen could barely contain her excitement when she told me HER essay had been chosen. Amazing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control website (cdc.gov), "the percentage of children with a parent-reported ADHD diagnosis increased by 22 percent between 2003 and 2007." And that’s what people will rail against -- that we are medicating children who don’t need it and that ADHD prescriptions are given out like candy. But sometimes that medication is life-changing, as it has been for us.
Teachers are the first line of defense for students. We can spot behaviors that parents might not see or perhaps don’t want to see. I see it all the time. Would you ask your child to build a house with a piece of string and a stick? Of course not. You would provide him or her with the tools necessary to complete that task. If your son or daughter had a headache, would you say, "No kid of MINE will take Tylenol. There’s nothing wrong with MY kid!" If your child had a broken leg, would you refuse to take him or her to the doctor? Not every student has ADHD. But I implore you, if your child’s teacher suggests your child may have ADHD, listen. And act. Sometimes medication is the answer.
Judith Fairweather is a social studies teacher at Drury High School in North Adams and writes and edits for The Advocate. E-mail her at email@example.com.