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ADHD And Immaturity: Parents Shouldn't Have To Game The Educational System

A new study of kindergarten classes shows that younger students are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than their older classmates. (Element5/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
A new study of kindergarten classes shows that younger students are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than their older classmates. (Element5/Unsplash)

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Social psychologists, like me, have long been maligned with the criticism that we investigate and conclude the obvious. When research findings match people’s intuitions, they often dismiss our work as “common sense.” My hunch is that, last week, many did just this when they heard about a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine highlighting the immaturity of younger children whose birthdays fall close to school enrollment cut-offs. The developmental differences displayed by a child who has just turned 5 and a classmate who is 11 or 12 months their senior can be astronomical. A year is a long time, especially when it constitutes a full one-fifth of one’s experience on this earth.

While many readers undoubtedly chalked up these findings to common sense and wondered for a moment whether we really needed an expensive Harvard University study to state the obvious, we did, in fact, need this study. Educators need to wake up and they need scholarly ammunition to support a variety of sorely needed classroom reforms.

In our curious and distinctly American fashion, educators and parents are constantly striving to speed up the developmental process. But why?

In my teaching of students at Wellesley College, I have long made the argument that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is over-diagnosed. Many children, solely by virtue of their birthdate, are prematurely singled out, put on medication and labeled as “different.” Teacher and parent perceptions become skewed; over time, the children themselves become aware of their diagnosis. Importantly, when introducing this thesis, I am always careful to affirm the fact that ADHD is a very real phenomenon. Many children and adults struggle daily with issues of attention and benefit greatly from medical intervention, but how many young children are being labeled and medicated unnecessarily?

Before earning a Ph.D. and teaching at the college level, I spent a few years as a kindergarten teacher. Over time, I came to the realization that the curriculum and routines that I was expected to implement were entirely developmentally inappropriate for many of my young students. The expectation that the average 5-year-old will sit quietly on the floor for 20 minutes — attending to a lesson and dutifully refraining from poking, tickling or wrestling with a child sitting only inches away — is more than ridiculous: it is cruel and unusual punishment. Young children are made to move to touch, and to interact with the physical world around them. This is how they best learn.

Yet, over time, curricular and behavioral expectations have trickled down to the point where what were once educational goals for second graders are now being applied to kindergarteners. In our curious and distinctly American fashion, educators and parents are constantly striving to speed up the developmental process. But why? Research shows that by the time they reach middle school, “early” readers are no more skilled than the students who did not begin to read until age 7. In fact, some countries (most notably Finland) do not start formal education until age 7.

Young children are made to move to touch, and to interact with the physical world around them. This is how they best learn.

In a series of brief interviews aired on NPR and elsewhere, a number of suggestions were made as to how a misdiagnosis of ADHD might be avoided. Physicians, for example, might be more mindful of a child’s age in comparison to his or her classmates. Others have suggested that parents of children born in July or August and close to the Sept. 1 cutoff should consider giving their child another year before starting kindergarten. This practice of “redshirting” is, in fact, increasingly common in many communities. But it is misguided — not to mention available only to families who have the economic luxury of being able to pay for an additional year of childcare.

Families and children should not be expected to game the educational system. Instead, it is the system that needs to be changed. Educators and curriculum developers must be given the license to step back and examine whether their expectations of young children are in keeping with our in-depth understanding of child development. Not every 5- or 6-year-old is ready to read, sit quietly or manipulate numbers. The early elementary grades must be characterized by an open-ended approach that can be tailored to the needs of each individual child.

In fact, few additional studies would be necessary to achieve this goal. Lessons learned in the “open classrooms” of the 1960s and '70s, coupled with insights gained from Waldorf and similar curricula, should pave the way for necessary educational reform.

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Beth A. Hennessey Cognoscenti contributor
Beth A. Hennessey is a professor of psychology at Wellesley College.

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