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There Is No Normal

By Chris Mercogliano

I got a letter the other day from a woman training to be a special education teacher in Ohio. Reading my book Teaching the Restless was bringing up her concerns about certain things she had observed during student teaching sessions with several secondgraders who had been labeled ADHD. She—I’ll call her Jane—mentioned the teacher’s intolerance of the kids’ idiosyncrasies and the fact that one little girl’s difficulty wasn’t a learning or behavioral problem, it was simply being required to sit still for such long periods of time.

Jane ended her letter by asking me to send her the syllabus from my “Ritalin-free school,” as she put it, so that she could show it to her future principal at the middle school where she will be working as a resource room teacher next year.

Of course I was heartened to see Jane’s instinct for seeking the possible causes of the trouble not only inside the children she was learning to teach, but also in the critical and restrictive climate of the classroom. But how could I explain to her that the answer isn’t a change in the syllabus, but what is called for is a radical shift away from the educational and medical paradigms that gave rise to so-called “disorders” like ADHD in the first place?

Here’s what I came up with:

Dear Jane,

My heart always goes out to young teachers like you who are committed to helping struggling students under adverse classroom conditions like the ones you describe in your letter. It’s not an easy thing you’re trying to do.

As for me sending you the syllabus from my school, I’d be happy to do it—except that I’d have to send you 60! Plus, they aren’t really written down, either. You see, here students each have their own individual programs that are unique to them and that emerge out of their particular needs, interests, and learning styles. Except for the phonics-based reading curriculum that we often use with dyslexic children who need carefully ordered, inch-by-inch instruction and a lot of repetition, we intentionally don’t predesign student “programs” because we want them to remain as flexible as possible—especially for kids like the girl you mentioned who had difficulty sitting still for very long.

The thing that may be hard for you to understand, given the factory training you’re just finishing up, is that labels like ADHD are the logical outcome of an extremely outdated educational model that views learning as a fixed, mechanical process that is the same for every child. The model is based on an equally fixed set of norms, which in turn are based on the statistical averaging of the developmental progress of millions of children, not on anything that actually occurs in nature. So-called “normal” children learn to walk at 12 months, talk at 18 months, read in first grade, do long division in third grade, and so on. Then the model concocts a bunch of pathological labels for the kids who don’t develop accordingly.

The reason I say that what I call the “conventional” model— because it is based on convention (how we’ve always done it) and not on how most children actually learn—is outdated is because current neuroscience, developmental theory, and psychology are telling us there is no normal. Different children learn and develop in very different ways, at very different times, and at very different rates.

And so in my school we occasionally have a non-dyslexic student who doesn’t learn to read until 9 or 10 and we consider it perfectly normal—for him. We find that when we don’t force children to read before they are ready and eager to do it, they learn very efficiently. They also enjoy reading, and do it often from that time forward.

As for the other little girl you mentioned who annoyed the teacher by picking up ants during reading group, here we would probably ask her if she’d like to learn more about ants, which might lead to finding some good books about ants and maybe even collecting enough of them to build an ant house so she could study their behavior by observing them with a magnifying glass.

Both of your girls together remind me of an 11-year-old boy who came to us from public school many years ago with a host of learning and behavioral issues. Ethan was so restless that trying to get him to engage in passive learning exercises virtually guaranteed failure. But he loved animals of all kinds and being out in nature, and at one point he became obsessed with building traps that would capture critters without harming them. This led to a library visit (we’re talking pre-Internet) for books on trapping and trap design, long days in the school’s workshop building different kinds of traps, and then trips out to the school’s land in the country to try them out.

In the two years that Ethan was with us, I don’t remember him doing much conventional schoolwork, but when he chose to return to public school for the 8th grade, he passed with flying colors. As an instructive aside, for English class he chose to write a book report on Rachel Carson’s classic, Silent Spring. His teacher wisely ignored the frequent misspellings in the report, which ended up being several times the required length, and gave Ethan an A+ because it was written with so much feeling and understanding. She proceeded to read it aloud to the class, telling them that it was the best book report she’d ever received.

Ethan telephoned me last week to tell me he and his wife are living happily in an old house they remodeled on 50 acres of land in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, and that he absolutely loves his job at the Department of Environmental Conservation, where he investigates corporate polluters. Which brings up the other thing I wanted to point out about the conventional model—the fact that it is deficit-based. The same is true for the medical model, and both focus on what’s wrong or what’s missing. In the case of ADHD, there apparently is a missing neurohormone, and the way they see to fix the problem is with medications like Ritalin that artificially increase the supply.

Meanwhile, the real way to help children like Ethan, as my little story clearly shows, is to help them to identify their assets and build upon them.