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Are We Medicating the True Selves of Boys?

Boys are three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD.

"I have a great class this year," said my friend, a long time third grade teacher in a suburban elementary school. "I have 19 girls and only eight boys!"

I wasn't surprised to hear her candid statement. Girls are quieter, less fidgety, and certainly less mischievious than boys. They have fewer behavior issues in the classroom and are therefore easier to teach. In general, boys have more natural energy than girls. Sitting still for hours at a time in a classroom is more difficult for them. They figet, tilt their chairs back, and shift around in their seats. When they get bored, they get into trouble.

Boys are held back in school at twice the rate of girls. They get expelled from preschool five times more often than girls. And they are three times as likely to get labeled with ADHD as girls—13 percent of boys are diagnosed with ADHD versus 5 percent of girls. Boys are medicated for ADHD more than girls and, shockingly, 1.5 percent of boys under the age of 17 are taking powerful anti-psychotic medications to calm them down.

Our fast paced society paradoxically frowns on overactive children—even children as young as 5 or 6 years old. Our society wants children to be restrained, orderly, and eager to please parents and teachers. We have little tolerance for typically boyish traits such as bounciness, fidgetiness and mischievousness. That icon of mischievous boyhood, Huckleberry Finn, got fidgety when he was bored in the classroom. Today, he would be labeled with a mental disorder and drugged to keep him calm and compliant in school.

We expect boys to sit still for hours in the classroom without physical exercise, pay attention to their teachers, and not throw spitballs. What's more, we have decided (or at least acquiesced) to drug these annoying traits out of boys with amphetamines and methylphenidates. We seem to be asking boys to conform to a standard of behavior that in the past would have been more appropriate for girls.

Some countries recognize that boys have different educational needs than girls. In Finland, for example, children don't start school until they turn seven. The elementary school day is only four hours long, and for every 45 minutes of time in the classroom, Finnish children get 15 minutes of recess to run around and play. In Finland, boys are allowed to be boys. Yet despite having shorter school days and more time in recess, Finnish children continuously outperform American kids in international testing in math, reading and science.

Research shows that boys shine when the teaching style is adjusted to their particular needs. According to one study, boys learn best with:

  • Lessons that result in an end product—a booklet, a catapult, a poem, or a comic strip, for example.
  • Lessons that are structured as competitive games.
  • Lessons requiring motor activity.
  • Lessons requiring boys to assume responsibility for the learning of others.
  • Lessons that require boys to address open questions or unsolved problems, tapping into their natural curiousity.
  • Lessons that require a combination of competition and teamwork.
  • Lessons that focus on independent, personal discovery and realization.
  • Lessons that introduce drama in the form of novelty or surprise.

If boys were more interested in classroom activities like these, it makes sense that they would be less bored, fidgety, and inattentive in the classoom. (Who knows, girls might enjoy these kinds of lessons too!) If we stop expecting boys to give up their boyish qualities, they might well escape being medicated for ADHD in numbers disproportionate to girls.

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

Read more about the true selves of boys in A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD Became an american Epidemic

Marilyn Wedge used with permission
Source: Marilyn Wedge used with permission
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