Six Things You Should Know About ADHD

New research reveals common misconceptions

Posted Jun 11, 2017

A new study* geared toward teachers and other educational professionals promotes a new understanding of ADHD—a diagnosis that has been skyrocketing among American children. The study was recently published in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being.

The authors of the study argue that teachers and other educational professionals would serve children best by understanding ADHD as a set of behaviors which can be best handled by educators as part of education's mission of socialization. Typically, teachers and school counselors have considered ADHD to be a neuro-biological disorder best treated with psychiatric medication

Accepting psychiatry's notion that ADHD is a neuro-biological problem has been popular among teachers because this explanation lets them off the hook. Seeing "problem" children as "ill" absolves teachers of finding unique ways of engaging these kids in the classroom. When a child is diagnosed with ADHD, the "cure" is medical (most often a stimulant medication) rather than educational—finding ways to engage bored or over-active kids. 

A more helpful narrative—for children if not for overworked teachers—is to take a look at what research about ADHD really tells us. Here are the six topics that the study points out.

1. Birth month matters.

Research shows that the youngest children in the classroom are twice as likely as their classmates to receive a diagnosis of ADHD and psychiatric medication. Relative immaturity is mistakenly classified as a mental disorder.

2. There is no single cause of ADHD.

The study recognizes that no biological or genetic cause has been discovered for ADHD. Nor is there evidence that ADHD is a brain disorder. There is no laboratory test for ADHD. Rather, research shows that the behaviors that are typically called ADHD are often rooted in the child's environment. The environmental factors identified by the study include: divorce, parenting styles, poverty, artificial food additives, lack of sleep, sexual abuse, and too much mobile phone use.

3. Most children with ADHD-type behavior have normal brains.

An ADHD diagnosis is a poor predictor of brain size, and brain size is a poor predictor of an ADHD diagnosis. This finding may come as a relief to parents of an ADHD child. 

4. There is no proof that ADHD has genetic origins.

Even if identical twins are more prone than non-twins to both having an ADHD diagnosis, this may be due to the influence of environment not genetics since identical twins are often treated more similarly. 

5. Medication does not benefit most children in the long run. 

Long term studies, including the MTA (Multimodal Treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder), report no long term benefits of psychiatric medication. On the contrary, medicated children had even worse outcomes and adverse effects than children who received talk therapy.

6. A diagnosis can be harmful to children.

Some of the harmful effects of having an ADHD diagnosis are low teacher and parent expectations that become self-fulfilling prophecies, loss of self-esteem ("I have a defective brain"), and a more passive approach to problems ("I can't do this math problem because I have ADHD"). 

The study urges teachers to recognize that kids don't behave in the same way as adults. Kids have "young" behaviors that might be annoying to teachers, but these behaviors are not signs of a psychiatric disorder. Research suggests that young children, especially those diagnosed with ADHD, need more time and space for physical activity, playful learning experiences like debates and contests, and smaller classrooms. Finally, the study argues that medicalizing normal childhood behavior is unjust. 

      

Conclusion

The study comes to a conclusion similar to the one I presented in A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD Became an American Epidemic (Penguin Random House Group, 2015)Namely, ADHD is not a disease entity but a set of behaviors that can be regulated by environmental interventions that are suited to the individual child's needs.

Unruly distracted behavior may be a sign of boredom because a child is gifted, or it may be a sign that the child is suffering abuse or neglect at home. A child may be distracted at school because her parents are fighting at home or getting a divorce, or because she stays up late texting her friends and doesn't get enough sleep.  The more that educators adapt a new and more realistic conception of ADHD by looking at the child's whole living environment, the better will our children be served by the educational system. 

*Interestingly, one author of this study is psychiatrist Allen Francis, M. D., lead author of the DSM-IV in which ADHD was presented as a childhood mental disorder. Evidence-based research on ADHD seems to have changed Dr. Francis' mind. 

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

For more information on ADHD attend Dr. Wedge's webinar on September 12, 2017. For more information or to register, click here

Marilyn Wedge is the author of "Why French Kids don't have ADHD" which now has more than 16.1 million views.

References

Sanne te Meerman, S., Batstra, L., Grietens, H., & Frances, A. (2017). ADHD: a critical update for educational professionals. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 12(sup1), 1298267, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17482631.2017.1298267