I Fear For My Students: The Culture of Adderall

Adderall abuse is a symptom of a much larger problem.

Posted Mar 07, 2013

This morning I read a piece in the NY Times about the college culture of Adderall use.  It followed an earlier one a few weeks before.  

Adderall is a drug prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  It is an invaluable help for people who have extreme difficulty focusing their attention or staying still.  I had a student with ADHD in my college class who had forgotten to take his meds begin rocking uncontrollably back in forth in his seat.  He was always physically energetic with a mind that was constantly darting from one topic to the next.  That was his calm, medicated state.  Without the drug, this student could not sit still and was both physically and mentally uncomfortable.  His medications were a godsend to him.  There is no question to me that medications are incredibly helpful to people who need them.

The problem with Adderall is that, short term, it would help ALL of us.  Adderall is a performance enhancing drug.  And it works.  It is an amphetamine, providing those who take it with increased energy and concentration.  It helps keep you on task and allows you to stay focused.  In conjunction with decent preparation, ability, and hard work, it will help you get straight A's.  

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I work at one of those 'highly selective liberal arts colleges' that are filled with ambitious, often driven, students with excellent high school grades, burgeoning resumes filled with impressive internships, and test scores so high that the 80th percentile is considered only marginally acceptable.  Many of my students speak more than one language fluently.  Most of them play instruments or are involved in the arts.  They are a very accomplished group.  

These students sincerely want to do well.  And by 'well' I mean that getting a B is considered a failing mark.  They are convinced - absolutely convinced - that if they do well enough in college, they will graduate and go on to get a good job.  Many of them hope to go on to graduate school, where good grades are even more important.  Probably half of them hope to be clinical psychologists.  As we constantly remind our Psychology majors, clinical psychology graduate programs are more competitive than med school, and a 3.8 cum is not considered high.  You need research - preferably published research - as well.  Our students try to hit that mark.

Our students have been trained to think that hard work and incredibly impressive resumes are what will lead them to happiness.  That's what got them into the college of their choice.  That's what the American Dream is all about.  Work hard.  Get ahead.

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But I worry for them.  I am a developmental psychologist.  Developmental psychology has three main foci.  We study normative development: how all of us follow similar patterns of age related changes.  We also study individual differences: how within a group of 5 year olds - or college students - there are large indvidual differences.  

Developmental psychologists also study differences in trajectories: individual differences in the speed and patterning of change over time.  

In baby books, you can read about 'milestones of development'.  Infants learn to smile at 4 weeks, sit at 6 months, crawl at 8, and cruise at 12.  That is normative development.  Many parents take pride in the fact that their baby walks or talks or learns to read early.  

But the truth is, it doesn't matter.  Learn to walk to 4 months, 6 months, 8 months, 14 months and by age 2, all normally developing children walk - and walk equally well.  

That's what bothers me about what seems to be the increasingly high pressure and high stakes world of adolsecence.  We are expecting all children to march through their adolescence at exactly the same time and hit those developmental milestones at the same age.  And not just 'manage' and learn and get by at those ages.  EXCEL at those ages.  All of them.  

We recognize that individual differences are caused by differences in natural ability (they are).

We fail to recognize that individual differences are also caused by differences in when those abilities are expressed.

I am a developmental psychologist as well as a professor.  I believe in my heart and soul that we grow through struggle - in a balance between maximum challenge and in an environment of maximum support.  I believe that Vygotsky is right: we develop in that area between what we can do now and what we can do with struggle and assistance.  In this zone of proximal development, we move beyond the comfort zone of what we can do well and into areas where are skills aren't quite up to the task.  We need to LEARN.  

This is the zone where growth occurs.  Learning in the zone of proximal development is not the time for maximum performance.  We know we've mastered something when we perform well all the time.  We know we're learning when our performance is better than it was - we're doing new things - but not doing them well yet or consistently or without effort.

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The belief of students - perhaps the correct belief, I don't know - that they need to perform with excellence all the time is harmful to them, I think, in several ways.

  • Everyone believing that they need to be 'the best' leads to a high pressure culture that is not good for anyone.
  • Emphasizing performance over learning means students are encouraged to play it safe rather than to push themselves to do better in areas they have not yet mastered.
  • A narrow focus on 'excellence' defined as peak performance all the time leads to a culture where taking Adderall or other 'smart drugs' seems like the only smart thing to do.

We ignore development.  

I recently had a student in my office who was failing my class.  Failing, in fact, for the second time.  He was getting A's on every exam.  He could not remember to turn in his homework or stay organized enough to get his assignments in on time.  It was killing his grade.  It is, in fact, the same problem my middle schooler, my elder son, and I had in school.

He asked for a tutor, which he doesn't need.  I offered to think about modifying the grading criteria for him in some way that recognized his accomplishments and was equitable to other students.  He refused, saying he wanted to learn to overcome this problem (a position I admire.)

I sent him to a specialist at our school who will help him learn to get organized.  I showed him some of the ways that I try to help myself stay on track.  I taught him to subscribe to our class calendar so reminders will show up on his phone to do his homework and how to use his calendar to build in his own reminders.  I recommended a book I read recently that I thought offered some useful strategies for getting things done.  I suggested a course the college offers that other students told me was invaluable in gaining these skills.  He looked like a drowning man who some had thrown a lifeline.

I hope that, with struggle and support, he will develop the strategies he needs to take what seems like a huge amount of natural ability and meet the obligations in his life.

I hope that the pressure to do well does not push him to try Adderall on his own, unless a well-informed doctor makes a good decision that it is in his best interest to do so and monitors him carefully.

I hope that, when he does develop the skills he needs, employers and graduate schools will look at his early problems and what I hope will be future accomplishments and see that development doesn't happen at the same speed for everyone.  

And I really hope that people will realize that this is true for us all.  Development occurs over a lifetime.  It doesn't usually matter when you hit the mark. It matters where you ultimately wind up.

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Here is a quote from the Adderall addicted student quoted in the NY Times article:

"Look, I am in a culture that constantly justifies the means to an end. So how do we persuade people not to take it? All you hear is how impossible it will be to get a job when you get out, and you are going more and more into debt, and you think without this I won’t be top of the class. With other drugs you know you are ruining your life. But Adderall manipulates you into thinking you are doing what is needed to have a great life.”

That's why I fear for my students.

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Problems with organization?

You may like this blog I wrote: Keeping Your Middle Schooler Organized