"My ADD Child Would Play With Legos All Day"

In a recent conversation with a parent about our school, the parent commented that “My ADHD child would just play with legos all day.”

I found this to be a profound and curious statement, particularly because it was the parent’s reason why they would not choose a Sudbury School.  Wanting to learn a little more about ADHD, I went on WebMD to look up symptoms.  Here is the very first symptom that WebMD lists:

“Inattention may not become apparent until a child enters the challenging environment of school.”

I think it is telling that the very first symptom of ADHD specifically mentions “school” and that school is a “challenging environment.”  A recent survey in the UK found that more than 40% of teachers believe students are turned off to reading for pleasure by the time they finish primary school and 94% said kids prefer the internet to books.   
Let’s look at the further description of symptoms of ADHD:
“difficulty paying attention to details and tendency to make careless mistakes in school or other activities.”
There’s that word again!  “School.”  There’s another telling word in there.  “Careless.”
How many medical conditions are you aware of where key symptoms are location specific?  And when did making “careless mistakes” become a medical issue that needs to be medicated?

Here are a few more interesting symptoms:

-Difficulty finishing schoolwork
-Procrastination
-Failure to complete tasks such as homework  

I am not here to say that ADHD does not exist.  It does.  However, we must acknowledge that the environment that surrounds a child and the treatment they receive has a tremendous influence on their behavior.

Think if adults were required to participate in a traditional school environment where they had to:

-Pay attention to a teacher and try to learn what was taught for 6 hours;
-Have no freedom or choice as to what is taught, how it is taught or its relevance to your life;
-Have no freedom to move around or even go to the bathroom without permission;
-Be punished if you are late;
-Be punished if you talk;
-Be punished if you don’t continue to work on the subjects at home after school.

I believe most adults would not like to be in such an environment.  So why do we subject our students to it?

Back to the parent of a child with ADHD who said they would play with Legos all day.

How can it be that a child who has been professionally diagnosed with a condition characterized by inattention engages in a focused, attentive activity “all day?”  

Boston University Psychology Professor Peter Gray has conducted a qualitative study on students diagnosed with ADHD.  Among his conclusions were that most students who were medicated for ADHD in traditional schools were taken off medications when they were removed from traditional schools.  Also, many ADHD children have a high need for self-direction and many “hyper-focus” on tasks that interest them.  Gray demonstrates for us that changing the environment, changes behavior.  Given a self-directed learning environment, students with ADHD thrive.  

As well, Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences provides more insight for us into our young Lego-maniac.  A spatial learner who engages in extended spatial learning is not wasting time.  They are thriving in the act of learning and exploration that fits them best.  Is this not the sort of individualized learning suited exactly to the person’s strengths that we hope and wish for our kids?

At the most basic level of how we treat people, if we do not respect students as whole persons capable of making decisions and having valid emotions, then they react in the many ways that people react when they are not respected, not heard and not valued as thinking, living, breathing persons.  Things like procrastination, a careless attitude, and difficulty finishing work are commonplace if not blatantly intentional.

At Sudbury, we respect students and the choices they make.  We empower them to learn what interests them and they thrive because of it.  If your student is “having trouble” at school, begin with a few questions about the environment they are in before you take them to the doctor:

-Do they have any choice at school to learn what interests them?
-Do they have freedom to move, explore and make decisions about their learning?
-Are they respected as a decision-making person or are they expected to be obedient without question?

The answers to those questions will reveal much about your school and even more about your child’s reaction to that environment.  It will also help put into perspective the types of environments that support your child or frustrate them.

So should we let students play with Legos all day?  Or should we medicate away students’ strengths, instincts and desires?

I say, pass the Legos.

-Dave Soleil