ADHD kids 'scapegoats' for stressed school system
Children labelled with ADHD and prescribed medication to curb challenging behaviour are scapegoats for the public education system's failure to be truly inclusive, according to a Queensland University of Technology researcher.
Faculty of Education PhD researcher Linda Graham said a growing number of children labelled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder were the real losers as under-resourced schools and teachers were forced into a funding play-off.
"Parents of children who can be described as 'hyperactive' or 'distractable' are under pressure to medicate their children so they can fit into an over-wrought, under-funded public education system," Ms Graham said.
"The reality is that education systems are assuming that one-size can be stretched to fit all".
Ms Graham said, while schools offered learning support services, many children missed out because of the way their difficulties in school were described.
For these children, she said, systems relied on teachers "plugging a widening gap".
Ms Graham said research indicated that teachers were often the first to suggest challenging behaviour might be the result of hyperactivity disorders, such as ADHD.
However, she said, teacher perceptions of child behaviour were influenced by factors such as class size.
"The load is lessened when difficult kids are diagnosed with something that qualifies for support funding or when parents oblige the school by shifting the problem to their local paediatrician," Ms Graham said.
"Often, the result is a prescription for stimulant medication and this is a band-aid solution.
"There are many 'different' kids out there but when they are labelled with ADHD, focus sharpens on behaviour and intellectual strengths may be missed.
"The problem is not that some kids are different in a fidgety, distractive way. At issue is how we deal with it."
Ms Graham said a child described as having ADHD often demonstrated all the characteristics of an "ideal citizen" in the modern world; being a quick thinker, adaptable and flexible.
"But when you want them to sit down and do worksheets, those qualities become a problem," she said.
"Disruptive behaviour does not necessarily indicate a problem with the child - such behaviour can indicate boredom, although it is rarely interpreted as such."
Ms Graham said ADHD diagnosis could function as an "escape clause" for schools, teachers and government departments, so society can keep pretending traditional schooling methods and structures were working.
"Through such a narrow lens, the problem is the child and never the system," she said.
The researcher said reducing class sizes to allow for creative teaching, increasing the number of teacher aides and having subject-specialist teachers on rotation to prevent boredom and teacher burn-out were all ways to help avoid behaviour problems in schools.
"State and federal governments need to fund schools and teachers in proper accordance with the value of education instead of spending yet more money on subsidising Ritalin," she said.
"Given that stimulant medication operates mainly during school hours, the million-dollar question then becomes: how many parents would still medicate their kids if schools were better able to engage and support them?"
Ms Graham is undertaking her PhD at QUT under the "thesis by publication" model, which requires researchers to have at least five related papers accepted for publication in scholarly journals.
Her work has been accepted by the journals Discourse and Educational Philosophy and Theory, The International Journal for Qualitative Studies in Education and The International Journal of Inclusive Education. She has also made presentations to the American Educational Research Association and the Australian Association for Research in Education.
Ms Graham was also recently awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia.
Carmen Myler/Toni Chambers, QUT media officers - (07) 3138 1150.