Friday, April 8, 2011

Blog #32 The Other War on Drugs

I think we might be losing the other war on drugs. More and more kids are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and put on stimulants to tolerate an increasing crazy education system and I have become less and less effective at talking parents out of it.

“It is normal for little boys to explore the world through motion,” I will insist.

“But the psychologist said his self esteem will suffer if I don’t help him with medicine,” the parents will counter.

Calling this situation the other war on drugs is not strictly accurate as it is more of a siege with growing numbers of parents ignoring their instincts and succumbing to the pressure to medicate.

The problem is that nutrition, cognitive and other approaches to support brain function work over a long time while stimulants or ‘speed’ work right away. Work how? That is not entirely clear, but stimulants do increase the speed of brain waves and distractibility is linked to excessive slow wave activity.

The brain has different types of electrical wave activity depending on what you are doing. When you are sleeping, for example, there is mostly slow delta wave activity. Concentrate on a calculus problem and there is more alpha activity. Theta waves are associated with semi-conscious, dreamy states such as when you first wake up. They are the next level of activity above delta sleep waves.

Drugs like cocaine and stimulates “speed” up wave activity shifting theta waves to an alpha or beta level. How can kids who are hyperactive have more dreamy waves? One theory is that they have to keep moving to compensate and concentrate. Here is the sticky point- all children have mostly theta wave activity until they are 6 or 7. This dreamy, unfocused state is normal developmentally. So when Molly or Erin or Stacey are pulling their hair out trying to decide if their 5, 6 or 7 year olds should take stimulant medicine because the school is saying their children might have ADHD, I know something is wrong with this picture.

No single human being should be asked to teach a class of twenty seven 6 year olds. It is not possible to do this successfully unless you drug into submission a big hunk of them. They developmentally are not ready to focus.

And it gets even kookier. One of the main diagnostic criteria for ADHD is the ability to concentrate on things that are not interesting to you. The part of the brain thought to be responsible for this function is the prefrontal cortex. Prefrontal cortex (PFC) dysfunction is blamed for ADHD symptoms but the PFC is the last part of the brain to develop. It is not fully operational until age 18 to 22. (Earlier for girls but on the later side for boys.)

The PFC gives you perspective and allows you to do the hard things. A well functioning PFC allows you to wait your turn when you would rather not and recognize the last time you ate two donuts for breakfast you felt lousy all day so you better not do that again. Heck, it is why adults can do their taxes even though they are extremely boring.

It is not suppose to be working very well at age nine or fourteen. Part of the cause of teenage impulse control problems is that their immature PFC does not allow them to truly calculate the results of their actions ahead of time. Kids are not supposed to be little adults.

But who has time to respect or wait for development? We need kids to behave in overcrowded, movement restrictive classrooms now. And the studies show this is exactly what stimulants can do for us.

Most parents think giving their children stimulates will help with academic success and improve self esteem but what they really do is work as a classroom management tool. The few studies done looking at long term use of stimulates found they do not improve standardized test scores but they help kids sit better, at least temporarily. Over many months any perceived changes appear to level off.

Teachers cannot be blamed because they are trying to help kids in a system that does not respect learning differences or even child development. Parents are told that if only their child could concentrate, they would learn. I contend that if only they could learn, they would concentrate. Unfortunately, the education system is broken and we are not going to medicate it into health. But, don’t take my word for it. Before making any decisions, check out this spectacular video by Sir Ken Robinson:
His explanation is spot on and his accent makes everything sound better.


  1. Thanks, Kelly, for an important post. I keep going back to my mantra of good nutrition, exercise, and sleep are what kids need more than anything.

    Amy at

  2. Thanks for this Kelly. What a terrific video. I think I heard those statistics about divergent thinking about 15 years ago. It was the beginning (8 years before having kids) of my homeschooling journey. The more I learn the more sure I am that my extremely active 8 year old would be medicated if he were forced into the typical school environment. What a shame for a bright, articulate, curious, independent thinker!

    Thanks again!