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ADHD: Is it all in our heads?

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Join in on a discussion on the country's ADHD epidemic


Forty years ago, people didn't know about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, says Adam Rafalovich, a sociology professor at Pacific University. But if they had, he's sure he would have been immediately medicated.

Rafalovich had trouble sitting still in school, was bored with desk work and always pestered his classmates.

Back then, children who liked to get up to grab things, move around or explore were seen as problematic and treated as disciplinary problems, he said. But in recent decades these behaviors have been "medicalized," meaning they're now treated as an official medical issue, he said.

Ravalovich will be part of a Pacific University panel discussion and question-answer session on "Are Boys Disadvantaged in the Classroom?" They will look at the disproportionally high rate of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in boys and explore educational policies and practices that could negatively impact students. The event is free and open to the public at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, in Marsh Hall. ADAM RAFALOVICH

In his book, "Raising Cain," Dr. Michael Thompson reports that boys are more often found at the bottom of academic rankings than girls. Panel members will discuss whether the high rate of ADHD diagnoses in boys relate to their lower academic performance.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP)show boys are more likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD than girls, with a diagnosis of 13.2 percent in boys and 5.6 percent in girls.

And the United States has the highest ADHD diagnosis rate by a long shot, according to Rafalovich, who thinks that's partly because it's easier for educators with classrooms bursting at the seams to deal with active, disruptive children when they're subdued by medications.

The CDCP lists treatment methods for kids showing signs of ADHD as young as preschool age.

"We mandate compliance in our classrooms," Rafalovich said.

In addition, pharmaceutical companies make billions of dollars on ADHD medications. And the American Psychiatric Association is fighting to stay relevant with psychopharmacology, the foundation of psychiatric clinical practice.

Rafalovich said most ADHD cases are treated solely with medications, not therapy. MARK BAILEY

Less than one in three children with ADHD are treated with both medication and behavioral therapy, the preferred treatment, according to the CDCP.

While there is no doubt that medications change the behavior of children, the question for Rafalovich is not whether it's possible to change kids' behaviors but whether it's right.

Rafalovich goes so far as to question whether ADHD is actually a disorder or whether it's just that different people behave, learn and think differently, he said. Perhaps "it's a simple difference in personality."

Common and normal behavior for young boys often becomes problematic when they're forced to sit still in the classroom and learn passively, the professors say, resulting in an ADHD diagnosis for many. "I was one of those kids," said Rafalovich. "I'm an advocate for active children who approach life in a kinesthetic way."

The question has become not what can be done to help these kids learn effectively, but "What can we do with them or to them so that they fit the school social structure?" said Mark Bailey, an education professor at Pacific.

But there's even more to it than that, Bailey said. At the very age when educators and parents should be fostering a love of learning in young kids, students instead start to hate school and "the structures they're forced to endure."

Rafalovich will be addressing the reality that an increasingly smaller percentage of boys are choosing to go on to higher education after high school.

With limited resources, a "one-approach-fits-all learning method" and a forced emphasis on testing, teachers do not have the time or environment to accommodate all learning styles, the professors agree.

"We shouldn't be structuring students so they're ready for schools, we should be getting schools ready for the diversity of students," Bailey said. "The social organization of schools is so that kids sit, learn and study. It doesn't accommodate the needs of children."

Schools are set up around the passive absorption of information, he continued. This often creates problems for boys, who generally learn and play more actively than girls.

Rafalovich hopes Wednesday's panel discussion will spark some solutions to what he believes is a harmful trend.

Bailey believes "we have to change the manner in which we structure schooling and support teachers."

Come prepared with questions. Refreshments will be served.