Blame the Child (Nov/Dec 2003)

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:49

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

Openmind November / December 2003


Dorothy Rowe

In Jonathan Calder’s excellent article on ADHD and Ritalin (issue 123) space didn’t allow for a discussion of the role of boredom and fear in the behaviour of those boys given the diagnosis of ADHD. When they are bored or fearful, both children and adults become restless and inattentive. We become bored or fearful in response to the situation we find ourselves in. Those professionals who believe that ADHD is a real medical condition seem little interested in the child’s situation the child, and in how that child sees that situation.

In the early 1960s before ADHD and Ritalin were invented, I was an educational psychologist working in Sydney. If a teacher felt concerned about the behaviour of a particular child I would be summoned to examine the child and decide whether the child had some emotional need which was not being met by the school. By far the majority of my referrals were boys aged between 6 and 14 who would not or could not conduct themselves in the orderly, obedient, hard-working manner which the teachers required. I was able to give the boys tests, talk to the teachers, and see the parents, often visiting them at home. A few of these lads proved to have what we now call special needs. Significant number lived in a state of unbroken anxiety, often bordering on terror. By far the majority were simply bored.

The education system was based on intelligence tests and state-wide examinations which determined which secondary school each child would attend and what course each child would follow. The child was expected to conform to the system, not the system to the child. (Sounds familiar?) My group of bored, badly behaved boys had scored IQs around average or a little lower on a group paper and pencil intelligence test. I gave each of these boys an individual test, the Weschler Intelligence Test for Children or WISC. This test gave two IQs, a Verbal IQ and a Performance IQ. The Verbal IQ tests required the kind of verbal abilities which the school curriculum demanded, while the Performance IQ required the ability to think non-verbally in terms of symbols, and of depth, distance and shape, all the abilities vital for engineers, tradesmen and sportsmen but not needed for the school curriculum. My bored boys did badly on the Verbal IQ test and well, often extremely well, on the Performance tests. They were caught in an educational system where every day they were expected to do what they did badly and be punished for that, but they had no opportunity to do what they could do well. No adult had had the wit to devise a syllabus where reading, writing and maths were combined, say, with the designing and building of a billy-cart (a fore-runner of the go-cart) or the creation of the perfect Australian cricket team based on the performances of batsmen, fielders and bowlers. Nowadays there are many teachers who could design such a syllabus, but there’s little call for such talent. The league table for schools is all that matters.

The other group of boys, the frightened ones, usually had parents who were still suffering from the effects of the Second World War, perhaps as ex-service men and women, or prisoners of war, or as stateless refugees who’d lost everything, home, family, even identity. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder hadn’t been invented then and the parenting gospel was still that sparing the rod spoilt the child. So there was no one to suggest that perhaps these wounded adults, far from caring for their children, were terrorising them with their unpredictable and dangerous behaviour. I was able to refer only a few of these boys to a Child Guidance Clinic. With most of them all I could do was talk to their teachers, try to explain the situation the boy was in, and hope that, out of their humanity and experience, they could fashion a place for the boy in the school where he could feel safe.

Families like those of the frightened boys still exist, and in great numbers. In the UK there are many families not yet recovered from their experiences in one of the endless conflicts that have been raging since the end of the Second World War. There are many families who have not yet recovered from the dreadful recessions and unemployment of the 1980s, and even more families are ravaged by the use of illegal drugs. Children don’t cause wars, or poverty, or addiction in their parents, nor do they fashion educational systems, yet adults prefer to locate the fault in the bored or frightened child rather than ask themselves what they have done to create such a world.