The ADD Myth

Boys need more fun physical activities in schools to burn off their excess energy.

The postie arrived at lunch time with the mail at a little rural school in New Zealand, where I taught a few years ago. “Wow!” he said, “You actually let the kids climb trees!”

His statement took me by surprise. After all, I was a kid once and loved climbing trees just as much as any boy. I let my students do other ‘dare-devil’ things too—so normal to me when I was growing up. In my desk drawer I kept a tube of arnica for the inevitable falls and bruises and bumps.

Each time I rang the cow bell at the end of recess my students were usually breathless when they filed back into class. After releasing so much energy and getting the oxygen circulating in their brains, they were ready to settle down to concentrate for another hour. I therefore laughed out loud in concurrence when, during a lunch break later in the year and to a background noise of running feet and high-pitched squeals from a game outside, I read what Peter Giddens wrote in Eduvac: The Education Weekly in his column called the weekly rot: Rot? Representing Ordinary Teachers (2007):

A parent asked me about ADD. My response was not to climb on to the boy abuse bandwagon. “Leave your boy alone,” I said. “Let him be a boy.”

“But he can’t concentrate in class,” I was told.

ADD is the wrong label. My label for boys who can’t concentrate on poems and sing-along is simply ‘boys’ and ‘fairly normal’ too.

ADD is the label given for boys who struggle with concentrating. It’s not a disease, it’s a syndrome—a collection of behaviours that someone has decided is wrong. Another label we have for this behaviour is ‘bored’.

I was a bored kid at school. Circle geometry bored me almost as much as the cargo cult in New Guinea. The accusative case in Latin was boring and expository essays in English didn’t seem to hold my attention either. Photosynthesis was briefly interesting, but not as interesting as playing with the gas taps in the lab.

I tried to read Man Alone but…boring. Even PE wasn’t much chop. Dribbling a hockey ball along a painted yellow line wasn’t interesting. And that was thirty years ago.

Now that schools are even less boy-friendly, school for boys can be hell. It’s hard for school to compete with the pace and excitement of Gran Tourismo 4 on the Playstation, or surfing at Waihi Beach, or a full-on game of rugby, or… Trust falls lack thrill because you’re not allowed to hurt yourself. There’s no danger, risk, or excitement left in school. Health and Safety inspectors, ERO and internal assessment have made all the sharp edges round—and soft and pink and warm and loving and non-fat and high in fibre.

Thankfully there were no little pills to give the bored boys who didn’t concentrate when I was at school.

Pumping amphetamines into boy’s brains is bad. We’ve banned chocolate fish and pineapple lumps and unfiltered water but we’re OK with thousands of boys popping amphetamines.

These little calm-me-downs come with a teeny chance of causing the boys to have a heart attack. As long as the water is organic and the crayons are non-toxic and there are no traces of peanuts in the apricot yoghurt scented candles then the boys are good with their amphetamines.

Another option, call it the blokey-option, might be to give the boys a footy to play with, so they can run off some energy. Tackling should be encouraged and broken legs aren’t the end of the world. And maybe boys could read some blokey literature—Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and Tell me no lies edited by John Pilger.

There’s not many sleeps until the Christmas holiday.

There were many complaints after I rang the cow bell that I had cut lunch time short. The children’s faces were flushed after a close game of hockey. I told them that they had already had an extra fifteen minutes. You should have seen the surprised looks on their faces!

With all that fresh air and extra play time, my students happily reported on a questionnaire at the end of the year that their work had improved—especially in maths, story writing, and inquiry projects. And the youngest boy was thrilled that he could now read chapter books. They all agreed that school was much better without the bullying and fighting that had existed for years. One girl wrote: “The most important thing I learned would be simple ways to do maths and how to be happy without making someone else unhappy.

I have often witnessed that many children (more especially boys) cannot concentrate in class when they have too much sugar in their diet, are vitamin B deficient, or experience bullying, rejection, or disharmony at school. Neither can they concentrate fully if there is disharmony at home in the form of parental arguments, violence, bereavement, illness, parental or sibling abuse, or they have a health problem—either physical or mental (such as undiagnosed depression or PTSD).

And just think that if we actually took constructive action to remedy the more serious underlying causes for boys’ lack of concentration in class—besides (or as well as) their  boredom with the curriculum—we might just create many more sleeps before many more Christmases for many boys who felt that life was no longer worth a candle.


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