Jewish Journal

Alternatives to Drugs

It is more important to educate than medicate.

by Rabbi Eli Hecht

Posted on Feb. 27, 2003 at 7:00 pm

"The world exists only because of the innocent breath of schoolchildren," attributed to Jewish sages, first century Talmud.

Recent reports of children as early as 2 years old receiving psychotropic drugs has me worried. How safe are Ritalin and Prozac -- the stimulants and anti-depressants for kids?

Somehow the unresolved question of their effects on a developing brain has not been answered, and yet, doctors are prescribing them to young schoolchildren. Daily school problems are now being addressed with drugs and more drugs.

Too many teachers are frustrated by being told to label children as Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or even to suggest Ritalin for problem students. They know that they have a "problem student" but they do not have the tools, as of yet, to deal with or recognize what kind of student they are working with.

Educators are being forced to make decisions regarding placement of their students.

Every once in a while teachers are faced with a student who won't fit into the class. It might be he or she lacks emotional or intellectual growth, or both. At times, the child is simply immature. Since teachers are not qualified to do the testing, since they are not trained in these fields, what can they do?

Teachers must ask themselves the following questions:

Why is the student having a hard time in class?

What role does maturity play with this student?

Is it plain boredom or is it a social, emotional or intelligence problem?

Most teachers are aware of these three kinds of students who may be doing poorly in class.

We perceive immaturity when children don't respond in a correct way. They do not have the tools to express themselves. They simply lack the social skills. They may, at times, be too smart and need smarter children to relate to, or they are average but need more time for child's play. In both scenarios, the child doesn't fit in well with the class environment. The child always acts out and frustrates the entire class.

The slow learner can't keep up with the class. The student might have many positive character traits but simply is lost in a class setting. No matter how many times the teacher addresses the student, the work is not done. The student cannot understand the instructions and simply cannot integrate the ongoing instructions and lessons being taught in the class.

The late bloomer, too, suffers from a lack of understanding of the schoolwork. This child might have good social skills; listens, but still cannot perform the needed class work. He or she never seems to get things right. You wonder what's wrong and what can you do for him or her.

Both the slow learner and the late bloomer will not get the work done, but have friends in class, while the immature student will get the work done, but not possess the normal social skills for friends.

Being smart and being sociable are two different markers for dealing with students.

Here are some suggestions that may help teachers deal with the three kinds of students

Being smart and mature are two unrelated markers, writes Dr. Louise Bates Ames and Dr. Joan Ames Chase, in "Don't Push Your Preschooler" (HarperCollins, 1981). It is possible that an exceptionally bright child may have more problems than a slower and not-so-bright child, they say.

"It is important for parents to appreciate that maturity and intelligence tend to be two separate measures or qualities," the authors note. "A child may be obviously very bright, that is, very intelligent, and at the same time be immature or young for his age."

If a child is immature, it does not mean that he or she is not intelligent. The term "superior immature" is often used for that child who is bright but young for his age. The superior immature child is one who especially needs protection from the parent or educator who would push him too early into formal schooling just because he is bright."

What we need is to be super sensitive to the superior immature students. The teacher needs to go the extra mile in providing guidelines for this child. If not, we could have disastrous results. The bright child gets into all kinds of trouble and shows inappropriate behavior.  This is because the student is immature and that is the cause of the problem. This answers the old question of 'if they are so smart then shouldn't they know better?' The answer is that they are not emotionally ready for a regular classroom environment.

In dealing with the slow learner we must be cognizant that the slow learner remains a slow learner all his/her life. They never catch up, repeating the same class for one or two years will destroy the student. As being bigger, older and placed with younger and smaller children destroys the self-esteem of this student. So what do we do?

What the teacher may need to do is address the student's needs now while remaining in the appropriate class. The school must provide a one-to-one instructor where the slow learner will learn, however, at his own pace. We must keep the child with his peer group-class at any cost. A teacher's aide or volunteer will be needed. The teacher will need to set different goals and tasks for this slow learner.

Is the slow learner getting the survival skills like reading and basic arithmetic? No amount of in-class or homework will take care of the above-mentioned concern. The teacher and supervisor will need to make the appropriate accommodation now while the child is in the proper age group and keeping his self-esteem. Survival skills must be the goal for the student.

"The New Dare to Discipline" by Dr. James Dobson (Tyndale House, 1996) states: "The slow learner is unlike the later bloomer in one major respect: Time will not resolve his deficiency. He will not do better next year. In fact, he tends to get further behind as he grows older."

The late bloomer is the easiest student to work with. There is an expression "what time does the mind doesn't." The late bloomer will bloom a bit later and catch up with his peers. He just needs some extra time. A late bloomer will unquestionably catch up and do well with his age and peer group.

However, it is the responsibility of the school and teachers to protect the student from being mislabeled as a "slow learner" that never catches up.

When teachers are aware of the different kinds of students, we become better teachers. By knowing the needs of the different students, we can help them stay in school and become a true asset to society and a joy to their parents. Teachers have the power to empower the student with self-esteem thus giving them the much-needed ingredient for success. Yes, each child has different gifts and it's our job to teach to the child's capabilities.

By realizing that a classroom has all kinds of students, realistic expectations are met. The teacher feels a real sense of accomplishment and when that happens, it becomes a win-win situation. Drugging them into compliance will only create a defiance of unprecedented proportions. America has witnessed so-called phenomena of violent students. Drugging our children has done little to alleviate violence in the schools.

In a book called "Reclaiming Our Children" (Perseus, 2001) by Dr. Peter R. Breggin, author of "Your Drug May Be Your Problem" (Perseus, 1999) and "Talking Back to Ritalin" (Common Courage, 1998), we are told that the violent youngsters involved in school shootings are usually under psychiatric care and prescribed medicine. Breggin writes that, "The most despairing and violent of our children reflect the underlying disorder of the society: the alienation and abandonment of our children. We must utterly reject the idea that the problem lies in our children's brains or bodies, or that we need to focus on diagnosing individual children. Instead, we need to identify the breakdown of relationship with our children in our homes, schools and community, and then to come together as adults dedicated to making ourselves and our institutions more able to serve the needs of our children."

It may be true that many children need medication, as do adults. But, I believe it is far more important to educate our educators to be sensitive to the students than to mass medicate.  We should have a whole-child approach in understanding the student before we prescribe drugs and label them.

I run a day care center and private elementary school. I have learned that children march to different drums. One of the ways we deal with problematic children is with a mentoring system. We solicit seniors and grandparents who are talented, but have graduated from the work field. These volunteers come into the school once or twice a week to spend a few hours mentoring children. They do this in a supervised area under the guidance of our school principal and teachers. Our methods of having the child overcome his/her so-called problem is by receiving extra attention and one-to-one instruction.

You can't imagine the joy we have observing the success rate between the student and their mentor. The retired mentor has a purpose and the children receive a great boost, enabling them to continue within the school system. This may be an alternative to medicating youngsters.

Let's keep the innocence of children alive by providing them with the rich opportunities of sensitive teachers and safe schools.   

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