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August 11, 2008

Olympian Michael Phelps and Preschool - (an ADD Story)

Phelps_article_2 When does a deficit become a strength? When does who a child is become more important than society's norms? When and how do we decide if a child, especially a pre-k student, needs a medical intervention for behavior? When does a bunch of energy become "too much" energy for a parent or a teacher?

My beautiful wife told me about an interview with Olympian Michael Phelps' mother in the New York Times. It was arranged by a pharmaceutical company that Ms. Phelps is representing as a "celebrity mom" of a person who grew up with Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder or ADD . The strange thing is that Michael never took the drug company's medication. He was, however, on Ritalin for two years from age 9 to age 11. Then Michael and his mother decided he didn't want to be on it anymore. His mom, a teacher, listened to the advice of his doctor and teachers who identified his lack of focus and attention in school as ADD. The "signs" were identified early.

Starting with preschool, teachers complained: Michael couldn’t stay quiet at quiet time, Michael wouldn’t sit at circle time, Michael didn’t keep his hands to himself, Michael was giggling and laughing and nudging kids for attention.

As he entered public school, he displayed what his teachers called “immature” behavior. “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus,’ ” recalled Ms. Phelps, who was herself a teacher for 22 years. The family had recently moved, and she felt Michael might be frustrated because the kindergarten curriculum he was getting in the new district was similar to the pre-K curriculum in their old district.

“I said, maybe he’s bored,” Ms. Phelps recalled saying to his teacher. “Her comment to me — ‘Oh, he’s not gifted.’ I told her I didn’t say that, and she didn’t like that much. I was a teacher myself so I didn’t challenge her, I just said, ‘What are you going to do to help him?’ ”

In my years as a pre-k teacher I have encountered true ADD only a handful of times. Every time a child I taught was put on medication it was because the parent couldn't handle a kid, not because I couldn't. Often parents have asked me, do you think she needs medication? I always have to say I don't know, she seems to be able to learn just fine. There are some things about ADD and attention that we confuse when we talk about learning. When we look at the description of Michael's pre-k experience, his learning is never an issue. It is only behavior when he is not learning and how he affects other kids that is an issue for the teacher. Many times teachers confuse attention with learning. When we move our perception of learning from what kids do to what kids know as shown on age appropriate assessments, then we take the child's "behavior" and separate it from learning.

When Michael's mom told his teacher, "Maybe he’s bored,” the teacher was offended. She thought that if he was bored, then he was not within the range of normal child development. That he couldn't be bored unless he was gifted. This isn't the way it works. As many pre-k teachers can tell you, active learners need to be engaged physically and intellectually. Michael's mom mentions that in Kindergarten, the curriculum was similar to the pre-k curriculum Michael had just completed. This happens to children who are in pre-k all over the country. When a child leaves my class knowing all 26 upper-case letters, lower-case letters, and letter sounds and then goes to Kindergarten with kids who don't have any of these skills, the teacher can't stretch far enough to keep up the accelerated pace pre-k students expect. Many times pre-k kids expect appropriate teaching as well, which may include center work, gross motor learning games, and alternated active and passive learning through out the day.

So here are the questions at hand:

If you teach pre-k or have a preschooler, when and how do you decide that normal energy is and what is ADD? What are some steps to take before medication? What has worked and what hasn't? What is the difference between ADD in girls and boys? Finally, when is the teacher or the school at fault for creating the circumstances where a child is not successful and when is a child's behavior so "out of the ordinary" that it prohibits success in the classroom? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Photo from: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/46251-michael-phelps-gets-second-gold


Sometimes it's not the content, but how it's stated, that can offend. As an ex-teacher and an adult with AD/HD I agree that it is possible that he was bored, but when you say that to a teacher, it can be taken very personally. perhaps a better comment or question might have been to say, "I wonder if maybe he needs more activity? As a teacher, how would you suggest that I provide that for him?" People are much more engaged when you suggest that they could work in partnership with you as part of the solution, especially when you acknowledge their expertise (oh, by the way, I'm a counselor now, does it show?)

Thanks for your comments Misty. I think you have had an interesting experience that might help the readers of this blog. Can you tell us more about what it was like for you in school as a child, as teacher, and as a counselor? What are some of the myths about ADD/ADHD that need to be debunked for teachers to understand all kids better?


Thanks for the timely piece and welcome to the Pre-K Now blogging family.

I agree with your points and would just add that when teachers take objective and detailed anecdotal notes on an ongoing basis, they are better able to identify and to meet the needs of each child. Teachers have more constructive discussions with families and can differentiate instruction when they stay on the pulse of each child's interests, personality, strengths, and weaknesses. Family members are more trusting and open to suggestions when they see that teachers are committed to painting a full and accurate picture of their child. A Phelps type child may just need a different instructinal approach and not medicene, but teachers can't make an appropriate diagnosis without insight into how that child behaves and responds throughout the day.


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