This is an excerpt from an excellent article by Peter Gray, one of the most respected researchers in developmental psychology and an exceptionally thoughtful writer. For the complete article see here. For Peter Gray's blog on Psychology Today see here.
ADHD and School: The Problem of Assessing Normalcy in an Abnormal Environment
ADHD diagnoses derive from schools' intolerance of normal human Diversity.
Peter Gray, Freedom to Learn, Psychology Today, July 7, 2010
Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, is a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology and author of a widely used introductory textbook, Psychology.
According to the most authoritative recent data, approximately 8% of children in the United States, aged 4 to 17, have been diagnosed as having ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The same reports note that the disorder is about three times as frequent in boys as it is in girls, so this means that roughly 12% of boys and 4% of girls have received the diagnosis. Think of it. Twelve percent of boys--that's approximately one boy out of every eight--has been determined by some clinical authority, using official diagnostic criteria set out by the American Psychiatric Association, to have this particular mental disorder!
If only teachers' ratings were used, the numbers would be even greater...
ADHD is Fundamentally a School Adjustment Problem
What does it mean to have ADHD? Basically, it means failure to adapt to the conditions of standard schooling. Most diagnoses of ADHD originate with teachers' observations. In the typical case, a child has been a persistent pain in the neck in school--not paying attention, not completing assignments, disrupting class with excessive movements and verbal outbursts--and the teacher, consequently, urges the parents to consult with a clinician about the possibility that the child has ADHD. Using the standard diagnostic checklists, the clinician then takes into account the ratings of teachers and of parents concerning the child's behavior. If the ratings meet the criterion level, then a diagnosis of ADHD is made. The child may then be put on a drug such as Adderall or Concerta, with the result, usually, that the child's behavior in school improves. The student begins to do what the teacher asks him to do; the classroom is less disrupted; and the parents are relieved. The drug works...
Why Do So Many Kids Have Difficulty Adjusting to School?
From an evolutionary perspective, school is an abnormal environment. Nothing like it ever existed in the long course of evolution during which we acquired our human nature. School is a place where children are expected to spend most of their time sitting quietly in chairs, listening to a teacher talk about things that don't particularly interest them, reading what they are told to read, writing what they are told to write, and feeding memorized information back on tests. As I have detailed in previous essays, during the entire course of human history until very recently, children were in charge of their own education. They learned by following their own inner, instinctive guides, which led them to ask countless questions (their own questions, not someone else's), to converse with others as equal partners, to explore their world actively, and to practice the skills crucial to their culture through self-directed play in age-mixed groups. [See Children Educate Themselves II: The Wisdom of Hunter-Gatherers.]
Schools' Intolerance of Normal Human Diversity
Why do some kids adapt to school better than do others? The answer to that does lie in biology--normal biology, not abnormal biology. For good evolutionary reasons, members of our species vary genetically in ways that create diversity in personality. People have always lived in communities, and communities--as well as the individuals within them--benefit from diversity. It is good that some people are relatively restrained while others are more impulsive, that some are relatively passive while others are more active, that some are cautious while others are bolder, and so on. These are among the dimensions that make up normal personality. In situations where people are free, they find ways of behaving and learning that fit best with their biological nature, and through those means they make unique contributions to the communities in which they live. Normal human environments always have a variety of niches that people can occupy, and people who are free naturally choose niches where they are most comfortable and happy, the niches that match best with their biological nature... More