The Ritalan Generation: Why Do Some Children Fall Behind in School?

David Brooks has an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times about how today’s schools leave some children behind.

He points out statistics showing that boys are falling behind girls in school and he posits a theory that this is because our school culture has become too homogenous. He claims that contemporary schools only promote teamwork and collaboration, instead of also including competition and military values.

His theory is that a diversity of teaching styles could help prevent some of the more active children from falling through the cracks and acting out.

I like the idea of diversity of thinking and feel that always adds value. But the bigger issue for me has to do with the homogeneity of the courses and teaching methods in schools today. The focus on teaching to a test has required teachers to shy away from using less traditional teaching styles and methods.

If teachers were able to tailor their classes more, perhaps they would able to find alternative ways to engage students with different learning styles.

Another factor to consider when discussing hyperactive children in the classroom is the overuse of medication that has proliferated over the past twenty years. I wonder if this is a direct result of the inability of teachers to tailor their classes because of the pressures to teach to the test.

That direct correlation may be a bit of a stretch, but if we are going to talk about kids who are falling behind, we must talk about the impact of the overmedication of our youth.

Kids in my generation were not overmedicated and there was no pressure to teach to a test. We had plenty of hyperactive kids – in fact I was probably one of them – but without medication, we turned out fine.

That last statement makes me sound like an old lady, talking about walking three miles barefoot to school in the snow when I was younger, and maybe that is who I have become. But I think it is interesting to explore our cultural history in order to find a path forward.

I have a philosophy for the most part of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I am sure the education system had significant problems when I was younger, but it does seem to have even more challenges now.

I am not a teacher, but I know that several of my readers are and many parents also read this blog. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about this and suggestions for solutions to ensure that all kids can learn the skills necessary for future success.

What do you think? Do you feel like the culture in schools is homogenous to a fault? Do you think that this could be addressed, in part, by allowing teachers to have more flexibility in the classroom? How do you feel about the medications that so many kids are prescribed today? Do you think that hyperactive children are falling behind in school? And what suggestions do have to address this issue?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you for reading.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

How Micromanaging Educators Stifles Reform

Making Education Brain Science

Forget Them! What Do YOU Want to Be When You Grow Up?




Filed under Career Planning, Culture, Education, equality, Ethics, Parenting, Relationships, social pressures, Sports, Stereotypes, Youth Leadership

35 responses to “The Ritalan Generation: Why Do Some Children Fall Behind in School?

  1. I do agree that things are getting worse in the classroom — though I don’t know if “teaching to the test” is the cause of this. At the risk of sounding like a broken record (!) my suggestion is that we pay the teachers more so that teaching becomes a prestige job and attracts more and brighter people to the profession. I had a comment from a reader not long ago who said he wanted to be a history teacher but the low salary drove him away. We shouldn’t measure success and prestige by money, but we do. So we must be willing to spend more of our tax dollars to improve the teaching profession. (Hey! I know where the money is hidden: in the “defense” budget!!) I said it before and I will say it again: it’s a matter or priorities and teaching and education aren’t very high on the list of our priorities in this country.

  2. As a teacher, I agree with Brooks that expected behaviors in schools generally align better with female dispositions. The boys at my high school are behind the girls academically, which follows the national trend. We do have a Junior ROTC Marines program, that is VERY successful with many boys and some girls–this type of competition, intensity, and activity is a great asset to our school. From what I can tell, in most classes, there isn’t enough activity and hands-on learning to engage more students.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, as usual. It sounds like you have been one of the shining exceptions to the rule. I love some of the innovative methods you have shared here. For those who have not read his blog and who are interested inn thos topic, you should definitely check him out. He is doing great, creative outside the box work. Thans again for your comment and for informing the discussion!

  3. I believe that a lot of doctors are over-prescribing medications in general. Obviously it does a child no good at all when this happens. Instead, just the opposite occurs, it defeats the purpose. When it comes to educating our children I believe that the teachers should be given a new way of teaching the child with suspected ADHD. I don’t know what exactly….I’m clearly not an educator, but I do get it that a change in the current way of doing things is definitely needed.

  4. First off, this was a really interesting read. Even as a University Student I think school culture is homogeneous. At the same time though I think how teachers teach depends on the individual as well. If a teacher is a visual learner, they might incorporate visuals to their teaching style and it may not work with some students. So I understand that its hard to create a perfect balance. At the same time I find that for some young children what they study in school isn’t challenging enough for them which begs the question if schools go ‘too easy’ on their students. It’s all very interesting and it’s a good discussion. After reading your post it made me think about young children-especially boys and reading. I was at the Teen Section of my local bookstore chain yesterday and I realized that there are hardly any books that are written for young male teenagers.

    Also you might want to read this article too.

    • Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment and for passing along a new resource! You have a good point about teen books for boys. I never thought about that, but it probably would help to have more. Thanks again for the comment!

  5. Second thoughts: I think every teacher and parent who is seriously interested in what is going on in the schools should read Jane Healy’s remarkable book “Endangered Minds.” She has done a masterful job in pulling together data from numerous brain studies and her thesis is that today’s kids are really quite different from yesterday’s. They have more distractions and lower attention spans due to electronic gadgets. By the time they get to school the left hemisphere of their brains is already seriously impaired, making traditional learning techniques nearly obsolete. It’s not clear how to approach these kids, but I daresay Ritalan is a band-aid to help teachers cope. Their task is great indeed (I don’t envy them), but the problems all start at home with parents who are themselves too busy (too tired?) to spend time with their kids, read to them, tell them stories, and the like. TV has become not only the baby sitter, it is often the parent. Can you imagine anything more debilitating?
    After saying all that, I repeat: there are some extraordinary people out there performing miracles, but if we want to seriously address the problem, we need to attract the brightest minds in this country to the front of the classrooms — and keep them there. Finland does it, but we do not.

  6. I do believe that some kids are wired differently, but too often the immediate impulse is to medicate them into complicity. It is so sad. My husband is a teacher librarian, but he has been a classroom teacher as well. In one class of thirty kids he has had several kids who didn’t speak English, several kids with emotional problems, including one that was sexually abused by his father and who eventually sexually abused his little brother, and a couple of kids with learning disabilities. You can see why they might want to go directly to the last resort when having a better student-teacher ratio or counseling would be a better solution. Of course, there are lots of people who would prefer to cut necessary funding of education to the bone rather than trimming a teeny bit of fat from the profits of the richest people in the nation.

  7. I am so against medicating children simply to modify their behavior!

  8. Dear News,
    I am a former Montessori Teacher. Before getting my training, I had never guessed that the traditional school system had any flaws.
    It worked for me.
    What I learned in training, and also in my teaching kids in a combined 6-9 year old classroom, is that when individual needs for children are respected, this whole new way of learning opens up.
    I saw it..I witnessed all kinds of kids engaged in learning…because it was THEIR own individual system we were using. Not something imposed on them because it worked ok for the majority of kids.
    I never had to teach to “the middle”.
    Heck, *I* didn’t even do all the teaching. Often my older kids taught my younger kids better than I could have.
    It was a beautiful system….one I am so sad to not be a part of any longer.
    We moved, and my kids go to school, much like I did….in rows…with worksheets.
    But, I do my best to incorporate everything I learned when working with my kids at home.
    I think the system is failing. We fall back on what’s easy…and what we’ve always known. In my opinion..there are few kids that actually need medication.
    What they really need, is someone to look at them as a person…not as a member of the class. There’s a difference♥
    Great post!!

    • Thanks! What an inspiring and informative comment! Yay Montessori!! It is so nice to hear about a positive experience in school and about something that works. I have heard wonderful things about the Montessori schools. I bet you are the best mom with all that training!!! Thanks for the comment and for sharing yourr perspective!

  9. Drs. are very quick to medicate children. What are the long term affects? No one had the answer, therefore I did not medicate my son. Now that he is 17, I’m so glad that I didn’t. He still has moments with ADD, but nothing that requires being medicated.
    This is the reason I really LOVE the Friends School philosophy on teaching.

    • I went to Baltimore Friends and credit that school with making me who I am today, for the most part. Good for you for not medicating your child. I bet it is tempting when it is so common and doctors are saying it is OK. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

  10. I’m a little ADD…look there’s a bird! And I know it is now considered a disorder, but to me it’s a gift and I like the way I think differently and if I lived in a world of mostly ADD people, then those more linear and step-by-step thinkers would be the ones with the so-called disorder. 🙂

  11. Great post and comments. I heard Sir Ken Robinson speak earlier this year. He is one of the foremost thinkers on education. To Hugh’s point about spending more on defense than education, he sees the education issue as the greatest threat to our nation. He said exactly what David Brooks and you said above about tailoring the education as much as possible to meet the passion and learning style of the student. Since that is a challenge, that is why I started volunteering to tutor in an impoverished school. If we have more volunteers, we can permit the teachers to tailor more. With 30 in a class room, I am sure it is harder to do that. Yet, back to Sir Ken’s comments – it is a crises we need to deal with. And, I would like our best and brightest attracted to the profession.

    • Absolutely. Sounds like an interesting talk. The future of our nation really depends on this. Class size certainly does seem to contribute to the problem. And Hugh’s point about where we devote our resources is very relevant as well. I guess it will take a few different strategies to address this issue. Thanks for the comment!

  12. This is why I chose not to teach (I was a second grade teacher – briefly after college). I felt that the pressure to teach to a standardized test diluted the objective of educating kids. I’ll go a step farther – with teacher:student ratios becoming increasingly difficult and unwieldy, I believe that teachers have a harder time ‘reaching’ little boys. It’s a generalization I realize, and I apologize for that – but little boys are always antsy – they touch everything, each other, and need to be engaged all the time or they will engage themselves. Teachers are trying to focus on their required curricula, and half the class is poking their imaginations elsewhere. Who are you going to focus on? The quieter, more passive, compliant child – and they will get the substantive attention that supports academic success. Sorry for soap-boxing – this is a sensitive spot for me. Great post as always!

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  14. In the past fifty years (since I started Kindergarten), the education system has changed so many times. They try something new (like teaching sight words instead of phonics) and realize it doesn’t work so switch back. Those kids who learned by sight are then completely lost because they have missed the basics of reading. Then, something new comes along and everyone jumps on the band wagon until they realize that isn’t working either.

    Right now, in the school division in which I work, there is a ‘no fail’ policy. This can’t be any worse, pushing kids ahead who are not ready, pushing kids ahead who refuse to do their work because they know they’ll still move on with the class whether they actually learn the material or not. They are the ones who can be disruptive because they are bored or just not interested in what the teacher is trying to teach.

    Class size is another issue. Large numbers of students, including those with special needs who can be disruptive, those slow learners who are several years behind their peers – everyone is ‘included’. While, in theory, all children should be included, sometimes it just isn’t practical or conducive to learning for those who want to learn. Teaching in such situations can be very stressful and they burn out quickly.

    It would be great if all classes were taught the Montessori way, but there is that standardized testing thing that gets in the way, like you mentioned. It was supposed to be a way of measuring the quality of teaching. Instead, it has restricted the way a teacher presents their material so that success in the classroom is now limited to whatever is being tested with little thought to creativity and excitement in class.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your experience here! A no fail policy sounds like a real challenge! Maybe another change is in the air…? Thanks so much for your comment!

    • Great comment. The “no fail” principle is an abomination. Kids need to learn about failure and we need to be honest with them above all. They know when we are lying to them and “protecting” them from failure is a form of lying.

  15. Pingback: Helicopter Parents and Tiger Moms: Turns Out Neither Knows Best | newsofthetimes

  16. zayed

    My ex wife is a hardcore hypocondriac, I have a 12year old son who excells at school, even though he’s rather jolly and playful, judging ftom his school reports, one can easily see he is ‘a pleasure to teach’, however I’ve just been informed that his mom is now giving him Ritalan, please can you advise me if this is advisable and what are the side effects and long term effects of this drug? Is there a natural alternative?
    Also could you advise where I could get actual case study info from the trials when these drugs were tested.
    With all due respect to the genuine pharmacists, I personally am totally against prescription drugs, esp when as you say “if it aint broke, don’t fixit”…
    Please please please help me with this info…many thanks.

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