Column: Schools Simply Don’t Understand Boys

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    Young boys play "Buck Buck" on the Philadelphia streets in July 1973. ( AP PHOTO / RUSSELL F. SALMON / THE Philadelphia Inquirer ) AP Photo / Russell F. Salmon / The Philadelphia Inquirer

For the Valley News
Published: 11/30/2018 10:19:50 PM
Modified: 11/30/2018 10:20:05 PM

This week The New York Times reported on a new study linking the sharp increase of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnoses to August birthdays. ADHD diagnoses in children have nearly doubled in the past two decades.

The link to August birthdays is related to the common policies of cut-off dates for kindergarten enrollment. In many states, children who turn 5 before Sept. 1 may enroll in kindergarten. Those born after Sept. 1 must wait until the following year. This results in August-born children being the youngest among their kindergarten peers.

The study found that August-born children, especially boys, were 34 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. An ADHD diagnosis is de facto subjective, dependent on observations of inattentive behavior, impulsivity and lack of focus. The authors conclude that these observations of ADHD behaviors were more likely due to the subject’s young age than to the presence of pathology.

The observation is similar to the well-publicized phenomenon in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Outliers. In this case, professional hockey players were found to be disproportionately likely to have early calendar year birthdays. Canadian youth hockey programs that feed the NHL have cut-off dates of Jan. 1, so those born in December are disadvantaged by being, in many cases, a year younger, smaller, and slower than their competitors.

The consequences of this phenomenon are more serious in terms of school enrollment than hockey aspirations. School is inarguably more important and universal than hockey, but also the developmental differences between a 5- and 6-year-old are far more dramatic than between, for example, a 13- and 14-year-old.

Over-diagnosis is accompanied by over-medication, which poses significant risks. Millions of boys are being medicated just for being boys. A 2014 study at Weill Cornell Medicine found that 10,000 American toddlers, ages 2 and 3, were being medicated.

Many ADHD children grow out of the disorder, making the epidemic of diagnosis and medication even more troubling. The over-medication is the product of a combustible duo — the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and unnatural school environments. As legendary developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote in 1987, “If you construct a classroom in which children must keep their seats, you are assuring that there will be a hyperactivity syndrome.”

The new study sheds light on the unintended consequences of arbitrary cut-off dates, but it only scratches the surface of a much deeper problem with education, especially for boys. Rather than design schools that respond to the wonderful, boisterous, energetic reality of children, we medicate some children so that they might conform to the unnatural and rigid expectations in most schools.

The design of and expectations in most schools are anti-boy. Schools don’t understand boys and thus see pathology when observing normal behavior. This is exacerbated when the boy is younger than peers, as younger boys are even less able to comply with unnatural expectations. Schools are generally bad for girls too, but girls are somewhat more mature and, generally, more capable of compliance and conformity. We don’t need to fix boys. We need to fix schools.

This parable from Zorba the Greek is apt:

I remembered one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited a while, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened, the butterfly started crawling out and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath, in vain.

It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand. That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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