The Natural Alternatives To Ritalin And Adderall
One might expect an article on this topic to mention an educational setting, specific nutrients or perhaps even a time-honored folk remedy for ADD/ADHD children, all of which will be mentioned later in this article. Such treatments, as well as the standard pharmaceuticals, Ritalin and Adderall, all start with the basic assumption that a child has a problem that needs fixing.
However, it is first necessary to turn the camera 180 degrees and take a look at the adults and the society that would perceive an active, energetic young child as an ill misfit and give him a drug that is chemically very similar to street drugs. Just like cocaine, Ritalin raises levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that facilitates concentration and confidence. But Ritalin is actually classified as an amphetamine and is a stimulant like other amphetamines, having a concentration-enhancing effect on children. Ritalin is not widely considered to be addictive, but once a Ritalin prescription is begun, a child often shows even less ability to concentrate without it, and thus the dependence is established.
Numerous writers on the subject agree that Ritalin is overprescribed and that it is used to avoid having to deal with bigger questions about our culture and our values. The amount of Ritalin consumed in the U.S. has more than tripled since 1990, with some young adults now using it too, and often sharing it recreationally as a party drug. As a dopamine-enhancing agent, Ritalin has to some extent replaced two other major dopamine boosters of the past now in disfavor: cocaine and nicotine.
David Nylund argues in his book Treating Huckleberry Finn that in our era, neither Tom Sawyer nor Huck Finn would escape a Ritalin assault on their brains, because it is we grown-ups, not boys, who have changed. In Ritalin Nation, the psychologist Richard DeGrandpre points to our society’s addiction to speed, in the sense of cell phones and video games and fast, tailgate driving and TV shows that splice together images at hundredth-of-a-second intervals as relentless forces that have helped to create both ADHD and Ritalin. Neuropsychiatrist Sydney Walker in his book The Hyperactivity Hoax also refers to attention disorders and Ritalin as “symptoms of modern life, rather than symptoms of modern disease.” Given that fast pace of a child’s home life, sending a child to a desk where he is expected to sit down and be quiet all day and passively absorb whatever his teacher’s curriculum has dictated for that day’s lessons is not a very realistic expectation for any child, except those eager for a break from the breathless pace of their electronic world. For a young healthy boy with no physical pathology to slow him down, such monastery-like expectations must be unbearable. I know it was difficult for me, even as a young girl, even without the testosterone jet fuel. Not surprisingly, three times the ADHD diagnoses are given to boys as to girls.
Now let’s zoom the lens in on our society and our values. What is it about childish impulsiveness and particularly boyishness that makes the grown-ups cranky? Is it the unspoken agreement that kids can be controlled best by drugging them? Is it the desperate desire for those rascals who would otherwise be running through the halls raising heck to just walk nicely to their classrooms and sit down and shut up and “just behave?” After all if boys are just being boys and tossing each other’s schoolbooks into the drinking fountains, doesn’t that mar an otherwise orderly campus and belie the dignity of the academic experience?
The goal-oriented adult would probably answer yes to most of these questions. But it still does not mean that our society must abandon its constitutional commitment to civil liberties and non-violence by forcing brain-altering drugs on its youth. There are other ways to approach the dilemma.
Quiet Achievers vs. ADHD
To begin, let us broaden our perspective of accomplishment and industry by looking at the quiet achievers at one end of a spectrum and the ADHD kids at the other. Isn’t it a little odd actually that our very active hunter-gatherer ancestors ended up breeding such sedentary descendants that most of us can sit all day on butt-numbing chairs, grow flabby and focus for so long and so intently on the written page that just about any predatory cat could sneak up behind us and have us for lunch? Well, maybe that is a little odd, but we certainly don’t need to drug people like that. All we have to do is acknowledge and accommodate their quirks with the traditional classroom.
On the other hand, the ADHD kids are not comfortable with the traditional classroom, so why try to force them into one? Great creative minds such as Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner have devised other ways of learning, which have wonderful effect with ADHD kids. Rudolf Steiner started the Waldorf schools, where the classroom segues into real life as seamlessly as possible. Dr. Montessori, Italy’s first female medical doctor, gave up the practice of medicine in order to closely observe the learning patterns of infants and young children. She was the pioneer of the self-teaching classroom, where many different types of “work” are available around the built-in shelves of the classroom, and children take whatever work they need for as long as they need it. Teachers circulate to tutor one-on-one, or to give a brief group lesson to those children who choose to join and listen. Montessori observed that the attention span of a young child is quite flexible and ideally suited for the length of time required to learn a particular task. Children who have only been exposed to Montessori education since toddler age, and have chosen their own work that entire time end up with remarkably well-balanced academic development by the time of first grade. In other words, the skills that they have already mastered may call to them briefly now and then as review. But what really fascinates them is the task that is just a bit too difficult and that Johnny is already mastering and Janey already mastered and that demands their focus for a while.
And it works for older children with ADHD too. Thomas Armstong, Ph.D., and former special education teacher, author of The Myth of the A.D.D Child finds that for 80% of children labelled ADD/ADHD their symptoms disappear when they are interacting one-on-one with an adult or when they are free to choose learning activities that interest them and are allowed to pace themselves. Walking into such a classroom, one is struck by the quiet, focused industry of the children and would not guess that they had been labelled ADHD.
Unfortunately, Montessori and Waldorf classrooms are only becoming widespread for preschoolers, but such education has enormous benefit up through at least high school. Children finishing a Montessori elementary education are among the top performing academically of their municipalities, even on the standardized tests that are not familiar parts of their academic experiences. Librarians easily recognize Montessori elementary students in their public library. They are most often the ones asking for reference materials to write their research papers.
Just as our society is too quick to drug, it is too slow to spread the benefits of Montessori education. Still confined to mostly private schools and mostly preschoolers, Montessori-trained teachers and curricula are only now beginning to diffuse into a few public schools and to older children.
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Regarding nutrients, calcium and vitamin B6 supplementation have been used with success to help neurotransmitter balance and thus performance in ADHD kids. However, also keep in mind that nutritional deficiencies can easily spring from the same culture that gave us video games, microwaves and fast-flashing TV. In our haste, we heat up overly processed food for our kids, and skimp on the truly strong calcium bearing foods: raw milk and dark leafy green vegetables. Also, remember that supplementing vitamin B6 isn’t nearly as helpful as the entire B-complex, because the B vitamins work synergistically. The best way to ensure adequate B-vitamin intake is with a wide range of whole foods, and particularly the organ meats, such as liver and kidneys, where the B-vitamins are most concentrated.
Maria Montessori was not the only ADHD remedy to come out of Italy. A traditional Sicilian remedy for highly active boys who are on their way to a sedentary classroom for the day is a shot of espresso. A stimulant, but not nearly as brain altering as the amphetamines Ritalin and Adderall – coffee has the paradoxical effect of calming and focusing kids. A consequent addiction to coffee has to then be weighed against the introduction of a synthetic pharmaceutical that is almost identical in its molecular structure and biochemical effect on dopamine as cocaine.
But even more, the kind of viewpoint that marginalizes, labels and medicates the most energetic of our children should be brought into question. Bizarre as that viewpoint is, we should be able to imagine healthy solutions for it without drugging it.