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Teaching the Restless: One School's Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed Paperback – January 15, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Mercogliano (Making It Up As We Go Along) has 30 years of experience in a "privately funded, freedom-based inner-city" alternative school for children ages two to 14 in Albany, N.Y. Half of the 50 students have had behavioral problems in their previous schools, for which medications such as Ritalin have been prescribed or recommended. The Free School doesn't use drugs, asserting that every child is unique, and that the school must be run as a true community with the emotional health not the test scores of each child paramount. At the Free School, children choose what they want to learn and where in the school to spend their time. Freedom works: "kids learn faster and more easily when the motivation comes from inside them [and] behave better when they are expected to be responsible for themselves and for each other." This is especially true for children with a history of oppositional behavior. When a child disrupts a class or disrespects another student, anyone in the school community can convene a "Council Meeting" of the entire school to handle the problem. While teachers, parents and professionals work surreptitiously to address more fundamental problems e.g., absent parents, harsh disciplinary styles at home, etc. the school community teaches children that behavior has very real consequences. This laid-back approach to academics, where teachers wait for the right "mental weather" rather than push children to read or do math before they're ready, may be hard for some parents to accept, but Mercogliano makes a strong case against medicating these children into submission.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
This book takes the controversial stance that medication is not necessarily the proper treatment for children diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD). The author, an elementary-school teacher, is very clear about his own point of view: "Many of the children in this country labeled with ADHD have nothing wrong with them at all." Most cases of ADHD, Mercogliano notes, are diagnosed in schools, not doctors' offices, and most of those cases, he believes, are misdiagnosed. Taking his own school (the Albany Free School) as an example, Mercogliano focuses on several children who displayed behavior typically diagnosed as ADHD. These informal case studies support his contention that a healthy, supportive, challenging school environment--and plenty of patience--is all it takes to modify the behavior of students with ADHD-like symptoms. For readers who question the ever-increasing prevalence of ADHD diagnoses, the book will come as a validation of their own trepidations. For supporters of biopsychiatric medications like Ritalin, it's sure to be viewed as irresponsible and unfounded. A recommended purchase for libraries attempting to represent both sides of a controversial issue. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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I read this book because I have a son who struggles mightily to cope with the environment of a traditional school (not the academics - he's way ahead in reading and math). I would love to have access to a school like the Free School (which is not free) and I'd desperately like to educate my son without the use of Ritalin. But I wonder how Mr. Mercogliano would explain the ADHD behavior of a kid like my son. My "Ritalin" child refutes every theory proposed by the author as to what causes ADHD. My son comes from an intact, peaceful family; he suffered no trauma as an infant and was breastfed (for a year) and nurtured by a stay-at-home mom. He has always been well-cared for by two affectionate, present parents. We are neither overly controlling nor negligent pushovers. He has never watched more than a tiny amount of TV. From the time he could walk, we spent almost every day out somewhere, engaging in active play, getting exercise and experiencing the world of nature and culture. We have a second child raised in the exact same environment that shows no signs of ADHD or any other brain difference. My son was clearly restless from birth and his symptoms are clearly not a product of his upbringing. Mr. Mercogliano completely ignores any mention of children like my son, who don't fit his theories and for whom ADHD is mostly certainly a biochemical, genetic-based condition.
Mr. Mercogliano's last chapter, "Conclusion", is especially weak. Although his book was published in 2003, he sites findings from a 1998 NIH conference to back up his views. Essentially, he was not even using the most recent scientific data available at the time the book was published. Now it is 2010. In terms of brain research 1998 was eons ago. I would not trust any book on the subject unless it was written in the last few years. Mr. Mercogliano is proud to make his bias clear, but why does Mr. Mercogliano even stray into this territory to begin with? As a reader, if I were looking for information about the root causes of ADHD, I would much prefer a book that uses up-to-date scientific studies and does a more thorough job of researching the issue of whether ADHD is a valid medical diagnosis. If you want a well-balanced treatment of that subject, go find a better book. It should not have been included in this book. Mr. Mercogliano seems to think that stating his bias outright makes him more convincing. I think it better to get an unbiased overview and form my own opinion.
In any case, the label "ADHD", like Autism Spectrum Disorder, is sometimes used as shorthand for a collection of behaviors and symptoms. Mr. Mercogliano speaks the truth in saying that for many children who exhibit behaviors on the list, the cause may very well be the instability of their lives. But it is ludicrous to apply that to all children who exhibit these behaviors. ADHD, like depression, is not a disease in the sense of having one agent that causes it. Like depression, for some people the cause may be life events, whereas for others, the cause may be biochemical in nature. And like depression, some may respond to alternative therapies while others benefit solely from medication. And yes, for some, medication may not be appropriate at all. Most psychiatrists and neurologists will also tell you that a child who does not truly have ADHD (in the biochemical sense) will become worse, not better, when put on Ritalin. In a way, Mr. Mercogliano is correct in rejecting the ADHD label applied to the children he describes in his book, mainly because all of the children he describes are most likely emotionally disturbed, not ADHD, kids.
Whether ADHD is a biomedical condition or not is really irrelevant to the question of how we educate these children. All children deserve an education tailored to their individual needs, if only the resources were available for that. Sadly, the Free School is actually an exclusive school with a waiting list. It also reserves the right to expel students that it cannot handle. In chapter eight, we learn that one young subject, Damian, continues to be out of control to the point where the author wonders, "Do we continue trying to rein him in, or do we send him back to the kind of regulated, highly supervised environment from whence he came?" In other words, if your child's behavior is too challenging, the Free School has the right to give up on him and boot him out. Unfortunately, public schools do not. Mr. Mercogliano fails to address what happens to children who do not respond to the Free School's methods, or, for that matter, children who clearly cannot control their impulses no matter what the teaching methods.
In any case, ADHD is about brain immaturity. No matter what the reasons are for ADHD, Teaching the Restless is right on the money about not forcing children to learn academics before they are mature enough to handle it. Children who learn differently should have choices beyond the traditional school model. Mr. Mercogliano should have stuck to that theme.