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There is No Normal

there is no normal

I got a letter the other day from a special education teacher-to-be in Ohio. Reading my book Teaching the Restless was bringing up her concerns about certain things she had observed during student teaching sessions with several second-graders who had been labeled ADHD. She—I’ll call her Jane—mentioned the teacher’s intolerance of the kids’ idiosyncrasies and the fact that one little girl’s difficulty wasn’t a learning or behavioral problem; it was simply being required to sit still for such long periods of time.

Jane ended her letter by asking me to send her the syllabus from my “Ritalin free school,” as she put it, so that she could show it to her future principal at the middle school where she will be working as a resource room teacher next year.

Of course I was heartened to see Jane’s instinct for seeking the possible causes of the trouble not only inside the children she was learning to teach, but also in the critical and restrictive climate of the classroom. But how am I going to explain to her that the answer isn’t a change in the syllabus; that what is called for is a radical shift away from the educational and medical paradigms that gave rise to so-called “disorders” like ADHD in the first place?

Here’s what I came up with:

Dear Jane,

My heart always goes out to young teachers like you who are committed to helping struggling students under adverse classroom conditions like the ones you described in your letter. It’s not an easy thing you’re trying to do.

As for me sending you the syllabus from my school, I’d be happy to do it—except that I’d have to send you 60! Plus they aren’t really written down either. You see, here students each have their own individual programs that are unique to them and that emerge out of their particular needs, interests, learning styles, etc. Except for the phonics-based reading curriculum that we often use with dyslexic children who need carefully ordered, inch-by-inch instruction and a lot of repetition, we intentionally don’t predesign student “programs” because we want them to remain as flexible as possible—especially for kids like the girl you mentioned who had difficulty sitting still for very long.

The thing that may be hard for you to understand, given the factory training you’re just finishing up, is that labels like ADHD are the logical outcome of an extremely outdated educational model which views learning as a fixed, mechanical process that is the same for every child. The model is based on an equally fixed set of norms, which in turn are based on the statistical averaging of the developmental progress of millions of children, not on anything that actually occurs in nature. “Normal” children, that is, learn to walk at 12 months, talk at 18 months, read in first grade, do long division in third grade, and so on. Then the model concocts a bunch of pathological labels for the kids who don’t develop accordingly.

The reason I say that what I call the “conventional” model—because it is based on convention (how we’ve always done it) and not on how most children actually learn—is outdated is because current neuroscience, developmental theory, and psychology are telling us there is no normal. Different children learn and develop in very different ways, at very different times, and at very different rates.

And so in my school we occasionally have a non-dyslexic student who doesn’t learn to read until nine or ten and we consider it perfectly normal—for him. And then we find that when we don’t force children to read before they are ready and eager to do it, they learn very efficiently; and they also enjoy reading and do it often from there forward.

As for the other little girl you mentioned who annoyed the teacher by picking up ants during reading group, here we would probably ask her if she’d like to learn more about ants, which might lead to finding some good books about ants and maybe even collecting enough of them to build an ant house so she could study their behavior by observing them with a magnifying glass.

Both of your girls together remind me of an 11-year-old boy who came to us from public school many years ago with a host of learning and behavioral issues. Ethan was so restless that trying to get him to engage in passive learning exercises virtually guaranteed failure. But he loved animals of all kinds and being out in nature, and at one point he became obsessed with building traps that would capture critters without harming them. This led to a library visit (we’re talking pre-Internet) for books on trapping and trap design, long days in the school’s workshop building different kids of traps, and then trips out to the school’s land in the country to try them out.

In the two years that Ethan was with us, I don’t remember him doing much conventional schoolwork, but when he chose to return to public school for the 8th grade, he passed with flying colors. As an instructive aside, for English class he chose to write a book report on Rachel Carson’s classic, Silent Spring. His teacher wisely ignored the frequent misspellings in the report, which ended up being several times the required length, and gave Ethan an A+ because it was written with so much feeling and understanding. She proceeded to read it aloud to the class, telling them that it was the best book report she’d ever received.

Ethan telephoned me last week to tell me he and his wife are living happily in an old house they remodeled on fifty acres of land in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, and that he absolutely loves his job at the Department of Environmental Conservation where he investigates corporate polluters.

Which brings up the other thing I wanted to point out about the conventional model, the fact that it is deficit-based. The same is true for the medical model, with both focusing on what’s wrong or what’s missing. In the case of ADHD there apparently is a missing neurohormone, and the way to fix the problem is with medications like Ritalin that artificially increase the supply.

Meanwhile, the real way to help children like Ethan, as my little story clearly shows, is to help them to identify and build upon their assets.

Wishing you all the best next year,





17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Betsy #

    Very well put. Reminds me of a family member who was punished, in kindergarten, for humming/singing at her desk during “quiet” time. It was her way of soothing herself, I think, in the constraints of a conventional, body-adverse (meaning you can’t move around) classroom. She was punished so many times for this “behaviour” that my relative WISELY took her out of that school. She thrived in another school where real humans, with bodies and needs, could move and sing and act and be dramatic and expressive, which she was! She blossomed into an amazing actress and, mostly, an extremely talented soprano, singing at a very young age in very professional adult choirs and choruses. So much for labeling “bad” habits. If we could allow each human to follow their own lead, what a creative, compassionate world we might have. Thanks for your continued inspiration and thoughtfulness to the world.

    February 17, 2014
  2. Thank you for sharing a very nice site

    February 18, 2014
  3. Melanie #

    On my daughter’s first day of all-day kindergarten, after having three half-days the previous week, her teacher ripped up a smiley face I put in her lunch box because she was looking at it while the teacher was talking. Something’s very wrong with this system.

    February 18, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Your disturbing story really makes me angry, Melanie. Whatever happened to kindergarten as a garden for children as the originator Friedrich Froebel intended?

      February 18, 2014
      • Melanie #

        I don’t know, but I am so grateful for educators like you. I will continue to tell friends and family about alternative education doers and thinkers. The smiley face incident happened 17 years ago, and I still can’t forget it. I’m sure it will be etched in my daughter’s memory forever.

        February 18, 2014
  4. Hi Chris, Thank you for sharing this letter to a young teacher. I found it so helpful. I run a tiny school and we are trying so hard to live in the light of seeing children’s strengths, yet we are so often tangled in the shadows of fear-based what ifs and deficit thinking. I love hearing about Ethan’s story because it is so freeing to hear that he did well in middle school, and more importantly is doing well now, all without being forced to do much conventional schoolwork. It would be so incredibly useful to my coworker and I if you could tell more about the behind the scenes of teachers preparing their plans – I understand completely that there’s no syllabus, but what about guiding questions for teachers to discern a direction to pursue with a child? What about a focus for the day? How do you take observations and turn them into a plan for each child? I am thirsty for specifics of how other teachers prepare to engage in this wide open learning project, and I respectfully ask for your wisdom here! Or other resources you know of with this perspective on planning! I have been teaching in this way for 4 years now and I just have more and more questions. Which is as it should be. Love and Light!

    February 18, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Your questions are so important, Caitlin, that I think what I want to do is really spend some time on a response and then post it as my next blog entry.

      February 19, 2014
      • That is awesome, thanks so much for your time and consideration. I’ll stay tuned.

        February 19, 2014
  5. David Cox #

    Some of your ideas on education appear to be sound and you seem to have the students’ best interests at heart. However, your characterization and perhaps understanding of the neural mechanisms of attention deficit disorder is, at best, woefully uneducated. At its worst your inaccurate simplification of the manner in which medications work to facilitate normal reuptake of certain neurotransmitters, represents a dangerous trend among educators and pundits to disavow medical research that they have either not read or do not understand. I would not comment blindly on your educational practices (as many politicians will) because it is not within my area of training. It would be better for all if you gave the medical profession the same consideration.

    February 23, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thank you taking the time to comment on my post, David. I only wish you had explained your position on ADHD more fully, and I want to invite you to write a guest post for us some time. It would be good to hear from someone in the medical profession.

      Meantime, I also want to take exception to your jab that I was “commenting blindly.” For the sake of brevity because ADHD was not the focus of my post, I knowingly took a popular shortcut when I described how Ritalin works. I have been closely following ADHD research for many years — my book on the subject was published by Beacon Press and is in hundreds of libraries around the country — and am well aware that methylphenidate works by inhibiting the reuptake of norepinephrine and dopamine, rather than directly supplying these two neurotransmitters that play a key role in the brain’s ability to focus.

      The point I was trying to make, which clearly I did not back up nearly enough, had to do with the conventional medical model’s mechanical, deficit-based way of viewing the human mind and body. From your comment, which again I do appreciate, I can see that I need to devote an entire post to this complex subject.

      February 25, 2014
  6. June McIntosh #

    I allow my current 1st/2nd Grade Latin class to spend a great deal of their time making paper airplanes and carrying out elaborate battle scenarios. They are very nice children – very kind to me and to each other. I also bring in all kinds of stuff from home – cardboard, empty boxes, plastic bits, used tape rolls, duct tape, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, you name it. They enjoy making all kinds of weird things with these materials, and are very dedicated and focused in the execution thereof. Sometimes we do Latin while they’re busy making stuff. I wish they had more time to do this – not just in my class. They do learn a little Latin from time to time.

    Am I crazy?

    March 24, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      In a word June, no. What better way for kids to learn that Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres than by staging paper airplane battles. What’s crazy is preventing young children from playing, which is development’s primary vehicle for learning everything.

      March 25, 2014
      • June McIntosh #

        Reading Caitlin’s comments above…. I’m not young (in my 50’s), but this is more or less my first teaching job, so I’m totally inexperienced and inexpert. However, I did unschool my own 5 children (3 through high school, 1 through 8th grade, and 1 through 6th grade). I felt at the time like we were going to the end of a very long branch, and either the branch would break and we’d all end up falling into a pit, or else we’d reach the promised land at the far end. I totally understand the feelings of fear of failure and judgment, and I think what we need to acquire is faith in the children, faith in the process, and faith in the future. This is totally different from an abnegation of responsibility and involvement.
        Fired up by Alfie Kohn, I had a meeting with my 1st/2nd grade class (the ones who play paper airplane wars). Some of the kids are more into doing Latin also. I’d set up a system of earning badges, which they were into at first and then lost interest. After reading “Punished by Rewards,” this loss of interest made sense. So I said we’re getting rid of extrinsic motivation, which of course I had to explain. And I used the example: “What if your dad saw your mom giving you a hug and said, ‘Good job hugging your son! I’ll give you a token every time I see you hugging him, and when you have enough tokens, I’ll take you out to dinner.'” And the kids all thought that would be really, really weird, and I said well that’s the same as bribing you to learn Latin. I also told them that it’s perfectly reasonable for them to want to spend their days playing airplane wars and that some schools let you do that, and that children from these schools still grow up to be doctors and engineers and such. They didn’t believe me, but I said I knew all about it and it was totally true. I wanted them to know that the reason I’d like to do Latin with them has nothing to do with trying to make them into some kind of wordly success.
        So now I have the two girls learning Latin and looking at Pompeii ruins on Google Maps Street View, one boy making a “Roman Lab” (argh! glue and sand all over the floor!), so I talked him into using the glue/sand to make stucco, which the Romans used. The rest of the boys play airplane wars and construct things. The ringleader of the war boys (an extremely bright kid) said that I could give him Latin words for what he was doing and he’d repeat them. I said that that was not active enough on his part, and I didn’t want to be chasing him all the time and making him repeat words. So we opened up Whitaker’s words on the computer so he could look up words himself. He got the word for ship. Then he wanted the word for “car” which of course the Romans didn’t have. So he very wisely suggested we look up the word for wagon and use that. The word – plostrum – is also the word the Romans use for the Big Dipper, which was interesting. So I thought – well, gosh, two words plus the info about the Big Dipper is plenty for one class! And it seems that if you turn the kids loose, they come up with cool stuff to do – in other classes, e.g., there’s a kid making a Roman fort out of boxes, two girls working on an illustrated translation (with a lot of help) of into Latin, kids writing their own original (weird) illustrated Latin stories, a boy taking naps in the cupboard under the sink, and a non-reader 9-year old boy playing with cut-out Minecraft figures which he talked me into printing out for him and which have absolutely nothing to do with Latin.
        Sorry for the long spiel. I’m kind of obsessed.
        I may not be at this school next year – this may be my only foray into teaching (I have another business), but it’s been hugely challenging and interesting, and I have learned a lot, and it has radicalized me further than I was already.

        May 4, 2014
        • Chris Mercogliano #

          Great story June. Do you know about in the “Hole in the Wall” experiment?

          May 4, 2014
          • June McIntosh #

            Wow! I just now went and read about it online – amazing! And so encouraging!

            May 4, 2014
  7. Grest post. I’m dealing with a few off these issues as

    May 4, 2014
  8. June McIntosh #

    Thanks, Chris!

    May 4, 2014

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