It's 7:45 A.M. and I'm sitting in a classroom and facing a skeptical 7th grade teacher. Our focus is Joey, an ADHD student who also gets depressed during the winter months, perhaps because of the seasons and perhaps because of school. Thus, there are two reasons for his not completing homework, forgetting his assignment book, writing assignments on any scrap handy, and generally avoiding his responsibilities. (1)
She is as determined and proud as I am and perhaps a bit defensive, given the two years of tension between this student's parents and the school. So, I agreed with her chief principles. He's in that school as much for the ethical and social climate as for academics; RESPONSIBILITY is a virtue. She moved in my direction by moving him to the front of his class of 20; he got a distinctive assignment book so that she can easily tell that he's writing things in it. She also agreed to a peer-coach at the end of the day to verify assignments. And she also agreed to interrupt his random reveries by asking him, "Please tell me what I just said," or "Please explain this in your own words to the class." Prozac had long gotten him to the point of socializing more with schoolmates and to participating more. He was ready for the extra structure. (He rolled his eyes but laughed when I later explained what I had done to him. "I can't daydream anymore!") His teacher, however, knowing of the medication, earlier took it as a sign of his fragility and avoided calling on him unless his hand was up.
My next step, that of encouraging some understanding and teamwork was more difficult. ADHD can be an excuse for people wanting some slack. Paradoxically, this is the one handicap where less slack and more immediate, predictable, relevant consequences are the effective step.(1)
I opened with "Impulsive minds are focused in the present and do not anticipate delayed outcomes. Thus, he doesn't appreciate the impact of his skipping work on his own outcomes." (I didn't mention ADHD here but slid into an evolutionary model.) Such children would have been eliminated by nature (Catholic school; evolution is OK according to the Pope) if it were not for parents. Parents are the child's prosthesis, his wheelchair for travel into the future. We adults have a better sense of the future (Thanks Bronowski!); we become the child's extended adaptations that assure his survival. Thus, we parents are designed (didn't mention by whom) to respond to childrens' needs, whether expressed by vocal quality or by avoidance or harm from impulsiveness. At this point, she was agreeable and offering even further assistance. We disengaged, the meeting was over.
My mind, however, continued.
I, Joey's parents, and his teacher are his "egg," his environmental shell that supports his development. The roles are comparable to those between DNA and the rest of the egg. (DNA is an egg's way of producing more eggs?) We are also an expression of his extended phenotype (2); certainly, adults rear children but do so because adults are exquisitely sensitive to children's distress.(3)
Influence does not operate unilaterally between any of us. The same mutual regulation seen in Joey's family appears in chemical reactions, between neurons in petri dishes, the group behavior of ants, and traffic flow on a highway. Even the maples I transplanted grew tall and lean or short and bushy as a function of proximity to light and to other maples. Thus, Goodwin's discussions of "excitable fields" and oscillatory phenomena appear to apply to relations between adults and children as well.(4) In this light, parents and children become co-evolved systems, each supporting the ontogeny as well as the reproductive success of the other.
1) Homework can be useful; for many teachers however, it is a trial of wills and of dominance. The cover story is that homework teaches RESPONSIBILITY in much the same way that studying Latin taught DISCIPLINE and ORGANIZATION. How hardy the social learning weed! It mutates and adapts just as a living thing.
2) Russ Barkley has recently come to this position as well. Given his charisma and great following by parents of ADHD children, he should have some impact; I have personally been seen as "mean" for reaching this conclusion. See Barkley R (1997) Update on a Theory of ADHD and Its Clinical Implications, ADHD Report, 5(4), 10-16.
3) Kids have power, lots of it. I worked with an 11 year old with significant anxiety problems in relation to school. We tried the "we're the adults, we're in charge" tactic for a while. He flexed his emotional muscles and quit eating; we surrendered.
4) See Dawkins R, The Extended Phenotype, for a discussion of how beaver dams are an expression of genes just as much as the beaver is.
5) Goodwin B (1994) How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, NY: Simon & Schuster.