Book Review: Teaching the Restless

One School's Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed

by Chris Mercogliano
Beacon Press, 2003, 256 pages, $25.00

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Teaching the Restless is a sharp critique of schooling, child-rearing practices, and America's increasing rush to medicate away any perceived ‘problem' behaviors. In a disarmingly honest narrative, Chris Mercogliano admits his biases and presents his arguments through persuasive success stories about children who, in most schools, would have been “medicated to learn.” The strategies Mercogliano describes will not transfer easily to public schools, but he raises important questions about schooling and child rearing that should be considered by anyone living with or working with these children.

Over the past decade, the rapid increase in the number of very young children placed on Ritalin or similar psychoactive medications has been staggering. (Recent studies cite a 300 percent rise in the number of two- to four-year olds taking these medications and estimate that nearly 20 percent of school-aged children are taking these drugs.) Mercogliano's stories about nine students highlight some of the societal structures that may contribute to this alarming trend. Although Mercogliano frequently refers to psychological, sociological, and medical research about ADHD, the stories about William, Brian, Damian, Tanya, Gaby, Carl, Walter, Mumasatuo, and Mark provide vivid illustrations for his critique.

As both an educator and the parent of a child who was labeled ADHD, I share many of Mercogliano's concerns about the ways schools fail many children. Modern school practices favor those who learn best through linear, sequential methods based in reading or writing. Children who thrive on routine and can sit quietly and absorb information by listening or working on paper and pencil tasks are privileged in today's classrooms. Those, like my own son, who respond to novelty, need to be active and moving, and learn most effectively through hands-on activities or through highly visual, non-language strategies are often disenfranchised. Because our son was given few opportunities during the school day to engage in tasks that capitalized on his strengths and was repeatedly faced with repetitious tasks that required him to use his least competent learning modes, he became restless. This restlessness often translated into apparent distractibility, unfinished work, and disruptive behaviors. Our evenings were spent haggling about unfinished work, and our teacher-student conferences were too frequently unhappy discussions about all the ways he wasn't fulfilling the school's expectations. Although my son retained a fairly happy outlook on life, for some children this distress can escalate into defiance.

According to Mercogliano, disruptive behaviors may be the only way children have to let the world around them know that they are frustrated—not yet ready for the task, or not able to tackle it in the form presented. Instead of listening to their behaviors and offering different learning tasks, we label and medicate them in order to manage their disruptive behaviors, an approach that not only may lead children to view themselves as defective learners, but also may shut down their most effective ways of learning.

As parents, we agonized about whether to accept the recommendations to use medications, gave it a try for a while, but ultimately left the choice to our son. He didn't like the feeling of these medications, so we discontinued them. We tried tutors and other supports, and finally moved him to a private, innovative school, with some limited success. He dropped out, returned, dropped out again, and finally completed high school. We still look back today and shake our heads. He finally hit his stride when he enrolled in an advanced technical program in automotive and diesel mechanics. When given hands-on tasks working with engines, he could focus and learn very effectively. The public schools offered him few of these options.

Our son's problems were related to some of the other practices that Mercogliano critiques. Same-age groupings, for example, are based on an unfounded expectation that all children of a similar physical age will be ready to learn the same material in the same way at the same age. Public school teachers must teach large classes of children with wildly different skills, some from chaotic homes, ill-prepared academically, and ill-equipped socially to work cooperatively with others. Teachers are under increasing pressure to shape their teaching toward the narrow testing requirements of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act. These pressures mean teachers have little time to individualize work for students.

Unlike these teachers, Mercogliano has worked for 30 years in an innovative environment with plenty of support. He has taught for thirty years at the Free School, an alternative school in Albany, New York, that enrolls fifty students each year—preschool to eighth grade. The school's philosophy is that learning should start when the child is ready. Students are given a remarkable amount of freedom to set their own learning goals and choose the methods they might use to accomplish these goals, as long as they also take responsibility for following the few, but important, school rules.

At the Free School, students who have been unsuccessful in more traditional classrooms became active, engaged students, and Mercogliano argues that most students eventually learn most subjects quickly and efficiently when provided with various methods to master them or when they have developed their own motivation.

A case in point is Gaby, an artistic, imaginative student and visual learner, who avoided the structured, linear thinking associated with mathematics for most of her time at the Free School. As she was preparing to enter a public high school, she recognized that she needed to be competent in math skills to function successfully. Motivated, she mastered all eight years of math curriculum within one year.

The curriculum is individualized because, as Mercogliano says, “The school should fit the child, not the other way around.” As a result, teachers' roles are quite different from those in typical classrooms. Instead of a sequential curriculum guide and common lessons for all students, the teachers have time to provide generous individual attention to each student and create a lively and stimulating learning environment, with many different ways to learn the same material.

I found myself agreeing with many of Mercogliano's points. Because medication is overused and often inappropriately administered, our initial response might be to recommend that no one should receive medication for ADHD. Yet current reports from carefully designed studies indicate that for some children (and adults) medication in combination with other support structures can help them learn and work more successfully. The key question is whether medications help the student become an engaged, excited learner. Success in school should never be equated with docility and fitting in to society.