Self-Regulation and ADHD: Misusing Shanker's writings and the Calm, Alert and Learning concept.

Self regulation is something I write about and teach all the time.  Right now, on my desk, is a lesson for a 7 year old on self regulation. We are going to use a book called "The Incredible 5 Point Scale" to understand emotions, and practice some CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) techniques to regulate them. It's a very simple lesson, but often very helpful for children with anxiety who over react to stressful situations. I also go to schools and demonstrate class wide (universal) techniques to teach and learn these self regulation skills. This is not new stuff, it's the focus of many of the programs in our schools already, especially for children with social-cognitive disorders such as Asperger's Syndrome or High Functioning ASD.  POPARD, the Provincial Outreach Program for Autism and Related Disorders has an excellent team of professionals who teach this all across the province.

So why am I so upset by the recent article in the Vancouver Sun about using self-regulation techniques in our classrooms?

Here is a direct link to the article:

Here is the part that scares me:

"Former education minister George Abbott echoed that view and predicted during an interview last month before he left the ministry that the project now underway will bring significant change to all 60 districts within two to four years. “This is hugely exciting,” he said. “I think it can reshape the way we manage the challenge of special needs in the 21st century.”

He expects it will move schools away from their emphasis on diagnosing a child’s special need, attaching a label — which may or may not bring additional funding — and developing an individual education plan (IEP). The goal, instead, will be for schools to make better use of groundbreaking neuroscience research on self-regulation to benefit all students.
“Let’s not be blowing our resources on trying — at often too early an age — to diagnose precisely what the challenge is,” Abbott told leading school officials at a self-regulation conference earlier this year. Regardless of what the challenge is — whether the child is the next Isaac Newton or has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — the strategies to help with learning are the same, he said."

Wow. So a subtext to this is to cut the waste of time we spend doing psychoeducational assessments, "Let's not be blowing our resources on trying -at often too early an age -to diagnose precisely what the challenge is."  This is in stark contrast to volumes of research on the effectiveness of early intervention, and the ability of most other jurisdictions in North America to provide early assessment and intervention, often BEFORE students enter school, to make sure they do not fall behind and have adequate supports.  But as he also notes, why bother, because these "labels" "may or may not be bring additional funding."

By the way, here in BC students, often students who have failed academically for two or more years, are placed on waiting lists to be assessed. They often remain on those waiting lists for two or more years! At the end of every year the waiting list is often reworked, and those with severe behavioural problems go to the top, so a student who almost got to the top this year might be at the bottom of the waiting list next year. Compare this to getting an assessment in Washington State. It take 50 working days for an assessment to be completed. Just keep this issue in mind as you read the article.

Mr. Abbott's most frightening statement is, "Regardless of what the challenge is - whether the child is the next Isaac Newton or has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - the strategies to help with learning are the same..." 

This is the most uninformed and misinforming statement I can imagine making. You use the same strategies to help a child who is "gifted" as a child with ADHD, autism, Aspeger's, a disorder or written expression, dyslexia....really? There is some research that supports this? You mean that all of the programs designed to address specific visual, motor, cognitive, auditory, and sensory deficits are ....the same? And I guess that means lets just stop with all this assessment stuff, stop wasting our time understanding the individual child, and apply a blanket procedure to everyone...because if children would just learn to "remain calm, be focused and alert" everything would be fine.

This attitude dismisses the real nature of disorders such as depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, ADHD and many, many others. Can you imagine this attitude in any other field? Would you like your doctor to think like this? "Hey, we don't need a diagnosis, who cares if its mumps, an allergy, cancer ..... just learn to eat healthy and exercise." Besides, we don't have enough funding!

Don't misunderstand me. Preventative interventions, like Shanker's, are great! Let's implement them, today! But for students with real learning disorders they are not a replacement for real assessment, diagnosis and focused interventions and support. When you read that and local school officials members of our government think that promoting "self-discipline" and "self-regulation" is a proven therapy for children with diagnosable learning disorders, be skeptical. And when you read that they also suggest we just skip over that unnecessary diagnosis stuff ....because it won't lead to angry!

The deep deep message here is that it is through personal responsibility and self-discipline that change will occur. That simplistic message is what is appealing to people here. That's really  hard to argue with. To disagree makes you sound like a total quack. But for many disorders, such as ADHD (which British Columbia is famous for addressing poorly) children, teens and adults know what they should do, they understand their behaviours, but cannot help themselves. THAT is the nature of the ADHD - a brain based neurological disorder, not poor attitude. I suggest George Elliot and others supporting the further gutting of school psychology services read about ADHD in science based books and articles by professionals like Russell Barkley, PhD). Students with ADHD are helped through specific classroom environmental changes, externalized prompts and cues and, sometimes, medical intervention. There are many proven and effective classroom based interventions for these students, with years of research backing them up. But when was the last time you heard a school district was providing training for teachers in addressing the needs of their students with ADHD, learning disabilities or Aspeger's Disorder? 

The tone of self-discipline and self-regulation to address disorders like these leads to blaming the victim mentality. We expect them to fit the program rather than "to diagnose precisely what the challenge is" and providing appropriate supports. Something Mr. Elliot says directly is a waste of time and money. 

After reading those comments I need to be "calm and alert" myself.