Why is Attention Deficit Disorder So Prevalent in the US?
By Jeanette Farmer


 Time magazine in its July 18, 1994 cover story reported that many European countries, notably France and England, have only 1/10 as many ADD cases as this country does. Japan has hardly begun to study it. Largely unheard of just 15 years ago, but now termed "the educational disorder of the 1990s," this country has had a four-fold increase in ADD cases since 1990. This alarming paradox strongly suggests that subtle underlying cultural/educational influences are at work in ever increasing numbers of children diagnosed as ADD in America's educational systems.

Estimates of the number of children afflicted vary widely. According to psychologist Russell Barkley, author of Attention Deficit Hyper-activity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment, it can vary from 1-20 percent, depending on how one chooses to define it, the population studies, the geographic locale of the survey, etc. Largely unheard of just 15 years ago, Time indicates some experts say that it afflicts as many as 3 ½ million or up to 5% of those under 18. Three times as many boys as girls are now labeled with a "disease" that neither an x-ray, CT scan, blood test, laboratory analysis, or MRI can define, but yet is coded a discrete psychiatric condition by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-4), the "bible" of mental illness. That some 2 million children are given the drug of choice, Ritalin, a Schedule 2 controlled substance in the same category as cocaine, methadone and methamphetamine, to help them concentrate alarms many.

Indeed, an increasing number of professionals decry this alarming and controversial trend of labeling children with this psychiatric condition when about 50% of ADD children reach adulthood and discover that apparently ADD goes poof! It's doubtful that it would have surfaced to the degree it has if the powerful American Psychiatric Association had not officially named it a disorder in 1990. Seminars marketed to doctors on how to capitalize on ADD are now quite commonplace, increasing "bandwagon" tendencies.

Like many other professionals, Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., former special education teacher and author of The Myth of the ADD Child, strongly questions the rush to label a child having problems in school as "ADD." He indicates that a substantial growing school of thought maintains that ADD ADHD is not really a disorder in that something is intrinsically wrong with the brain. Indeed, how can ADD be a "mental disorder" when its symptoms are so selectively displayed?  When an ADD child is internally motivated to focus - as when deeply engrossed in a video game - that inability to pay attention is not present. Just because something responds to a drug doesn't mean it is a sickness.

Armstrong identifies several societal/cultural factors that subtly help fuel ADD type behaviors. Today's fast paced mass media - MTV, video software, Nintendo and other electronic marvels deliver information and images in short chunks of attention-grabbing "sound bytes" that fuel a short attention span culture. A child's level of emotional security creates anxiety which creates symptoms similar to ADD. However, the possibility exists that ADD defines a personality type with distinct emotional driven behaviors which contrast sharply with the accepted norm in conventional society. Recent handwriting research has identified the thinking and emotional styles in four quadrants of the brain. It suggests that ADHD behaviors may be related to the "down side" of right brain dominance. But given the lack of intensive handwriting training today as compared to the "olden days" when the Palmer "push pulls and running ovals" movement exercises helped regulate the emotional energy flow (impulse control), it's a distinct possibility that it's an obscure influence in ever rising cases. This is not to say lack of training causes ADD, only that failure to influence impulse control early on may create more educational problems down the road, giving rise to the need to identify the problem.  ADHD is then the culprit.

The 1990s - The Decade of the Brain

 In 1989 former president George Bush designated the 1990s as "The Decade of the Brain," marking a first time in history that recognition was given to a human organ, highlighting the massive brain research over the last 30 years. An astounding statement by Tony Buzan in The International Brain Dominance Review (Vol. 7 #1, 1990) vividly portrays the extraordinary magnitude of this research with its medical and educational implications.

95% of what has been known about the physiological workings of the human brain has been discovered in the last 10 years!

Facets of brain research have determined how the left and right hemisphere learns - the brain's learning styles. Each hemisphere requires different strategies and instruction techniques to reach and teach each hemisphere. Failure to teach each child in his/her natural style creates enormous frustration and affects the ability to learn, especially for the right-brain dominant child. Traditionally, education has long focused on teaching the left-brain, "the brain that goes to school" with its strong lecture/worksheet routine. Using multi-sensory stimulation is effective in reaching both brains.

The Left Brain Rationale for Using Multi-Sensory Handwriting Movement Exercises to "Train the Young Brain."

Newsweek's February 19, 1996 article entitled Your Child Brain summaries the pioneering research on the phenomenal, awesomely dazzling human brain with its infinite potential. Considered a "work in progress," the baby's brain with its trillions of neurons awaits experienced to be wired into the mind. As the PBS series The Mind succinctly stated, "The Mind Is What the Brain Does."

A young child's brain is compared to a Pentium chip in the computer before the factory loads the software. Brain research has identified "window of opportunities," stressing the need for stimulation (experience that activates the software) -- the sooner, the better, in order build a foundation so learning can take place. Its neurons, pure and of almost infinite potential, represent unprogrammed circuits. Childhood experiences determine what neurons are used that wire the circuits of the brain as surely as a programmer at a keyboard reconfigures the circuits in a computer. If the neurons are used (stimulated) they become integrated into the brain's neural circuitry by connecting to other neurons that form the brain's vast communication networks. If unused, they may die.

Noting the critical windows of opportunities, pediatric neurobiologist Harry Chugani of Wayne State University stresses the critical impact in stimulating the young brain,"Early experiences are so powerful that they can completely change the way a person turns out." Clearly, a crucial educational need exists to capitalize on critical periods that fling open the windows of opportunities so that the brain can be "hard wired."

Yet, despite such an extraordinary body of research in how a child learns, it is largely ignored by the vast majority of schools. In an auxiliary article in the same issue, "Why Do Schools Flunk Biology?" Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Columbia University Teachers College, questions why this extraordinary body of brain research that focuses on how children learn is largely ignored by the vast majority of educational administrators or school-board members. Frank Vellutino, professor of educational psychology at State University of New York at Albany, wryly notes, "We do more educational research that anyone else in the world, and we also ignore more as welI." In most states, neither teachers nor administrators are required to know much about how children learn in order to be certified. Although biology is a staple in most American high schools, understanding the students’ biology in how the brain develops and retains knowledge is largely ignored. By and large, neither brain science or educational research has been able to free the majority of American schools from its 19th century roots in broadly applying brain research results.

Environmental/educational stimulation is fundamental to tapping and shaping the circuits of the mind. Hard wiring the brain’s circuits through external stimulation ensures that the mind’s potential can be developed. In reality, handwriting training is an unrecognized, but very potent force in hard-wiring the brain’s circuits. That it impacts impulse control is without question.

Education - the 1st Line of Defense In Developing Impulse Control

Once integral to a basic education, penmanship or handwriting training impacts the young brain as few things can. Yet, it's been increasingly neglected over the last 30 years. Given its physiological/psychological link in the brain, handwriting fundamentally impacts impulse control in the brain’s lower levels which is essential in order to focus attention so learning can take place. Education is clearly the first line of defense in the essential task of developing impulse control (i.e., self/emotional control).

That such neglect has created profoundly important educational ramifications such as rising illiteracy rates is a distinct probability. Extensive research has now identified several risk factors that lead to future adolescent behavior problems of violence, delinquency, substance abuse, dropping out, etc. Two factors pertinent to education are: the fact that K-3 grade males must gain impulse control by 3rd grade or face increased risks and early failure in elementary school which is directly related to the failure to learn to read. Yet, obscure wisdom 100 years ago highlights a viable solution.

One hundred years ago the famed Italian doctor/educator/anthropologist Maria Montessori demonstrated extraordinary educational wisdom in that she advocated the fundamental need to teach handwriting before reading! She gained world wide fame for teaching Rome’s “mentally retarded” street urchins how to read by the time they were 5-6 years old. Extensive brain research can now validate her exceptional wisdom -- the answer lies in the extensive physiological stimulation given the brain in the handwriting process that help ready the left brain for the reading process. Never is handwriting's innate potential more powerful than in that critical "window of opportunity"-- the primary years and adding multi-sensory stimulation to the process only enriches the window of opportunity.


Handwriting and the 1990s Brain Science Perspective

Brain science has defined the hemispheres’ specialized functions with the left brain serving as the mediator of reading, writing, math, and verbal thoughts. Dr. R. Joseph, internationally recognized neuropsychologist and neuroscience expert on the brain and the mind, addresses the fundamental interrelated aspect of language -- in particular that its grammatical and syntactical components are directly related to handedness and motor control. He indicates that many investigators have found that over the course of evolution, the predominant use of the right hand enabled the left brain to develop nerve cells specialized for counting, naming, temporal-sequential processing and thus for the mediation of grammatical-syntactical speech and language.

Joseph indicates that the entire right brain is dominant in regard to attention and arousal, factors strongly influenced by the handwriting process. Manipulating the fingers through handwriting not only calms the right brain, but also stimulates the left brain, the "brain that goes to school." where the specialized reading/ writing capacities are located.


Six Major Physiological Reasons to Give Children the Gift of Good Handwriting

The following factors portray some fundamental physiological influences on the brain as a result of the handwriting process.

  1. The human brain matures from the bottom up and from the back to the front. Due to the young brain’s plasticity (moldablility), it’s highly amenable to multi-sensory (visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic) stimulation.
  2. Given the brain’s hard-wiring, a physiological reality is: for 90% of the right-handed population, fine motor control and emotional control (impulse control) are deeply intertwined.
  3. Recent research has now recognized and clarified the cerebellum’s influence and functions. The "little brain" with two hemispheres located at the base of the brain, it was once thought only to be involved in lower brain functions. Fundamentally involved in producing handwriting, it regulates and coordinates smooth movement. However, Richard Restak, noted neurologist, reports in The Modular Brain that new research has now challenged past perspectives:

    - The cerebellum has a far greater influence in higher brain functions that was previously recognized. Its subtle influence is seen in carrying out willed acts and control of hostile impulses.

    - The brain stem houses a special neural network, the reticular activity system (RAS), that is considered the gatekeeper to consciousness. Repetitive movement helps the RAS filter environmental stimuli sent to the cortex, the thinking brain, which improves the ability to focus and attend, a major factor in ADD.
  4. Repetitive movement also enhances myelination of the axons, long neural fibers that transmits messages from the neural cell body to the synaptic gap at the end of the dendrites. Myelin insulates the axon fiber, much as the copper wire in an electrical cord is insulated. The insulation protects/enhances the brain’s ability to more efficiently transmit messages.
    - More importantly, sufficiently developed myelinated neural networks are protected from a chemical housecleaning which nature releases around age 11. This action dissolves all undeveloped neural fields leaving the brain with the weight it had at 18 months. Only sufficiently developed neural networks become permanent "structures of knowledge." 
  5. Combining therapeutic music with specific movement patterns creates a non-threatening format that bypasses the cortex (thinking brain). Not having to produce cognitive results removes stress and anxiety in trying to meet expectations. Visual, auditory and kinesthetic stimulation creates a powerful synergy that is more effective than either component alone.
    - The process impacts the limbic brain, the emotional brain, improving impulse control (self control ) and regulating the emotional energy flow. The net effect is that it "calms the dance of the emotional mind" which improves the ability to focus.
  6. While increased stimulation influences the whole brain, it also provides vital stimulation to the highly specialized left-brain, the "brain that goes to school," with its specialized language capacities. In short, the process conditions and readies the left-brain which processes information in a sequential or linear processing style, which is essential for acquiring reading/writing/ math skills.

"Good" handwriting requires sufficient repetition that stabilizes a foundation in the brain's lower levels. Poor handwriting indicates a child is under stress and is emotionally vulnerable. Stress is inherent in trying to meet expectations which has a highly detrimental impact on the brain’s ability to commit information to memory. Training improves the ability to delay instant gratification and emotionally cope with frustration and environmental demands. While both regular and at-risk students benefit greatly, many strongly right-brain dominant gifted and talented children also benefit from the process as it helps them marshal the emotional energy to improve functional productivity.


Multi-Sensory Handwriting Training
A Learning Styles Educational Concept for the 21st Century!

Given the massive environmental stimulation a child receives in today’s society, strong interactive resources are essential to counteract TV’s highly detrimental passive influence on the young brain. Brain research has identified the critical need to supply a variety of multi-sensory stimulation to the young brain for motor development. Multi-sensory handwriting training answers that need in a non- traditional but innovative way, creating a powerful 21st century educational concept tied to the learning styles. Using visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic stimulation in a non-threatening format greatly enhances the brain’s ability to learn. The process significantly impacts the limbic system, the "emotional brain," from which impulses arise. With handwriting’s inherent capacity to "train and organize the young brain," it’s an essential "molder of the mind" as Montessori intuitively knew 100 years ago.

America’s rising illiteracy rates demand drastic attention. Never has it been more imperative to revitalize the educational priorities of the "olden days" and provide intensive handwriting training. Capitalizing on its inherent capacity to stimulate the brain and ready it for the reading process is a critical but profoundly simple route to attacking illiteracy. The message is clear:

Not Only Can Handwriting Training "Retrain The Brain,"
But It Has The Inherent Capacity to "Train the Brain" In the First Place!

Jeanette Farmer, certified handwriting re-mediation specialist, has 20 years handwriting experience with advanced training in the European handwriting perspective grounded in its physiological/psychological link in the brain. Certified by the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation and former editor of their journal, she will begin a second tour of duty with that publication in resuming that position in September, 1996. She has spent the last 10 years studying handwriting and the brain by drawing on extensive European research by the late Dr. Rudolph Pophal, a neurologist/graphologist who spent 30 years studying handwriting and the brain.

Her handwriting/brain dominance research, published in the 1995 peer-reviewed edition ofThe Journal of The American Society of Professional Graphologists, is the first time that handwriting’s physiological/ psychological link in the brain has been established by research in this country, a concept established decades ago in Europe. She received the 1992 Special Achievement Award by the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation for her research. She lectures nationally and "teaches the teachers" in educational in-services and has pioneered this method in her work with the brain injured.

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