'Black sheep' of the classroom are brought in from the cold
Helping her son do school homework every day used to be unbearable for Chen Shaomei. Nine-year-old Haohao couldn’t concentrate on the pages no matter how much she scolded and even sometimes smacked him.
The situation didn’t improve until Chen and Haohao took part in a treatment project initiated by Huagao Elementary School and East China Normal University. It’s aimed at children like Haohao, who suffer from ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
ADHD is a mental health condition characterized by hyperactivity, difficulty in maintaining attention and often aggressive behavior. There are an estimated 20 million children between the ages of 6 and 12 who suffer from ADHD in China. Most of them are considered “classroom black sheep,” and their parents never seek professional help.
Ben Yuan, the headmaster of Huagao Elementary where Haohao attends, told Shanghai Daily that 56 children at the school have been diagnosed with ADHD. Some of them can hardly sit still through a 45-minute class.
Many of the children actually have high IQs but their academic progress is hampered by their unsociable behavior.
“They interrupt teachers and sometimes get aggressive with other students for no reason at all,” said Yuan. “We really needed to do something, and that’s when the university approached us.”
The project has strong overtones of a physical education class. Wang Xiaozan, a professor from East China Normal University who specializes in physical education and sports, heads the project. A group of volunteers from the university, mostly students, assists him.
Classes for both children and parents are held three times a week. For the children, it’s mostly just games.
“We ask the kids, for example, to hold a ping-pong ball on a paddle for a long time,” said Chen Meiyuan, one of the volunteers. “Or we teach them to play basketball.”
Sports activities help the secretion of dopamine and adrenaline, which improve a person’s ability to focus.
“The family is a key factor in a child’s growth, ADHD or not,” said project leader Wang. “We design games and tasks that can be accomplished only by the parents and kids working together.”
Families can break down because of ADHD. In February, Shanghai Daily published the story of Yaya and Kevin, two ADHD kids who studied their own condition and took their research to Spain for a science fair. (https://www.shine.cn/news/metro/1902260219/)
As reported, the marriage of Yaya’s parents almost fell apart because of their daughter’s recklessness. Matters improved when the parents started paying less attention to Yaya's problems and more attention to her talents.
“Encouragement and understanding from the parents are crucial for ADHD kids,” Wang said. “The kids often have difficulties expressing their feelings, and if the parents they trust most have no faith in them, things can start to crumble.”
Kevin’s mother Meng Lili was among the first who reached out to Wang for help last year.
“I didn’t have enough knowledge about ADHD either,” said Wang. “I’m still feeling the stones when crossing the river.”
The results of the project have so far been good. Many parents tell the volunteers that their children have become more polite and patient when doing homework or household chores. They are also showing more concentration in classes.
Chen said Haohao now is able to finish homework twice as fast as before, without her having to yell at him.
“He used to try to avoid school by staying in bed,” said Chen. “And he often left home for school in tears. But now he looks forward to school every day.”
Haohao has never been formally diagnosed with ADHD. Chen said she doesn’t want to take him to a hospital for examination.
“Some parents are reluctant to take their kids to the hospital even if the symptoms of the kids are quite obvious,” Wang said. “They see ADHD as a stigma, and once their kids get tagged with it, there’s no easy way to shake it off.”
Among the 56 children identified with ADHD in Huagao Elementary School, only 10 took part in the project. The rest of the families were afraid of their children being stigmatized by participation. There are also 26 kids in the project who are reckless and bad-tempered but not identified as having ADHD.
“For privacy reasons, we don’t reveal the names of 56 children,” said headmaster Yuan. “Other parents may panic if they hear there is one or even more ADHD kids in the class.”
When parents of ADHD children do take their offspring to hospital, they are often given medication that can have side effects like loss of appetite and dizziness, Wang said.
Yaya’s father Lin Wenxing told Shanghai Daily that his daughter started taking methylphenidate, a drug designed to treat ADHD when she was 9. The pills led to uncontrollable spasms that ended only after she stopped taking the drug. Her ADHD symptoms improved when she started engaging in sports activities.
The project is no magic bullet. From the academic perspective, according to Wang, its scale is too small to produce a professional paper, let alone promote it in a wider context.
“There are special schools for the blind, the deaf, the mentally ill and the autistic,” said Wang. “But as far as I know, there is no special school in Shanghai or China focused on ADHD children.”
At a recent seminar at Huagao Elementary School to share the experiences of the project, Shen Zhifei, deputy director of Shanghai Institute of Education Science, called it a good start for the education and treatment of ADHD children long neglected by mainstream education.
Wang Weijie from the Shanghai Pudong Institute of Education Development told Shanghai Daily that a number of schools in the district have shown interest in the project. It’s a bright spot on the long road ahead.