In WBUR Article, Wellesley Professor Discusses ADHD Diagnoses in Kids Born Close to Enrollment Cutoffs

December 13, 2018
The outside view of the back of a school bus.
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Before she earned a Ph.D. and started teaching at the college level, Beth Hennessey, professor of psychology at Wellesley, taught kindergarten. That experience gave her insight into an issue that was the focus of an opinion piece she recently wrote for WBUR’s Cognoscenti: “ADHD and Immaturity: Parents Shouldn’t Have to Game the Educational System.”

Hennessey writes that children at the younger end of a class year’s age range are often wrongly diagnosed as suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because they seem generally less mature than their peers.

“The developmental differences displayed by a child who has just turned 5 and a classmate who is 11 or 12 months their senior can be astronomical,” wrote Hennessy, who taught kindergarten in Cambridge, Mass., and in Denver. “A year is a long time, especially when it constitutes a full one-fifth of one’s experience on this earth.”

Even the average 5-year-old would find it hard to “sit quietly on the floor for 20 minutes—attending to a lesson and dutifully refraining from poking, tickling, or wrestling with a child sitting only inches away,” Hennessey writes. “Young children are made to move, to touch, and to interact with the physical world around them. This is how they best learn.”

Developmental differences in children whose birthdates are separated by months can result in active children who, “by virtue of their birthdate, are prematurely singled out, put on medication and labeled as ‘different.’ Teacher and parent perceptions become skewed.”

In an email interview, Hennessy said, “If children are expected to perform academically or behave in ways that are not yet developmentally appropriate for them, they are likely to feel frustrated and confused. They run the risk of developing a self-concept that says that they are not ‘smart,’ are not well-liked or valued by their teachers.”

Hennessy acknowledged that ADHD is a serious issue that many children and adults struggle with on a daily basis, but she also asked, “How many young children are being labeled and medicated unnecessarily?”

Hennessey said parents often resort to holding their children back a year before enrolling them in kindergarten, an option she called “misguided” and available only to families who have money to pay for another year of child care.

Instead, she suggests educational reforms: “Educators and curriculum developers must be given the license to step back and examine whether their expectations of young children are in keeping with our in-depth understanding of child development.”