Sunday, October 19, 2008

Oppositional Disorder

Once upon a time parents who lacked the courage and/or interest required to set limits and impose responsibilities were thought to produce lamed and defiled children. "Spoiled brats" was the common lexicon. Happily, this benighted notion no longer enjoys currency. We now know that a child's upbringing really has little to do with what was mistakenly regarded as "brattiness."

Kids who are mistaken for "brats" actually are suffering from an illness. It’s called “oppositional disorder.” According to the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, oppositional disorder's symptoms include:

(1) violations of minor rules
(2) temper tantrums
(3) argumentativeness
(4) provocative behavior
(5) stubbornness

No wonder children suffering the heartbreak of oppositional disorder have historically been thought of as brats. Insidiously, the malady mimics brattiness with uncanny verisimilitude. Doubtless, this nearly perfect disguise is why the malady escaped detection until the late 20th Century. Today, however, there is a growing awareness of the disorder and increasing appreciation of its insidious subtlety.

Parents who used to "cure" Johnny by sending him to bed without supper, are now beginning to realize that he instead needs:

• clinical diagnosis via psychological testing and assessment
• chart notes, a case history, test reports, and probably
• psychotherapy and/or behavior therapy possibly combined with
• psychopharmacological treatment using drugs like:
Ritilin, Xanax, Librium, Klonopin, Tranxene, Valium, Dalmane, Paxipam, Ativan, Serax, Centrax, Doral, Restoril, Halcion, Thorazine, Vesprin, Mellaril, Serentil, Tindal, Prolixin, Trilafon, Stelazine, Taractan, Navane, Loxitane or Haldol.

Just think how misguided a trip to the woodshed was, and how off of the mark more modern remedies like "grounding" still are. Thankfully, however, we are just now emerging from the dark ages of child rearing.

I report the discovery of oppositional syndrome with considerable personal mortification, recalling when I misconceived my own children's ominous symptoms as mere brattiness. I recall with chagrin, for instance, the time I asked my adolescent son to take out the trash. He griped, "Why should I do that?" I thoughtlessly responded "Because I'll kick your butt if you don't!" He appraised my response, replied, "That's a good reason!" and took out the trash. At the time I thought I had provided an effective answer. After all, he took out the trash. Besides, wasn’t I following the Bible’s admonition to "raise up a child in the way he should go.”? Today, the Bible notwithstanding, I belatedly recognize that he required treatment, not threats.

The young man in question is long out of college, married and making his own way in the world. Still, I wonder. Was his choice of a philosophy major in college symptomatic of his untreated malady? Was oppositional disorder the reason he never joined the Young Republican Club, hated Pat Boone and refused to wear a pocket protector? Is it why, today, he distrusts George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and thinks Sarah Palin a sick joke?

Having come to realize that oppositional disorder was at the root of my son’s sometimes-troublesome adolescent behavior, I wonder if the malady still lingers in his psyche — perhaps even his genes. Is it lying dormant, like malaria, just waiting to erupt and rain ruin on his marriage or career? (After all, wives and bosses value compliance, not opposition.) Moreover, might the disorder be genetic? I await the future with dread.

Reactionaries claim that the therapeutic model of child rearing (and school teaching, for that matter) has gotten entirely out of hand. This archetype, these Neanderthals contend, has surreptitiously, and without much reflection, become the doctrine that "informs" contemporary child rearing and schooling. They erroneously assert that kids who are "diagnosed" as disordered, typically just need more love, more limits and, perhaps, an occasional kick in the kiester. They even misleadingly maintain that the therapeutic approach to child rearing is nose-bleed high in popularity because it:

• lets parents off the hook,
• enriches clinicians,
• increases drug company profits and
• relieves school officials of onerous responsibilities.

Those of us with an enlightened therapeutic world-view know better. We appreciate that "brattiness," like guilt and responsibility, is passé — a curious, even dangerous, coprolite of a by-gone age. We’ve recognized that, given understanding, adequate therapy and appropriate drugs, every child can learn to behave like a perfect lady or gentleman.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Blocks School Improvement

Before No Child Left Behind was even a glint in the nation's eye, Bill Clinton proposed Goals 2000 (the Educate America Act)in the early years of his first term. Originally its focus was on the formulation of national educational standards; but this emphasis quickly failed. What happened?

Education Week claims “Fears that the program would lead to federal control over local curriculum decisions drove Congress, governors and school administrators to move Goals 2000 away from its standards emphasis toward a loosely affiliated series of projects and computer purchases.” But was fear of federal control the real bugbear?

I don’t think so. We shy away from meaningful national education standards because every attempt at their formulation collides with the elemental fact that there is no consensus regarding what American kids should know and be able to do; nor is there agreement on how they should do it. When we launch national educational goal setting efforts, they inevitably founder on this rock of disagreement.

An alternative, imposed by No Child Left Behind, is to require states to set standards. But that doesn't alter the fact that there is little or no deep agreement at the state level. As soon as state legislators begin to define the details the whole thing tends to either break down into acrimonious haggling or we end up with standards that lack broad public support.

What about generating standards at the level of the 16,000 plus school districts? After all districts are often far more uniform than entire states can be. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of districts deep agreement still is non-existent. Try to reach agreement on any truly fundamental matter, say at a school board meeting, and just watch blood pressures rise as consensus evaporates.

This fundamental lack of agreement concerning the means and ends of public schooling is the basic reality that has troubled, presently troubles and will continue to trouble every serious effort at school improvement. The only way to generate consensus, and it will be a superficial one at that, is by formulating goals that are so vague as to be practically useless.

Google a sample of school district mission statements and see for yourself. Every one of them will rely on happy talk and buzz words. In this way a shallow and practically useless consensus is maintained. And as soon as we press for details the whole thing falls apart.

What is to be done? Continue to concoct superficial, warm and fuzzy goals and then ignore them when real work needs to be done.

Trouble is that strategy puts real pressure on superintendents, principals and, especially, teachers. That's because the closer you get to actual classroom practice the more useless, or even counterproductive, vague goals become. When its time to teach reading, for example, detailed decisions have to be made. That's why every classroom teacher should adopt Harry Truman's motto, "THE BUCK STOPS HERE!"

To further examine these and related issues, see articles at