By John Stein
This opinion is based on my experiences as a child, parent, and professional in America. I have little to no familiarity with how things are in other places, where many readers of this journal live and work.
I was born in 1946. I never heard about ADHD when I was growing up, and I don’t think many adults did either, including teachers. My diagnosis in my preschool years, given and oft repeated by adults in my life, was “He has ants in his pants.” I could never sit still.
I started Kindergarten at age four. I knew the school, a big square two-story building with lots of big windows, built in the 1890’s. There were schools like it in every neighborhood. It was right across the street from the house where our apartment was on the second floor. My friends and I used to play on the playground surrounding it. It had eight rooms, four on each floor. Kindergarten, first and second grade classrooms were on the first floor, along with the office. Third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades were on the second floor. The large windows took up one whole wall and were about nine feet (three meters) high. They could be opened from the bottom, and from the top with a long pole. There was a high sandbox on legs, table-high, and other activity areas in addition to our desks.
On the first day, our teacher taught us ‘cup and saucer.’ She showed us how to place one hand palm up on our desk, make a fist with our other hand, and put it in our palm, like a cup and saucer. She told us, whenever I say “Cup and saucer,” go to your desk, sit down, and make the cup and saucer. When we got rowdy, as you can expect such little kids to do, she never yelled at us to stop this or stop that. She would say calmly but loud enough for us to hear, “Cup and saucer,” and we all ran to our desks and sat with our hands making the cup and saucer. Then she would have an interesting activity or story to read. It never failed to settle us down.
School started at 9:15 with attendance and opening exercises. We had maybe 12 to 15 children in my kindergarten class. At 10:30, weather permitting, we would go outside to play, maybe dodge ball or relay races or tag or snatch the bacon. When the weather was inclement, our teacher would have us move our desks out of the way and we would play something in our classroom. At 11:45, we went home for the day. Then, at 1:15, there was an afternoon session of kindergarten for another 12 to 15 students. We didn’t learn much in the way of academics, except to write numbers, print the letters of the alphabet, and write our names. Mostly, we learned how to get along in the classroom and be responsive to the teacher’s leadership.
The next year, we all went to first grade for the full day: 9:15 to 11:45 with recess at about 10:30, home for lunch at 11:45, and back at 1:15, again with recess at about 2:30, and dismissal at 3:45. We would eat our lunch at home fairly quickly, then, weather permitting, head back to school to visit classmates and play ball or tag or throw snowballs or play on the monkey bars on the playground until it was time to go back to school.
The thing I remember about first grade was an open house where the teacher met individually with students and their parent(s). She told me Mum, “He’s going to start getting homework in arithmetic now.” My heart fell. I had heard about homework and dreaded it. Then she said, “I don’t want you to help him. The way you learned arithmetic is different from the way we teach it now, and you will confuse him. Besides, homework is his responsibility, not yours.” And my heart picked up—I was being given responsibility! “Besides, I need to know if he can do the work, not if you can. Teaching him is my responsibility, and if he’s not learning, I need to know that so I can do something different.”
In the middle of second grade, we moved to a different part of town, but classrooms, windows, and the schedule were the same, except that there were three classes for each grade instead of one—it was a big ‘modern’ school, built in the 1920’s. In fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, we no longer had recess, but we passed classes—going to different teachers for different subjects. At least we had a break and a chance to chat with our friends, and a change. And a 90-minute lunch.
In both schools, we had art and music once a week. I remember thinking to myself about some of the kids who were not good at academics, that at least there was something at which they could excel. Carey was the best artist. Glen was the fastest kid on the playground and won every contest. Someone else could do more pullups on the bars than any of us. Others were very popular, good at socializing and making friends.
In junior high and high school, we no longer had recess, but we passed classes, and we had art and music once a week and physical education twice a week. We also had weekly assemblies, a band, a glee club, a drama club, and other actvities in addition to academics. And big windows. All of our classrooms in all of our schools had incandescent lighting in fixtures on the high ceilings, in case it was so overcast that there was not enough light from the windows.
ADHD is common. Everyone knows about it. I have a friend whose children requested the diagnosis and medication in high school to help them concentrate.
And schools are very different. New schools have two small windows, heavily tinted, often located in the back of the room where children cannot see outside. Ceilings are low, and all lighting is cool white fluorescent.
In the elementary school where my wife worked as a social worker, there was no recess. Lunch was 30 minutes in the school cafeteria. Children would gulp down their lunches and rush outside. But often they were not allowed to run around and play and make noise. They were required to sit quietly. But at least they could talk among themselves. But not when they pass classes—they are required to walk quietly in single file.
There is a serous concentration on academics, beginning in kindergarten. Art and music are no longer available in many schools in Louisiana, where we now live. It’s mostly about academics. They do have gym classes daily—physical education. Sometimes they do physical activities, other times a lesson on health. The one day I visited a gym class when I did some volunteer work at the school, all the kids were sitting quietly in rows on the floor, about one meter apart. And gym did not beak up the school day for everyone. Some kids had gym for their first period, others for their last period.
When I was studying psychology in college in the 1960’s, I remember reading about an industrial psychology study in the 1920’s involving assembly line workers. The normal schedule was four hours on the line, a 30-minute lunch, and four more hours on the line before going home. The experiment involved giving the workers two 15-minute coffee breaks, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Output increased—the workers produced more in 71/2 hours with the coffee breaks than they did in eight hours working without the breaks!
It makes me wonder whether our elementary school kids might learn more with breaks for recess in the morning and afternoon…
Back in the late 1960’s, I was driving late one night on the beltway around Washington, DC. I was headed home to Pennsylvania after a physically and mentally stressful day applying for a job with the Washington police department. Having met other applicants, I knew I didn’t have a chance. I was tired and not in a good mood, but not sleepy. The beltway is brightly lit with overhead lights. Suddenly, I entered a section where the overhead lights were different. I became suddenly more alert, and my mood improved dramatically. It was as if someone had thrown a switch in my brain. I thought maybe they deliberately changed the lighting every so often to make drivers more alert, and that drivers going in the other direction would have the same experience. Either that, or I had just entered a different political jurisdiction where the street lights were provided by a different power company. Now, I suspect it was something quite different, and that drivers going in the opposite direction had a different experience when the lighting changed.
In the mid 1970’s I read an article in a psychology publication about an experiment by John Ott. John Ott was interested in the growth of plants and lighting. He was not a scientist; he was a bank employee who, as a hobby, studied plants with time-lapse photography. He replaced the fluorescent tubes in the lighting in his greenhouse and noticed that some plants grew significantly faster and healthier. Then, he realized that the new tubes were different–full spectrum rather than cool white, the standard fluorescent tube.
Then he began experimenting with animals, and noticed differences in the behaviour of lab rats in full spectrum vs. cool white fluorescent lighting. The article was about what happened later when he changed the lighting in an elementary school. For the first couple of weeks, all the classrooms had their standard cool white lighting. His time lapse photography showed some kids all over the place, out of their seats around the classroom, even on top of their desks. He then installed the full spectrum lighting in some classrooms. Within days, the kids were calmer, better behaved, seated more often at their desks.
His theory is that people need natural daylight. That’s how we evolved. The cool white fluorescent lights, although they look white, do not provide the full spectrum of sunlight—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Some colors are missing. I am not sure which ones. The full spectrum affects our biological diurnal rhythms differently from the cool white spectrum, from which some colors are missing.
Shortly after reading that article, I began a new position as program manager for a group home for 12 boys with behavioural problems, ranging in age from 10 to 17. I convinced the executive director to allow me to replace the cool white fluorescents in the corridors, recreation and dining rooms and kitchen with full spectrum lights. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attribute any changes in the boys’ behaviour to the lighting because several other changes in programming, staff, and residents were also occurring. However, shortly afterwards, the boss called me into his office and asked me to also change the lighting in the offices. The social worker and clerical staff had been quite instant in wanting the new lighting in their space.
In 1995, the same thing happened in a day program for adults with disabilities. I had read that lighting could affect seizure disorders, and some of our clients had them. The boss allowed me to change the lighting in the large day room. Within two weeks, the office staff had convinced the boss to change the lighting in their part of the building as well.
I have full spectrum lighting in my windowless attic, with one fixture on a part of the attic where the roof is low, and another mounted at eye level on a wall where the roof was too high for me to mount it there. On two occasions, a workman told me that while he was working, he thought it was a window and was surprised to see it was a light fixture when he looked up.
I sense a correlation between increasing diagnoses of ADHD and changes in our schools. I know that correlation does not always mean cause and effect. There may be a third factor that is affecting both correlates.
Nevertheless, I am a firm believer that children (and other people) need natural daylight and time outside. It would be challenging to change the small windows in our schools and the heavily tinted windows in our school buses and many autos. But would it be so difficult to change the lighting in our buildings? Or to give elementary children ‘coffee’ breaks–a little free time during the school day, out doors when ever possible? What could it hurt? Oh. It would take valuable time from academics…
And so I wonder. Have we created an environment for our children where what were once fairly normal qualities are now disabling, the symptoms of a disability?
Years ago I read that in Germany, all hospitals used full spectrum lighting. In updating myself for this article, I read that Germany has outlawed all cool white fluorescent lighting.