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The Damaging Myth of Normalcy

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By Jonathan Mooney

By the time I was in second grade I thought I was stupid and crazy. Why? Because that’s what I was taught. Those are not thoughts I would have come to on my own. Think about it. We all know some awesome little nutty red-headed kid who was completely happy until he went off to school. Two years into it he’s lost 10 pounds, has developed some strange phobias, a tic or two, and is even talking about suicide!

“Bad” Seeds

How does that happen? It’s the result of a fundamental paradigm shift. In preschool and kindergarten the approach is self-directed, project-based learning. Children move from here to there, and for the most part they decide what they want to do.

In first grade, they’re introduced to their desk and that’s when the problems start. Suddenly, it’s “Jon, you sit there. I’ll tell you what you can do with your body. I’ll tell you when you can get up. I’ll tell you what you’re going to learn.”


Experts call it socializing kids. But does anyone honestly believe it benefits society to make a seven-year-old beg to use the bathroom?


For me, this is where crazy began. The classroom became one giant hierarchy with gold stars and behavior charts to show everyone who were the “good” kids and who were the “bad” ones.  The bad kids, of course, were the ones that didn’t follow the rules.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

I was a bad kid because I tapped my foot. And then I started tapping both feet; next I began drumming my fingers.

In reality, a handful of kids in every classroom in America do the same thing. Eventually the teacher says, “What is your problem?” That happens to be one of the most damaging statements you can make to a child. The child naturally concludes he has a problem or is broken in some way. That’s the beginning of the self-fulfilling prophecy where kids with ADHD come to believe they’re sick or diseased.

Ironically, science tells us otherwise. We now know that kids who tap their feet are not doing so because they’re bad, or trying to be irritating, or because they’re on their way to a life of crime. They’re doing it because it accesses a physical motor memory that facilitates focusing. It’s what that child needs to do in order to learn.

No-Win Situation

When the teacher yells, “Focus!” it stops the tapping—but it also stops the learning. The child starts staring out the window and misses the lesson. Now he gets yelled at for that too. The teacher angrily repeats the “f” word: “focus, focus, focus!” And now the child is in a no-win situation: he gets yelled at for shaking his leg, which he needs to do to focus, and he gets yelled at for being inattentive when his way of learning is thwarted.

The cycle continues: “Focus!” When he focuses by shaking his leg, he becomes the “bad” kid or the problem child and is sent someplace different with all the other deviant kids.

The lesson that child has learned has nothing to do with math or science. Instead, he’s learned that he has no place in the classroom when he is being himself. He can either stop being who he is or he can get the hell out of the room.

That’s how crazy and stupid starts. It has nothing to do with learning disabilities or brain pathology. It has everything to do with the myth of normalcy.

Do your children a favor and let them in on the real craziness. Let them know they’re not crazy, stupid, broken, or bad. Make sure they understand the institution is at fault, not them.

Jonathan Mooney finally learned to read at the age of 12. His first book, the award-winning Learning Outside the Lines, was published in 2000, the year he graduated from Brown University. He is the co-founder and Director Emeritus of Project Eye-to-Eye, a mentoring program for students with LD, continues to write and speak widely on the subject of learning disabilities, and accepted the 2009 Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities Community Service Award.