It's midday at an elementary school in a comfortable American suburb. The lunch bell has just rung, and the kids are noisily pouring out of classrooms to enjoy a brief recess in the schoolyard before mealtime. Inside, next door to the principal's office, the school secretary is arranging bottles of medication on a tray. Scotch taped to the tray are little photos of 14 children, labeled with their names and keyed to the bottles. Though by now she pretty much knows who gets what, at the beginning of the school year, this system helped make sure she didn't make mistakes--that each of the children taking Ritalin at school received the right pill and dose.
At least a dozen more youngsters among the 350 attending this school took the same medication at home before school, but aren't required to take a midday dose.
At a nearby school of similar size, the kids getting Ritalin are organized in 10-minute shifts because their number exceeds 30. And this weekday ritual is carried out--with variations in the number of kids and the personnel responsible for handing out the pills--at schools across the United States.
The children are being medicated because they are underperforming at school and, often, at home. They appear inattentive, distractible and impulsive; some fidget or move about more than their classmates. However, many of these youngsters do not look much different from…
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