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Two students make an impromptu study of garter snakes at Toronto's Victoria Park Forest School in May of 1933. The city ran two outdoor forest schools for vulnerable children during the summer months from 1913-1963.

John Boyd/John Boyd/The Globe and Mail

Toronto parent Donald Bruce Smith spent years trying to get special help in school for his middle daughter Megan. She was bright and expressive, but in Grade 3 read at a junior kindergarten level. Mr. Smith and his wife Heather paid privately for a $1,200 psychological assessment which found Megan struggled with an attention deficit and short-term memory problems. But convincing the school to provide her with extra services was "a very intense and protracted" battle, says Mr. Smith. Megan, now 18, eventually received a spot in a special class, read at grade level by Grade 6, and in Grade 7 doctors prescribed her a Ritalin-like drug, says Mr. Smith, which his daughter takes only during the school week and school year.

Yet the story with their younger son, Zach, was drastically different. He was six years old, earning As and Bs, when his Grade 1 teacher told the Smiths at their first parent-night meeting that their son was "an active boy in class, vocal….a socializer.

"Then she slipped a pamphlet across the desk - about Ritalin," says Mr. Smith. "It catches you completely from left field."

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As it happens, the Smiths had a binder to push back. Fearing their son might have the same learning difficulties as their daughter, they had also had him assessed. Zach, the psychologist had concluded, was perfectly fine.

"We asked her if she had any background to make the suggestion," Mr. Smith recalled,

"She said 'No, it's just my view.'

"The one thing I learned was that if you can afford it, go outside the school system." said Mr. Smith, adding that Zach, now 16, was picked student of the year by his Grade 6 schoolmates.

"When you have a large number of female teachers looking at this, they may have a tendency to see boys' behaviour as problematic…[Zach's teacher]saw his active participation as a disorder."

Questions linger about Ritalin

Drugs to treat ADHD, with common side effects that include insomnia and headaches, have been better studied than most psychiatric medications used in children. But questions linger about their long term safety - a U.S. study last year suggested that Ritalin could have unknown consequences on crucial brain systems. As well, Health Canada, and later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, warned a few years ago that the stimulant drugs may be dangerous for those with underlying heart problems - and those who do not actually have ADHD.

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