When doctors suggested Nelly Yankovic drug her son so he could sit still long enough to learn to read, and she noticed that 60% of the children she was teaching were taking prescription Ritalin several times a day, it struck her as "not right."
The DEA agrees. As long ago as 1996 they reported that Ritalin (methylphenidate) is "potent, addictive and abusable," and it is "over-prescribed, over-marketed and over-sold." Prescriptions increased 500% from 1990 to 1996.
Nelly decided to do something about it. Being a physical education teacher, she knew from personal experience that conscious physical exercise can develop self-discipline and focus. What if ADD-diagnosed children, instead of taking Ritalin, were taught to correctly swim the crawl stroke?
She contacted neurologists and other experts and convinced them to conduct a study. The results of that study will soon be published in Spain. Here is a sneak preview.
Guess what? Swimming, correctly, improves academic test scores. And as you can imagine, the exercise also improves health. And course we feel more self-esteem when we are strong and have mastered a skill.
I had the great honor to meet with this mom who is making a difference, Nelly Yankovic. Here is an English translation of our conversation.
What inspired you to conduct this study? What experiences in your life compelled you to dedicate your efforts to the field of swimming and its relationship to learning?
The grand inspiration that led me to carry out this research is my son. I want my son to be (as much as possible) happy. In my opinion, swimming is a method that helps students who have difficulties learning to read and write overcome these difficulties.
You have conducted impressive research about the effects of learning to swim well on improving grades, in comparison to children taking Ritalin. Can you tell us something about these studies?
The study was of [the relationship between] Ritalin, swimming, and learning how to read and write in children between 6 and 11 years old who had learning disabilities. I studied the pedagogy of physical education. When I started teaching physical education I noticed that 60% of the second graders were given a pill called Ritalin, with the objective for those children to concentrate and be able to learn the class subjects. That was how the children stayed calm and got very good grades.
I decided to demonstrate that by learning to correctly swim the crawl stroke, that the students could successfully learn to read and write. They had good results.
The study was conducted with groups of 10 students each that had difficulties learning to read and write. The students were selected by the child psychologist Amanda Labarca in the municipality of Vitacura in Santiago, Chile. The high school has a heated swimming pool.
At the end of the year and after 30 sessions of swimming, the 10 students of the experimental group demonstrated (in various tests) a significant improvement in reading and writing. They had better grades and were more homogeneous than the control group. Furthermore, they had a good time being in contact with water — they learned in a natural way.
Although the children on Ritalin had even higher test scores, the control group had not improved their reading and writing abilities at all by the year-end test.
In the study, the children taking Ritalin had better grades scholastically than the children swimming. In your opinion, how important are grades apart from everything else that makes us human beings? Do you believe that grades are the only way to judge the quality of a person?
Grades or scoring or evaluations that they give to students can stigmatize the child. The teacher needs to be very careful. Every single student is unique and furthermore I believe that for every single student there needs to be a unique method for teaching this person.
Children who take Ritalin have higher grades than those who do not consume this medicine. The problem is if they are not medicated, they do not have excellent scores.
Whereas, practicing the crawl stroke, correctly, improves reading and writing scores. It is a natural method that has for its objective the physical psychomotor activity of the thick trunk; promotes the development of fine motor skills and of being better coordinated, such as breathing correctly.
In regards to scores or grades, these can cause damage to the self-esteem of the student. On the other hand, a student with high grades is not guaranteed future success… or happiness or to be kind-hearted or loving. My experience in the school was to evaluate according to the initial capacities of each student.
In your opinion, what are the ingredients, or qualities, for a person to be well-developed?
The qualities to be a well-developed person are different for each student. Each student has different needs.
As Nelly Yankovic is rebuilding her home and life in earthquake-ravaged Santiago, Chile, she continues this self-motivated work to benefit children around the world. And her son? He is happily reading and writing and swimming.
Digital collage by Lynette Yetter