What is ADHD?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood disorders. It is sometimes referred to as attention-deficit disorder. It is usually first diagnosed in childhood and often lasts into adulthood. Children with ADHD have trouble paying attention and controlling impulsive behaviors (they may act without thinking about what the result will be), and, in some cases, are overly active. It’s not yet known what exactly causes ADHD. However, scientists have discovered a strong genetic link since ADHD can run in families. Other factors in the environment may increase the likelihood of having ADHD, such as:
- exposure to lead or pesticides in early childhood
- premature birth or low birth weight
- brain injury
- prenatal exposure to alcohol, drugs or nicotine from smoking
What are some of the signs of ADHD?
It is normal for children, at one time or another, to have trouble focusing and behaving. However, in children with ADHD, the symptoms continue instead of getting better, and they can make learning very difficult.
A child with ADHD might:
• Have a hard time paying attention and daydream a lot
• Seem to not listen
• Be easily distracted from schoolwork or play
• Forget things
• Be in constant motion or unable to stay seated
• Squirm or fidget
• Talk too much
• Not be able to play quietly
• Act and speak without thinking
• Have trouble taking turns
• Interrupt others
Deciding if a child has ADHD involves several steps. There is no single test to diagnose it, and many other problems, such as anxiety, depression and certain types of learning disabilities, can have similar symptoms. One step of the process involves having a medical exam, including hearing and vision tests, to rule out other problems that have symptoms similar to ADHD. Another part of the process may include a checklist for rating ADHD symptoms and taking a history of the child from parents, teachers and, sometimes, the child.
What can I do if I think my child may have ADHD?
Talk with your child’s doctor or nurse. If you or your doctor have concerns about ADHD, you can take your child to a specialist such as a child psychologist or developmental pediatrician, or you can contact your local early intervention agency (for children under 3) or public school (for children 3 and older).
To find out who to call in your area about these services, contact the National Dissemination Center for Children With Disabilities or call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at 800-232-4636.
CDC sponsors the National Resource Center on ADHD, a program of the group Children and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Its website has links to information for people with ADHD and their families. The National Resource Center on ADHD operates a call center with trained staff to answer questions about ADHD at 800-233-4050.
To make sure your child reaches his or her full potential, it is very important to get help for ADHD as early as possible.
The Benefits of Behavioral Therapy
According to the CDC, behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for ADHD and can improve a child’s behavior, self-control and self-esteem. For older children, experts say, the best treatment is often a combination of behavioral therapy and medication. For children under the age of 6, experts recommend that ADHD be treated with behavioral therapy first, before trying medication. Therapy is most effective in young children when it is delivered by parents.
When parents become trained in behavioral therapy, they learn skills and strategies that will help their child better control their behavior and function better at home, at school and in relationships. Learning and practicing behavioral therapy can have lasting benefits for the child.
Families should look for a therapist who focuses on training parents. Here’s what parents can expect about the training process:
- Generally, parents will have eight to 16 sessions in which they learn strategies to help their child.
- Sessions may involve groups or individual families.
- The therapist will meet regularly with the family to review progress, provide support and adjust strategies, as needed, to ensure improvement.
- Parents will practice with their child between sessions.
- Parents will learn to strengthen the relationship with their child through positive communication and active listening.
Find out more about Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plans.
Common ADHD Medications and Treatments for Children
For most children, stimulant medications are a safe and effective way to relieve ADHD symptoms. Stimulants may be used alone or combined with behavior therapy. Studies show that about 80% of children with ADHD who are treated with stimulants improve a great deal once the right medication and dose are determined.
ADHD and Homework
Every student can struggle with homework assignments. However, for children diagnosed with ADHD this task can become especially difficult. Medical experts say there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the ideal homework setting. Some children with ADHD work inefficiently in an isolated, quiet setting like their room. Some do better in the midst of some action, like at the kitchen table with a radio playing. It may take a few failed attempts to find the perfect setting for you child or student.
Parents may also benefit from finding other factors that may be making homework assignments difficult.
• Does your child know what all the assignments are?
• Do they bring the materials home that are necessary for doing the work?
• Do they have a nightly work plan that fits with their learning style?
• Do they have a system to check on whether all the nightly work is done?
• Is there a system for checking that their completed work gets turned in on the due date?
• How do they or you know that work is late?
• Have you or their teacher set up rewards for progress or consequences for late work?
• Is there a system for their teacher to communicate with you about late work?
How to Help Your Child at Home?
Having a child with challenging behavior can affect the entire family. By implementing a few simple rules and strategies gathered from the CDC, the Center for Parent Information and Resources, and the National Institute of Mental Health, you can help them better control their impulsive behaviors.
- Set kids up for success. Kids with ADHD respond best to specific goals and daily positive attention and reinforcement. Set rules but have reasonable expectations based on the child’s age and ability, and make sure they understand and offer input into rules and consequences. Write down these rules and discuss them at a family meeting.
- Limit rules. Don’t overwhelm your kids by enforcing too many rules all at once. Set rules for what’s really important, such as health and safety. For example: “We don’t hurt anyone on purpose,” or “Follow adults’ directions.”
- Don’t point fingers. Let rules be the “bad guy.” If rules get broken, follow the consequences outlined by the rules set by your family.
- Timeout. After giving your child a timeout, ask them why they have received a timeout and what they’ll do to avoid this consequence in the future.
- Be on guard during times of change. Teach appropriate behavior in times of transition. Remind your child about the consequences of bad behavior.
- Be supportive. Support your child in learning from their mistakes and doing better in the future.
- Reinforce good behaviors. Praise appropriate behaviors rather than criticizing inappropriate ones.
- Get active. Limit screen time in favor of time for movement.
- As always, be patient. Changing inappropriate behaviors takes time. Be sure to show your child compassion as they are relearning their behavioral patterns.