It Doesn't Add Up

By Chelle Cordero

June 5, 2009 5 min read


If your child can't focus, don't reach for pills yet

Chelle Cordero

Creators News Service

At the last parent-teacher conference, you were informed that your precious child doesn't sit still or pay attention in class. He doesn't seem to want to follow through and finish classroom projects and he is easily frustrated and impatient.

The teacher even hinted that you might want to ask your doctor about medications normally used for children suffering with attention deficit disorder (ADD). This diagnosis is often used as an umbrella term for a group of sensory processing disorders, which may or may not respond to medications or sensory-based treatments.

But before you put your child on medication, remember that there are several conditions that mimic the apparent lack of self-control, irritability or fidgeting so often labeled ADD.

"In my work, I ask for a detailed family history and ask specifically about a family history for hypoglycemia or diabetes," said Robert A. Evans, a certified and licensed school psychologist and president of The Center for Human Potential Of America, Inc. "Children with possible metabolic or endocrine difficulties will demonstrate behavior that will frequently appear to be AD/HD."

If there is an imbalance found, rather than medications usually prescribed for ADD, the ultimate resolution will be a diet adjustment. Evans cautioned that children with learning disabilities or caught in stressful situations also tend to exhibit similar symptoms.

Many experts point to nutritional deficiencies and careless diets as causes of ADD-like behavior. Food additives, such as food coloring and preservatives, low dietary levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients, and over-stimulation from television may also cause erratic behavior that can be mistaken for ADD.

Gifted and talented children also exhibit these symptoms. They may become bored and unfocused and have similar behaviors to the disorder if there isn't enough attention or creative outlets for them.

"When a child is having trouble paying attention in school, ADD is only one possible explanation," said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a Princeton, N.J. psychologist and author the children's book, "What About Me? Twelve Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your Sister" ($15, Parenting Press). She included teaching strategies, fear of failure, hunger or illness and a need for physical activity as things to consider.

She also offered a list of strategies for parents to help their children if they're having focus problems:

* Rule out physical issues. Try offering more protein at breakfast or lunch and encouraging activity.

* Consider an earlier bedtime. Typically, school-aged children need 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night. Try to have a fairly consistent bedtime.

* Encourage your child to be a "scientist" -- have him or her observe and experiment to figure out what does or doesn't help with attention, such as looking at the teacher, adjusting seating and different study strategies.

* Talk with your child's teacher to get their perspective about when and why the attention difficulties are occurring.

* Spend time with your child to create the opportunity for them to confide. Many children find it easier to talk about what's going on in their lives when their hands are busy and an adult is doing something low-key with them.

If you have multiple children, you may need to arrange some one-on-one time. If there are serious problems at home, let your child know how the problems will or won't affect them and reassure that the problems are not his or her fault.

* Testing may be appropriate to rule out learning issues or visual or auditory processing difficulties.

"There are many conditions that can mimic ADD, and the worst thing a physician can do is just give a prescription for a stimulant as a trial," warned Dr. James Dom Dera, assistant professor of family medicine at Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy.

After appropriate testing, if it is determined to be ADD, Dera said, "ADD responds very well to structure (homework, reading, dinner, family time, etc.). Include relaxation time as well as a reward system for good behaviors along with consequences for unwanted behavior."

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