As early education has shifted from free play learning and exploration to more structured educational settings, children are struggling more often and younger than ever before. The expectation for children to sit still and learn quietly is becoming widespread, even in preschools. While some kids are naturally quiet and subdued, many find this expectation difficult.
While it is possible that an active child at age two or three may later develop Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), many of the common symptoms are perfectly normal and appropriate behavior for young children even up into the first few years of elementary school—especially for active children. Sometimes a child’s behavior isn’t easy to handle, but that does not mean a child meets the requirements for an official diagnosis. As a parent and your child’s biggest advocate, you need to know the difference.
“It is very difficult to diagnose a child under the age of five with ADHD,” said Leah Rigney, Nurse Practitioner at Canopy Children’s Solutions’ Center of Excellence. “Children that age are just naturally more active, talkative, fidgety and on-the-go. ADHD can also look like a host of other disorders in children including anxiety, depression, reaction to emotional trauma, learning disabilities and mood disorders.”
Several studies have shown that many children are being misdiagnosed with ADHD. Depending on a child’s age and maturity, normal child behavior can mistakenly look like symptoms of ADHD, as can a number of other behavioral health and learning disorders in young children. So what can you do to help advocate for your child appropriately and recognize when it’s time to seek help? Rigney offers insight on how to spot ADHD and when to take action.
- Don’t compare. Comparing students within a single classroom is a skewed evaluation as children in a school setting can be anywhere from a few days to well over a year apart in age. There is a big difference developmentally between a five-year-old and a child about to turn seven. Plus, the behavior of a shy child and an outgoing child can also look completely different.
- Symptoms must occur in more than one setting. If a teacher complains of a certain behavior at school but it doesn’t appear at home or in the community, it may be a sign the child isn’t being challenged, is bored or isn’t understanding the material and resorts to disruptive behavior to cope with anxiety rather than being a true sign of ADHD.
- Is the behavior disruptive? It can be difficult to teach or parent a highly-active child; however, if the child’s inattention, impulsivity or hyperactivity isn’t affecting his or her performance at school, home or in the community, it isn’t appropriate to diagnose a child with ADHD.
- Is his/her behavior age appropriate? Wanting a younger child to sit still for 30 minutes and review the alphabet may be what we want them to do but it isn’t the way their little bodies are made. However, a child farther advanced in elementary school should be able to sit and focus on a lecture.
- Trust your gut. Just because a child is active doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has ADHD. If you are confronted or have concerns of your own regarding your child’s behavior, have an open conversation with your child’s pediatrician. They can refer you to a behavioral health provider for a diagnosis, if appropriate.
As a behavioral health practitioner and former teacher, Rigney recommends those working with younger-aged children to use hands-on and interactive teaching activities using all five senses such as a cooking activity to teach counting or simple math. She also encourages more breaks and a lot of free play. For older children who seem to be struggling, outpatient therapy is also an effective tool in helping youth learn to cope with inattentive or hyperactive behaviors. Therapy can also provide parents with tools to help support the child.
“The biggest thing to remember is that while a child’s behavior isn’t always pleasant, diagnosing ADHD isn’t a quick fix,” said Rigney. “Kids, with and without ADHD, need to feel supported, accepted and offered patience. If your instincts tell you to reach out for help, don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s teacher, counselor, or doctor, or seek out a behavioral health professional in your area.”
Contributed by Laura Walker
Laura Walker is the staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions. Canopy is Mississippi’s most comprehensive nonprofit provider of children’s behavioral health, educational and social service solutions with locations across the state. Canopy’s Center of Excellence in Jackson provides families with comprehensive behavioral health and psychiatric solutions including outpatient therapy, psychiatric evaluations and referrals as well as medication management. For more information about solutions offered through Canopy, visit mycanopy.org or call 800-388-6247.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 edition of Parents & Kids Magazine. Click to find more articles and resources from Parents & Kids.