“I remember I was at my preschool and I was mad, I think because i just wanted to play with legos but some other kid kept saying “no”. I grabbed a big ruler and just started hitting everything I could see. I was about to explode and I was running and the teachers were chasing me. It’s not like I wanted to do that or it’s not like this was my way to get my anger out. I was just so angry I didn’t even know what I was doing and at that point I was just still mad at the kid.”
(Jason, 9 years old)
My pediatrician said that it was too early to diagnose. The preschool that Jason attended was a teaching facility with highly trained personnel in early childhood development. They also advised that it was too early to tell if his behavior was related to his age or if it would continue as he went to school. I knew something was wrong, and I feared for my son, but I felt powerless and without any way to help him.
The medical community does not generally diagnose ADHD before seven years old. The reason is that the behaviors presented with ADHD are similar to many of the behaviors of small children. Many young children have trouble with self regulation, impulse control, maintaining focus, and with having a large amount of energy to manage.
I was worried for my son’s future. If he had a learning difference or ADHD, I wanted him to get help right away. In essence, I was searching for a label. There is a lot of discussion about labels and how people avoid them or are afraid of their child having one. Personally, I wanted a label desperately. I felt that once Jason’s behavior had a name, I could follow a prescribed approach to solving the problem. In reality that was only partially true. Jason’s ultimate diagnosis of ADHD with ODD gave me a name to search on Google and to read about but the journey was only beginning.
There is not one set of guidelines or instructions for ADHD. When people tell me that their child has ADHD and they approach me for advice on what to do, my best advice is to start observing and communicating. This is a complicated disorder to navigate and you will need to be in collaboration with your child, their teacher, and other adults in their life as you learn what is supportive and what is not. I would like to offer the same advice to those that don’t have a diagnosis for their child.
The strategies we use for children with ADHD can be used for any child that is struggling with self regulation, focus, impulsivity, hyperactivity, etc. Encouraging social emotional learning skills such as self advocating and communicating about feelings is crucial. These skills empower your child to begin to recognize and name their own emotions. Once they are able to do that, communicating their needs is the powerful next step. You can lay the foundation for your child to be a confident self advocator in their learning environment, whether they have ADHD or not.
I clearly remember Jason at three learning to say that he was “frustrated” (he used to put a “k” in that word in a very awkward place) and wanted to sit alone in a tent that they had in the play area at preschool. This was huge progress over simply throwing stuff or hitting other children. Encouraging your child to express themselves sets the foundation for a healthy self esteem and a trusting parent child relationship.
Another important strategy is channeling your child’s energy. Your child may or may not be diagnosed with ADHD ultimately but all children benefit from movement and excess energy is the root cause of a lot of frustration and behavior issues in children. Find ways to get your child moving, whether it be time at the park, a family activity, or participating in sports. Identifying physical activities that your child loves early on will positively impact their health throughout their life.
Great activities for improving focus include reading together, puzzles, creative activities, and science experiments. Don’t become discouraged if your child seems to prefer to go from one activity to another. Focus is a skill that requires development over years and is particularly challenging for those with ADHD. Sometimes “fidgets” such as squeeze balls and velcro help kids to focus on their primary activity. Projects that have a final result such as puzzles and crafts are excellent ways to teach perseverance and focus – even if it has to happen initially in small increments. The time spent working together on focus will not only help your child develop their attention span but also your bond as you work together to find strategies that are supportive.
Even though we are not able to get an early diagnosis in most cases, those of us with children that have symptoms that might point to ADHD can be proactive and are not without resources for preparing our kids for success in school.