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If your child is struggling, distracted in school, unable to sit still and focus, you may have considered the possibility that they have ADHD. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder often presents in childhood and is characterized by limited attention and hyperactivity. If left untreated, problems such as difficulty with schoolwork and low self-esteem can result. If you suspect ADHD, here’s the info you need to know to get on the road toward helping your child succeed and thrive.

WHAT ARE THE WARNING SIGNS?

ADHD typically presents with hyperactivity, impulsivity and poor attention span, says S. Michael Vergara, MD, a neuro-developmental pediatrician with Developmental Pediatric Associates at Hunterdon Health in Flemington. “These symptoms are concerning when it starts to impact one’s academic potential and social-emotional well-being.” Other hallmarks of ADHD are an inability to focus on tasks, being disorganized and constantly losing and forgetting things. Children with hyperactivity often seem to be “driven by a motor” and cannot sit still.

HOW IS ADHD DIAGNOSED?

There is no one diagnostic test that can diagnose ADHD, says Vergara. “The diagnosis is made from obtaining a comprehensive medical history, gathering information from parents and teachers and individuals who see the child in different settings.” Assessment scales such as the Vanderbilt Assessment Scales or the Conners rating scale are also helpful. This information will be used to determine if the diagnostic criteria set by the DSM-V are met by guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

HOW CAN PARENTS WORK WITH TEACHERS?

Your child’s teacher spends the most time with them and can be a valuable source of information in determining how they are performing in school and what can be done to ensure the best outcome. Vergara suggests parents approach the teacher with their concerns. “This may reveal that the teacher has the same concerns and that an evaluation with a specialist may be warranted to determine if a medical diagnosis, such as ADHD, is present,” he says. Once your child has a diagnosis, plans that may include special accommodations at school can be implemented to ensure they are getting the help they need to succeed.

WHAT ABOUT MEDICATION?

Often, talk therapy is the first treatment considered for ADHD, but in some cases, medication can be the right option for kids. The drugs prescribed to children for ADHD are non-habit forming and, in many cases, very effective. Stimulants such as Adderall can help reduce interrupting, fidgeting and other hyperactive symptoms, as well as improve task completion and home relationships.

“I personally am conservative when it comes to starting medications for ADHD,” says Vergara. “I first discuss the options of what can be done to help the child, especially if young, such as working with a behavioral specialist who can help teach the child and parents strategies and skills for ADHD. Next, I recommend working with the school, possibly obtaining an accommodation plan and related services to address the ADHD diagnosis to help the child be successful at school. If these are not as effective, medications are usually discussed as the next option.”

EXECUTIVE FUNCTION AND ADHD

If your child is struggling with things such as task initiation and time management, a school psychologist can help. “Many kids with ADHD struggle with executive functioning,” says Amy Ash a school psychologist at Middlesex Borough Public Schools and board-certified behavior analyst with Functional Behavior Solutions, which has offices in Montclair and Westfield. “Executive functioning skills are higher-level cognitive skills such as planning, organization and self-regulation, which are housed in the prefrontal cortex of our brains. Part of this is due to the fact that ADHD is neurologically based, as are our executive functioning capabilities.”

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BENEFITS OF WORKING WITH A COACH 

An executive function coach can provide parents and children with ADHD with strategies to help a child stay organized, focused, productive and better able to complete academic and non-academic tasks. “Learning a variety of strategies to address these weaknesses not only provides the child with invaluable skills, but also can make difficult activities, like chores and completing homework, easier for families to manage,” says Ash.

PROVEN STRATEGIES FOR ADHD

Some of the most helpful strategies Ash has used include breaking down tasks into manageable units (sometimes called “chunking”). “So, rather than sitting down and trying to write a five-paragraph essay, the student would work on breaking that task down into much smaller pieces,” she says.

Another helpful strategy is to include a visual schedule with picture icons for non-readers or a written-out schedule or checklist for children who can read. “A parent can create these on their own or can find already prepared visuals online.”

ADHD IN GIRLS

Boys and girls are both affected by ADHD but the symptoms can look very different in the latter, making it more difficult to diagnose. While boys often have a hyperactive component to ADHD, girls frequently have ADHD-I (inattentive type). This means that while they’re not “bouncing off the walls” like their male counterparts, they do have a difficult time staying organized, following directions and paying attention.

Girls may not receive a diagnosis and therefore may miss out on getting much-needed assistance. Even worse, girls are more likely to internalize their differences as something that’s their fault. If your daughter is daydreaming and fidgeting in a way that interferes with schoolwork and social relationships it could be smart to get her evaluated so she can get the help she needs to succeed.

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