Is your 4-year-old being labelled as ‘ADHD’?
It’s come to my attention that quite a few very young boys are being described as ‘ADHD’ or hyperactive. They seem to be regarded as being overly ‘busy’, mainly by their preschool teachers. Are we forgetting that most young children are highly active, energetic and generally spend much time ‘on the move’? My long years of experience have shown that highly active young boys generally settle down as they grow, perform well at school and fail to develop any attention or other learning related problems.
So why are teachers sometimes labelling youngsters incorrectly? Perhaps we need to consider how they come to this decision and consider what other aspects may be contributing to the children’s inattentive behaviours.
A child who fails to concentrate in one situation is in danger of being seen as a child who can’t concentrate in any situation. If a child doesn’t sit still he is in danger of being called hyperactive. His parents might be panicked into believing hyperactivity and poor concentration are permanent conditions which will need specialist treatment, including medication.
Highly mobile youngsters may show a disinclination to sit down and engage in table tasks. Their preference will be for outdoor play, usually very physical. Or others may seem to dislike concentrating on teaching materials, rejecting colouring-in, crafts, puzzles and so on. They prefer any number of other games or activities that are enjoyed at home. Boys in particular need to be physically engaged and take much longer to adapt to more sedentary tasks. They may not want to concentrate on the teaching events, listen to stories sitting quietly in a circle, or follow the teacher’s instructions.
Check his concentration
You can check whether your child can concentrate by giving him something to do which he enjoys doing, and which takes concentration. If your child can pay attention to the activity for at least five minutes you will know he can concentrate (and sit still). It’s important to emphasise that if someone can concentrate in one situation, then the problem is not an inability to concentrate. If your child’s attention wanders before the five minutes have passed, maybe he does need your help. The nature of the help will depend on your assessment of the situation so let’s consider some relevant points.
- Have realistic expectations. Some children seem to be able to concentrate better than others. If you compare one child to others, you may be unrealistic in terms of what he can and can’t do. Instead, compare what your child is doing this week with what he was doing last week; how he behaved when he went to bed last night; how he played with other children at school compared with how he plays with them at home. When you focus on your individual child and notice changes in his behaviour, it helps avoid becoming trapped into thinking that your child has a problem simply because he’s different from others.
- Avoid using checklists. Checklists can convince you that your child has a serious problem because they can be so all inclusive that parents or teachers will find something on the list that applies to that child. They make you feel they are describing unusual behavior but often they are only describing things that every child will do sometimes. Checklists for ADHD can include the following questions:
- Does your child forget instructions?
- Does your child have a short temper?
- Does your child fidget?
- Does your child constantly ask questions?
- Does your child leave his bedroom untidy?
- Does your child produce messy work?
Doesn’t this look like a list of the stages that all children go through and outgrow?
- Does your child know how to pay attention? Some children will seem to pay attention automatically. However, every child learns differently and for some, the ability to attend doesn’t come naturally. They need help in learning to concentrate and the good news is that concentration can be taught. For children to learn concentration, they must be given responsibility, must feel that their contribution to family life matters and must have the chance gradually to develop the skills everyone needs in order to be able to function successfully.
- Does your child only pay attention when it suits him? The reason for this may be because what he should be doing is: too difficult, too boring, too tedious or not clearly understood. The child will simply try to get out of something he doesn’t want to do or feels incapable of doing. This avoidance behavior needs investigating and a good place to start is to find out whether or not he understands how to learn or how to approach the task given. If children are not expected to learn to do things at home, they may struggle to learn at school. Setting the dining table is a good example of an age-appropriate task that can be used to teach a young child to learn. It’s a simple everyday activity but it needs a system. While busy, your child will have to keep thinking until the job is done. Having chores to do at home are good learning opportunities that have unexpected spin-offs!
What to do?
If reports from school concern you, don’t ignore them but don’t overreact either. First do your own assessment of the situation and then, if need be, find a helping professional that will look holistically at the situation. While most of the younger boys suspected of having ‘ADHD’ will not need intervention, some might well benefit from help. Unusual behaviours can have many different causes – which is why ILT practitioners are taught to consider all possibilities. The website www.ilt.co.za contains more information and sources of help.