Are drugs the best treatment for attention problems?
So many parents are being told that their children have concentration problems, can’t focus or show limited attention span. Along with these descriptors, they hear that their child daydreams, fails to complete tasks, loses things, fidgets excessively and so on.
Seeking medical help usually results in a prescription for a stimulant drug, such as Ritalin, Concerta and Strattera. We do know that behaviour can be changed using certain drugs. On Ritalin, for example, children are better able to pay attention, stay on task and sit still but the results are temporary; only with repeated dosages and sustained-release tablets will the benefits last all day. Increasing the dosage over time brings risk of potential side effects even if these don’t show immediately and prolonged use should be discouraged because of uncertainty about long-term effects. In addition, the drugs don’t address the basic problem. They may make children easier to manage but don’t make them smarter or happier. Children don’t learn any better when on medication – in fact, their work may show a lack of thought and originality. They help the children get through the day in a mechanistic way but don’t make them better prepared for tomorrow. Unfortunately, the drugs are often used alone, with no on-going programme to help the child in other ways. In short, they may be the quickest and easiest ‘solution’ for children with attention problems but they aren’t the best.
The reason is that drugs don’t affect the underlying problems. Behavioural problems and inattentiveness are symptoms of other problems and the answer isn’t to be found in medication. Let’s have a look at some case studies:
Little Anna was the smallest child in class and came across as being quiet, withdrawn and easily distracted. She stares at other children and plays nervously with her crayons and books. When evaluated for neurodevelopmental delays, she showed that her stress levels were very high. She had some early developing irregularities that interfered with her brain’s ability to cope with the sights and sounds in the world. She was simply overwhelmed by what she perceived as ‘threats’ from her environment. Once these were addressed, her stress levels dropped and she became more responsive.
John never sits still. His constant activity often makes him a nuisance in class and at home. Under investigation, ILT found that due to hitches during his birth and early development, he had mixed dominance, and had failed to develop left-right preference because he hadn’t integrated the two sides of his body. He also hadn’t developed the foundational systems needed for efficient motor functioning and stable posture. As these were addressed, he became better able to keep his body still and use it in developmentally healthy movement activities that he could not master before. This led to his behaviour becoming less annoying, increased ability to make friends and improvements in classroom learning.
Kevin is a daydreamer. He often stares out a window or at the television screen. He is slow to complete his work. He is clumsy and often drops things. He has allergies and is often ill with sinusitis and colds. An ILT evaluation showed that his body didn’t work automatically. He was using his mind to run his body so the brain’s higher levels, supposed to be used in learning and daily coping, were not available for cognitive functioning. It would have been so easy for Kevin to slip through the cracks without achieving his potential. A programme to help underdeveloped brain areas brought about noticeable improvements in his schoolwork and physical coordination.
Little Sam was asked to leave his nursery school because his ‘violent’ behaviour and tantrums became too much to manage. A full neurodevelopmental evaluation by ILT showed no irregularities in development or sensory-motor system functioning. What was suspected was a sensitivity to food colourants and preservatives. On a trial basis following this suspicion, Sam’s family excluded any foods containing these additives and Sam almost immediately became calmer, eventually returning to his school as a happy, friendly little boy.
So drugs aren’t the answer to behavioural problems or inattentiveness. Instead, these children need a comprehensive evaluation followed by an individualized programme that corrects identified areas of irregular functioning.
Interestingly, an ILT associate ran a programme with a group of over 50 children, all diagnosed with ADHD. They were given daily certain sensory-motor stimulation and other movement activities designed to recreate the movement patterns that function to develop the brain in the early years. About half these children were on Ritalin when they started the programme. All were taken off Ritalin from three to six months later with no need to be put back on Ritalin or other behaviour-modifying medication. For all children, the results showed the elimination of behaviour problems, better school results and dramatically improved coordination. Social skills improved significantly as well but most importantly, the children were clearly happier.
Correcting behavioural and learning problems isn’t easy. Effective intervention needs a holistic approach that reaches to the problems in the background and provides a supportive, encouraging environment. For this reason, ILT is practiced in the family – no weekly visits to a therapist but ‘quality time’ spent in movements in which one or both parents can be involved. The rewards are immeasurable. There is nothing better than watching a child who begins to feel good from the inside out!
 Shirley Randolph, Tree of Learning Centre, Boise, Idaho