For children with focus issues or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD or ADHD), the world can be a confusing and overwhelming place. Their brains frequently flit from subject to subject, or they become entranced by one compelling thing. How is a child to cope and how can parents help?

Fortunately, medication is not the only way.

“I get many referrals from local psychiatrists to have me use nonmedical strategies with families prior to a doctor prescribing medications. Many times this ‘behavioral intervention’ is enough to help kids succeed in school,” said Rachel Rudman, a pediatric occupational therapist with specialized training in early intervention and sensory integration.

Self-regulation

“There are many activities children can do for classroom concentration that are helpful and do not disrupt the class. I come in schools as a consultant to work with teachers and students to help ‘make a plan,’” Rudman said.

As kids get older, the key is teaching them self-regulation.

“They need to become aware of how they feel when they lose focus and, together with a parent or therapist, come up with three or four strategies that work to help them get more focused,” Rudman said.

Exercise

One strategy involves exercise before or after school.

Rudman suggests that children jump on a trampoline, for compressing the joints of the body while jumping on a trampoline produces an organizational effect that lasts for four to six hours, similar to an adult going to the gym before starting his or her day.

Dr. Tracy Latz, an integrative psychiatrist practicing just outside of Charlotte, N.C., concurs that exercise is important.

“Aerobic exercise boosts natural catecholamines, the body’s own amphetamine of sorts, to improve focus. Taking breaks from intense study sessions to go for a jog or run outdoors, play basketball for twenty minutes or do some other type of aerobic exercise can help restore attention and focus,” Latz said.

Parents should not give in

“I find that most of my patients with children who have been diagnosed with ADHD tend to give in to their child’s demands or lack of ability to focus as a way to avoid tantrums or confrontations with their child,” said Dr. Amy Stella, a California-based psychotherapist.

For example, when a child doesn’t want to finish a homework assignment, the parent might acquiesce in the moment, which makes the child believe he or she doesn’t have to complete the task.

“The parent’s behavior in the moment can seem like a perfectly logical plan; however, it usually doesn’t give the parent or child what they need to get the task accomplished. If instead the parent helps the child with focusing by sitting next to them and assisting them with the homework until it is completed, even while the child complains, avoids and becomes distracted by irrelevant issues, the child will learn how to compete subsequent homework tasks more efficiently,” Stella said.

The reward system

“I find that rewarding a child who has been diagnosed with ADHD for accomplishing tasks in a timely or appropriate manner is another very effective tool in helping these children learn how to combat their disorder,” Stella said. “Rewards need to be based on something the child genuinely enjoys and can range from a sticker to special story time with mom or dad.”

Organization

Stephanie Hackney, a professional organizer, believes that order and routines can help make life more manageable for children with ADD/ADHD.

She advises limiting distractions, whether they are noises or items, in places where children have to focus on tasks or other people. When decorating these spaces, she suggests sticking to one palette and using a calming color rather than an exhilarating one. Knickknacks and extra furnishings should be kept to a minimum.

Hackney also said that keeping a schedule, one that the child will eventually recognize as routine, is very helpful. She explained that parents should keep in mind that it may take up to 60 days of repeated behavior for a child with ADD/ADHD to develop a routine, depending on the severity of his or her condition.

Routines can also be established to help address specific challenges. For instance, if a child with ADD/ADHD is always forgetting to bring his or her homework back to school, designate a space at home where the child puts homework in his or her backpack.

Parents should encourage independence

Most importantly, Hackney said parents should work with their children to find ways to overcome their limitations. Doing everything for them only decreases their ability to exist outside of parental assistance, which make growing up tough. Parents can’t always be there to do everything for their children.

Lisa B. Samalonis writes from Gloucester Township, N.J. Visit her website at www.lisasamalonis.com.

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