ADD has become a
common—and at times controversial—childhood “disorder.” Children are
diagnosed with it when they have trouble paying attention to tasks,
especially ones they’re not interested in. While a preschooler may
be identified as having ADD, more often a child is diagnosed during
the early elementary years, when his teachers or parents begin
complaining about how distractable he is: “He just doesn’t focus.”
“He’s too hard to handle.”
There’s no consistent chemical evidence for ADD, and while it’s
certainly a real disorder, a growing number of people feel that it’s
over- diagnosed by pediatricians, therapists, and even educators.
Children who truly have ADD typically have additional
neurobiological difficulties, including visual, auditory, or motor
problems. But any child who says, “I forgot,” and who dawdles before
going to school, procrastinates over homework or chores, is
boisterous or temperamental, or gets involved in something other
than what he’s directed to do could potentially be labeled ADD and
medicated for the condition.
One mother reported two examples of what she believed was ADD
behavior in her five-year-old: “He sits at dinner with one leg
hanging off the side of the chair, and he doesn’t listen when I tell
him to stay close by me in the mall.” When asked what she does about
these things, she responded, “Nothing! He has ADD so he can’t help
Too often, the diagnosis of ADD and the medication that follows are
either a catch-all method of dealing with a seemingly difficult, but
nor mal, child or an excuse for not setting firm limits, spending
time with him, and meeting his needs at home or at school. Parents
and teachers worried by the increase in ADD need to know that there
are a variety of other, more common reasons why a young child would
have trouble listening to adults or paying attention to his
Many children are simply spirited by nature, or they may act out in
aggressive ways because they’re not receiving enough calm, positive
attention. A child may feel stress because of his parents’ divorce,
a new sibling, or school pressures. Often, parents haven’t helped
their child learn to get along with others, and haven’t given him
enough guidance and discipline.
A rarely discussed contributor to ADD-like behavior can be day care,
where many children, starting at age two, follow a rigid schedule
initiated by teachers. Frequent changes from one activity to another
mean a child can’t focus for long periods or get involved in
something interesting without constant interruptions. The schedule
basically trains him not to pay careful attention.
Here is a typical day for a young child in a day care program. He
may wake as early as 5:30 AM. so his family can leave home by 6:00
to get to day care by 6:80. He’s rushed as he gets dressed, and
there’s no time to play before driving off. Once he arrives at the
day care center, his schedule is packed (only naptime lasts longer
than an hour).
6:30 A.M. Arrives and says good-bye to his parents whom he won’t see
again for ten to twelve hours.
7:00—8:00 Table games, puzzles, quiet activities
8:30—9: 15 Art activity
9:45—10:30 Outdoor play
10:30—11:15 Circle time with teacher-directed activity
11:15—11:30 Wash up and prepare for lunch
2:30—3:15 Outdoor play
3:15—4:00 Free play
5:00—6:00 Table activities, puzzles, Legos, clean up, and
preparation to leave.
At 6:00 RM., the child is picked up and taken home or on an errand.
His family arrives home between 6:30 and 7:00, and he plays or
watches TV until dinner. Then he plays for a short while before
bath, story, and bed at 8:30, or later if he had a long nap at day
Children do this day after day, often for four or five years. While
the day care schedule may seem to keep them busy and enriched, it
actually operates counter to their needs. According to develop
mentalist Erik Erikson, preschoolers have important tasks at this
developmental stage: they need to initiate ideas; plan, carry out,
and persevere in activities; and set goals. This is how they learn
to focus, concentrate, and follow through.
Yet, children in many day care programs are not focusing and
following through enough. All day, they’re required to share or give
up whatever they’re using before they’re done. They often don’t have
time to finish what they start before teachers interrupt to get them
ready for the next activity. The starting and stopping and the lack
of flexibility keep them from learning to concentrate for extended
periods. The frustration can make them uncooperative and fidgety. By
the time a child gets to kindergarten or first grade, his teachers
may be pointing out his ADD-like behavior.
If you suspect your child has ADD or if he’s already been diagnosed,
don’t give him medication unless you and your physician believe it’s
absolutely necessary. There are many other strategies you can try
first. If he’s in day care, look for programs with more flexible
schedules. Limit TV, video game, and computer time; instead, spend
more time with him, playing together and paying attention to his
interests. Highlight his capabilities, nurture his curiosity, and
give him opportunities to initiate activities. Slow down, let him
finishes what he starts, and don’t stress clean-up over discovery
You also need to make discipline a priority Set clear limits on his
inappropriate behavior, follow through with consequences, and
redirect him toward more positive activities. Look for underlying
reasons for his misbehavior. Help him learn to control his impulses,
and consistently teach him right from wrong.
All children have some trouble concentrating, especially when they’d
rather be doing something else. If your child shows ADD-like
behavior, it will take time for him to learn to focus on important
tasks. But with your involvement and patience and his teachers’
cooperation, he should eventually be able to follow directions and
pay attention without needing medication.