Even when David Johnson was a toddler, his mother, JoAnn, suspected he'd have problems in school. "He just didn't sit and play with anything; he'd move from one thing to another," says JoAnn. When David started school, the teachers in his Milwaukee, Wisconsin classroom had questions about his behavior; by the start of second grade, JoAnn was convinced she knew what was wrong.
"I went to school the first week of class and he wasn't getting anything done. He just couldn't focus."
David was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It's a condition that, along with its cousin, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), affects 3 to 5 percent of school-age children. Kids affected by ADD or ADHD are usually of average or above average intelligence, but their learning disability creates a gap between their potential and their academic performance.
ADHD causes four basic types of problems for children: inattention, hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, and poor social skills.David, now 12, has had a difficult time socially. "When he was little," JoAnn says, "his behavior was seen as cute. But now that he's older, kids don't like it anymore." JoAnn knew she had to balance changing David's behavior with trying to build his self-esteem.
One way she's done that is by getting him involved in individual sports. "David couldn't do team sports. There was too much pressure and too many distractions. He'd be out on the soccer field picking weeds. With sports like swimming, speed skating, and tennis, there's not as much stimuli, and he can focus better."
In addition to finding positive outlets in sports, David takes Ritalin, a central nervous system stimulant that has helped his behavior a great deal. Ritalin, as well as other medications like Cylert and Dexedrine, can be helpful, but only if used in conjunction with other types of treatment.
The controversy over this type of medication for children has divided many experts in the field. However, most agree that the drugs can help turn some children around. These medications allow the child to focus, but experts agree it's up to the child to make the medication work. Kids with ADHD need to want to change their own behavior.
Knowledge is power
James Javorsky, a doctoral fellow at Purdue University who conducts workshops on ADHD, says parents should give the child the chance to learn about ADHD. This information should be presented in ways kids 'get.' "If the kids don't understand it -- what it is -- in terms they can understand," Javorsky cautions, "then they start to develop a misunderstanding, a belief that they're dumb, a belief that they can't do it."
Kids with these learning disorders require environments that are nurturing, yet structured and stable, Javorsky says. "If some days there's no punishment except a little yelling, and the next day it's 'you're grounded 'til you're 18,' that inconsistency is the breeding ground for behavioral problems for children with these learning disorders. They need consistency."
Javorsky, who grew up with both ADHD and dyslexia, is living proof that kids with learning disabilities can succeed. By the time he'd earned multiple bachelor's degrees from Miami (Ohio) University, his reading was estimated at only the eighth-grade level. Javorsky attributes much of his success to the tough love approach used by his parents, who let him make his own mistakes -- but always asked that he do the best he could.
Kids don't outgrow ADHD. Some may become less hyperactive as they grow older, but they still face problems with inattention, impulsiveness, and inappropriate social behavior. With early and effective intervention, and your help and support, the child with ADHD can develop the lifelong strategies that will allow him to succeed.