What Moms of Kids With Invisible Disabilities Want You to Know

Parents of kids with invisible disabilities want the world to know it’s only okay to assume one thing: They and their kids are doing the best they can.

While some disabilities demand recognition via a wheelchair, hearing aid, or portable oxygen tank, others are more subtle, but that doesn’t make them any less real. Known as invisible disabilities, these affect 96 percent of people who have a chronic medical condition according to one estimate. Caring for a child with any disability presents extra challenges. For the parents of kids with invisible disabilities, those challenges often include the misperceptions of their communities – including friends, family, neighbors, and teachers – that are uninformed at best and hostile at worst.

I talked to moms of kids with invisible disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Avoidant and Resistive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), hemophilia, and many others, to find out what they wish more people understood about their experiences. Here are some of them.

Sensory processing issues are not discipline issues

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, sensory processing affects virtually all aspects of a child’s daily life, including motor coordination, school performance, and relationships. A child with sensory processing disorder could have 20/20 vision and perfect hearing, but when he’s in a crowded mall, his brain is not able to manage all of the auditory and visual information he’s receiving through his eyes and ears. While each kid reacts differently to overstimulation, some will scream or become physically aggressive. What may look like defiance is just a kid doing his best to manage a stressful environment. The assumption that a lack of discipline indicates a failure by the parent is totally without merit. Here are few of their stories.

Jaime has a five-year-old son with level one high functioning ASD. She says, “Discipline will not prevent him from being overwhelmed by his environment.”

Lainie Gutterman, the mom of a seven-year-old boy with ASD agrees. She says when her son is having a meltdown, “Staring, pointing and offering your two cents is not helping the situation and will most likely cause my son or myself to feel worse and [his] behaviors to escalate.”

Similarly, Jennifer Lynn, whose son has ADHD, wishes people understood she’s not being rude or indulging her children when she leaves a party abruptly. “It’s just that we see the warning signs and are trying to help our kiddo avoid a meltdown.” She says events like family gatherings or vacations, which are fun for most people, “are stressful for our family because it’s just too much everything.”

A little compassion goes a long way

Regardless of their child’s diagnosis, virtually every mom I talked to described the pain of receiving judgment instead of compassion. Sarah Cottrell, whose son has hemophilia, is tired of challenging people’s assumptions about his diagnosis. She says, “He doesn’t have AIDS and hemophilia isn’t caused by incest. Enough with the wild theories, because we need compassion and empathy for the unseen pain issues and unending fear and anxiety over covering his insurance.”

Most parents I talked to, particularly those of kids with sensory processing disorder, described organizing their days around their kids’ strict routines. Every parent understands how easily the best-laid plans for meals, naps, and bedtimes can implode. What many parents don’t understand is how much higher the stakes are when your special-needs child depends on predictability for a sense of safety.

Lisa Rosen, who wakes up 90 minutes before her kids in order to prepare for the non-stop mental and physical energy her son requires, says, “When adults look at my child, they see a happy kid…. But I know that if one thing is off in our routine, I’m dealing with Hiroshima.” Her son Ezra, age three, has sensory processing disorder and is speech delayed. According to Rosen, something as seemingly minor as the smell of a classmate’s detergent could cause him to melt down to the point where she must carry him out of the classroom – regardless of whether she’s carrying her 15-month-old baby as well. She describes her family’s disappointing absence of understanding when she couldn’t attend the funeral of a family member due to a lack of childcare coupled with Ezra’s regimented schedule and complex needs. “Who knew compassion was so difficult to come by?” she asks.

The predictability some kids require doesn’t just extend to schedules and environments, but also to food. Brianna Bell and Jennifer Gregory each have a child with sensory processing disorder that makes them intolerant of many foods. Because of this, Bell hates sharing meals with friends. She says, “There is so much pressure from others for her to eat this and that and not be so picky. I feel rude bringing my own food but she starves if I don’t. And people just don’t understand and assume she’s spoiled.”

Gregory asserts that her family frequently eats separately. She serves alternative meals and allows screens at the table, and this works for them. She wants people to understand that for her family, “Mealtime is chock full of stress and anxiety and the goal is to get food into our son’s belly because he doesn’t eat enough. If an iPad distracts him from smells and texture and allows him to eat more, so be it.”

Parents described not only a shortage of kindness from other parents, but also from other children. Lisa Beach recalled her son’s adolescent years as being particularly isolating. He is now 20 and has Asperger’s. Beach’s advice to parents is simple: “Teach [your] kids to reach out and include rather than label and judge.”

Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there

When a parent is struggling to find a diagnosis, pay for therapies, or just get through the day with a kid who has an invisible disability, it is not helpful to insist nothing’s wrong because their kid looks so “normal” or that her IQ is so high. What may be intended as a compliment may come as a slap in the face to the parent who has committed precious time, energy, and money to her child’s disability.

Samantha Taylor’s 13-year-old has high functioning autism, generalized anxiety disorder, and an eating disorder, while her ten-year-old has dysgraphia and anxiety. Although Taylor is open with her friends and family about her kids’ diagnoses, because they appear “normal,” she says people are often shocked when her kids say something inappropriate or react in a way that is out of proportion to the situation. Says Taylor, “While it might look to everyone in our lives that we are holding it all together, I worry about my boys every single day. I wake up thinking about what I can do to make their day easier, and go to bed wondering if I did enough.” In search of a supportive community, Taylor ended up creating a thriving Facebook group for moms of kids with special needs.

One mother (who prefers anonymity) describes feeling frustrated when people judge her for coming to her son’s aid. He is in his early 20’s and has high functioning Asperger Syndrome. While she may appear overprotective, that is not the case. She says, “High functioning individuals are acutely aware that they are different and sometimes have self-confidence issues. Shaming them for needing help is not productive and can contribute to anxiety and depression. Thoughtless comments can sometimes ‘undo’ progress that has been made.”

You’re an advocate

Parents of kids with invisible disabilities are not just responsible for feeding, clothing, loving, disciplining, and teaching their kids. They must also advocate for their kids in a system that does not always have their best interests at heart.

One mom, who preferred to remain anonymous, described the challenge of having a 12-year-old son who has ADHD and a learning disability. She described his teachers’ low expectations, recalling an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting where a teacher was clearly impressed with her son’s “C”, “and how great that was ‘for a kid on an IEP.’” To compensate for his teachers’ low expectations, she says she always reminds her son that “[he] is smart and his IQ reflects that. There is no reason he shouldn’t be able to get an ‘A’ … if he is provided with the right services.” She also described a general lack of understanding of her son’s ADHD diagnosis among his teachers, which she feels causes them to set unreasonably high expectations of him in other areas, such as his ability to get organized or follow a schedule.

Delaina Baker, whose son is dyslexic and has auditory processing disorder, described similar struggles with her son’s school. She says she wishes teachers were more accommodating of his IEP. Says Baker, “It is my right to fight for my child and if you challenge my knowledge of his disability, I can assure you, I’ll have a spreadsheet, charts, and back-up data to prove it.” She says she is grateful to have found an ally in her son’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) coordinator, whom she feels is her son’s only advocate beside herself.

Parenting is hard enough without adding other people’s assumptions to the equation. Parents of kids with invisible disabilities just want the world to know that it’s only okay to assume one thing: They and their kids are doing the best they can.

5 Sensory Experiences That Can Enhance Learning and Benefit Any Kid

Sensory experiences can help increase focus and concentration and calm anxiety and hyperactivity in all kids- not just those with special needs.

Sensory experiences can help calm kid’s anxiety, increase focus and concentration, and reduce misbehavior. Although focusing on sensory experiences is highly beneficial for kids, kids will not all react to these experiences in the same way. While sensory experiences have often been associated with children with special needs, they can help increase focus and concentration and calm anxiety and hyperactivity in all kids.
The available research suggests that incorporating sensory experiences to children’s everyday experiences can make it easier to meet the needs of even the most challenging among them. Below are five practical tips to help you incorporate sensory experiences to help your child find calm.

1 | Create a “sensory space”

A “sensory space” is a space filled with varied sensory resources where your kid can find calm. Creating a specific space has been found to help kids struggling with anxiety and anger. In one study, researchers created a “sensory room” filled with a variety of resources such as a mood lamp, a projector, aromatherapy, music, and bubble tubes. The researchers observed and recorded how often each child visited the sensory room. The results showed that the kids who visited the sensory room most had greater self-esteem and also improved emotional well-being.
A “sensory space” does not necessarily have to be a “physical space.” An alternative can be a “sensory box” where you put a variety of sensory items that your child can pick and use whenever he feels the need to. Varying the objects – smooth surfaces, rough surfaces, different smells – makes the sensory experience more fulfilling.

2 | Turn to aromatherapy

The sense of smell is a powerful sense connected to the brain. This explains why essential oils impact behavior. Research suggests that aromatherapy can have a healing and calming effect. There are different ways that aromatherapy can be used to make the sensory experience even more powerful. For instance, combining smell and touch by using essential oils to massage your child’s feet or toes can have an immediate calming effect.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to using aromatherapy but not all essential oils are appropriate to use with children. Before using essential oils with your child, inform yourself about the precautions to take and the oils best adapted to calm kids’ anxiety and hyperactivity.

3 | Provide multisensory experiences

In one study that sought to determine whether multisensory experiences helped children learn better, researchers associated different colors with music, scents, art, poetry, literature, and colored lights. They found that children who were taught colors using multisensory experiences were better able to learn different colors.
Multisensory experiences are those that enable kids to use their different senses. For example, aromatherapy play dough helps kids engage their sense of smell and touch. Remember, however, that all essential oils used with kids should be safe for them and should be diluted first if they are to come into contact with your child’s skin. Another multisensory experience could be playing soft music as your child is playing with her blocks or with sand.

4 | Incorporate sensory experiences throughout the day

Any activity that encourages children to use their senses is a sensory activity. Playing with water or grains, smelling the roses, jogging, running, playing with sand, listening to music, and dancing are all sensory activities.
Different activities respond to different sensory needs. Activities such as swinging, jumping on the trampoline, and doing aerobic exercises release endorphins that help decrease anxiety. Chewing chewy foods, sucking or blowing are different sensory experiences that may also have a calming impact on your child. Finger painting is a great sensory activity. Incorporating different activities throughout the day is a great way to help your kid find focus and calm.

5 | Use deep pressure and movement sensory activities

The pressure exerted by weights has been found to help calm kids’ anxiety and hyperactivity. For instance, weighted blankets have been found to create a natural calming effect.
Although they are frequently used with children with special needs (for example autism), they are also effective with high-energy kids. Many parents have reported benefits with their children, including better sleep, waking up more rested, and happier and more focused kids.
By exerting pressure on the body, weighted blankets release neurotransmitters that have been proven to have a calming effect on the body. Wrists and ankle weights may also have the same effect.
Activities that involve heavy work – raking leaves, pushing against a wall, pushing a heavy cart – have also been found to be effective in focusing kids’ attention and reducing anxiety.
While the information provided here can help calm anxiety and hyperactivity in all kids, it is provided for informational purposes only. If your child has a sensory processing disorder, please contact your therapist before trying the activities proposed above.

Embracing The Stigma of a Child Who's Labeled

Fear of stigma can prevent amazing parents from seeking out professional help for a child truly struggling with a mental or behavioral health issue.

Children’s mental health is something we hear a lot about. We have learned how environments that are rich in free play, down time, and rest are necessary for kids to have a healthy mental and emotional balance. We have heard all about mindfulness and yoga for building children’s ability to stay focused and calm. And everyone knows what a fidget spinner is.
Yet children who experience mental health concerns that include outlandish behaviors or social and emotional difficulties are still highly likely to face negative judgements from their peers and many adults in their lives.
I am talking about stigma. It is quiet but strong, like a current that flows beneath the surface of many diagnoses identified in childhood, such as ADHD, Autism, Depression, Anxiety, and Sensory Integration Disorder.
These “labels” alone are seemingly wrapped in a shroud of negative and unfair beliefs about what they actually are, and why they occur. Even the fear of stigma can prevent amazing parents from seeking out professional help for a child truly struggling with a mental or behavioral health issue. This makes it hard to find help, answers, and the much-needed proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for so many overwhelmed moms and dads.
If you are one of these parents, you are not alone.
Some of the concerns that stigma can bring up for parents worried that their child may be experiencing behavioral or emotional symptoms go like this:
People will assume my child is stupid. People will think we are just making excuses. My kid will use this as an excuse to never to do anything again. Grandparents will think we are doing something wrong. If I put my child on medication, people will think I am a bad parent. We should be able to do this on our own. My kid will think something is wrong with him. Everyone will think something is wrong with him. It is my fault.
I am a therapist who has worked with many remarkable kids and families who have voiced these fears and concerns to me in despair over how to come to terms with what their child is going through. I have thought these things myself for my own son.
Even the most insightful and intuitive parents will grit their teeth, try to work with their child, tirelessly give and bend and hold firm and cry and pray that their child will eventually calm down, figure it out, grow out of it. They avoid talking about a cause, the root of the frustrating and heartbreaking rollercoaster the whole family rides on every day. The fear of others’ judgment, in addition to the very personal ongoing struggle, can be paralyzing.
Before my son was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of six, I knew he had it. He refused to follow directions, he threw a tantrum with any transition: going somewhere, leaving somewhere, anytime he had to get dressed or go to bed. He ignored regular toys, preferring to take objects apart. He broke almost everything he touched. He ran instead of walked. Screamed instead of talked. Cried instead of called. He also laughed with a deep joyful belly laughed, and hugged with his whole little body.
His attention span only lasted one second, but he could do really big things with that second. Like climb the neighborhood trees and jump from extreme heights, strip naked on the driveway and cover himself in blue chalk, dart away from me in Target, and steal my heart with a funny dance and a joke. It is always a wild ride with my remarkable child – a frustrating and terrifying one at times – but overall, one I know I will look back on as being something unique and beautiful. Maybe even epic.
About the time things were the hardest they had been, his emotions the highest, my tolerance the lowest, when I thought I was going to break and things couldn’t get any worse, I realized that I had a choice. I could keep trying to fix him myself by forcing him fit into this idea I had of who he should be (one that looked like all my friends’ children, who knew how to sit still and follow directions), or I could put myself aside, quiet my fears and the societal expectations, and really look deeply into my kid. I could work to see every aspect of who he is and what he needs through a lens of love and acceptance and, yes, imperfection.
I chose the latter, and made an appointment to see a psychologist. I knew it was time to put a name to what my son was going through so we could face it together. I wanted him to know that there was something giving him trouble, and it was not his fault. Maybe I needed to know, too, that it wasn’t mine.
Oddly enough, even as a therapist myself, I still panicked. I sat in the psychologist’s office, on the other side this time – the parent, not the expert – and I worried that she was going to look at me say, “Your son just needs a better mom, that’s all. One who can make him listen to her.” She would laugh at me say, “You need more rules, more boundaries,” or, “Remember that time you let him wear his pajamas for a week and never brushed his hair because he would scream every time you tried? You taught him to act like that!”
But she didn’t. She understood. She validated that he was telling me what he needed all along, soft jammies and messy hair, that it was okay, and that I was a good mom for hearing him.
She diagnosed him with ADHD after all, not with a negligent mother (phew!). While we still talked about some better ways for me and my husband to work with him and strategies as a family to make things work for all of us, she told me something else that I didn’t even know I needed to hear:
“You are doing a great job. And your son is an amazing kid.”
That was two years ago, and I have never looked back. I still worry sometimes that people will hear that my child has ADHD and judge him or treat him differently. But what I’ve found is that the more I tell people, the more I normalize it, and the more others embrace him. The stigma starts to fade away and the real, vibrant, colorful, incredible picture of my boy takes its place.
And let me tell you, it is awesome.
The other remarkable thing that has happened since we have embraced my son’s ADHD is that he has learned to embrace himself. He is eight years old now, and there are some tough days when he hates his ADHD and cries, wishing it would go away. But most days, he is a happy, confident kid. He has found he possesses some incredible talents that may even exist because of his ADHD.
Having the label has helped in ways we never anticipated, like the fact that there are so many genius actors, singers, writers, and artists out there who have ADHD and speak out about their own struggles as kids. Most will tell you their diagnosis has not only benefitted them as adults, but has also contributed to their unique creativity and success.
My son looks for these connections, and when he finds them, like in Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in the world, and in his favorite author Dav Pilkey, the mastermind behind the “Captain Underpants” series, he feels inspired and dives deeper into his own passions like art and writing, and, yes, video games.
There is no guarding against the judgements of others. We cannot control what people will think of us or our kids. I can tell when someone disagrees with me medicating my child. I don’t care. I can hear the tone when someone doesn’t actually believe in ADHD and feels certain I am feeding my kid a diet of candy and video games. It hurts, but I ignore them.
At the end of the day, what I really care about is that I did everything in my power to set my kid up for success. He deserves to know that he is good, to have confidence in himself and control over his body and his emotions. I believe it is my job as his mom to make sure, in a world that often tells him he isn’t good enough, that he believes he is.
It is also my job to make sure he feels loved and that he is known for all of what makes him who he is, ADHD and all.

What Else Could It Be Besides ADHD?

Continue to open the door to additional possibilities, rather than have any diagnosis, ADHD or otherwise, close doors to further inquiry.

Is your child having difficulties in school? Have you wondered whether it might be ADHD? Perhaps your child’s school psychologist, doctor, therapist, or neuropsych evaluator has diagnosed your child with this disorder.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, the percentage of children with an ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) diagnosis continues to increase. It is an issue that requires our attention, and now.

ADHD is a diagnosis that is frequently given to children who are struggling in school. Whether your child has some of the symptoms that we associate with this disorder, or whether you accept or dismiss this diagnosis, I urge parents and clinicians to continue to open the door to additional possibilities, rather than have any diagnosis, ADHD or otherwise, close doors to further inquiry.

As both a clinician and mother, I’ve observed and assessed children in the clinical setting, at home, and at school. I can attest to the fact that children can behave very differently given their circumstances. I’ve seen children’s behavior influenced by various factors on any given day.

Medical and mental health professionals can arrive at diagnoses in many ways. The clinician will usually use a combination of observation and a questionnaire, and sometimes a test for the child to take. The DSM 5 (the manual used to diagnose mental health issues) states that a child must exhibit, “in most situations,” at least six symptoms from either (or both) of the following lists in order for an ADHD diagnosis to be made:

List One

  • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or during other activities.
  • Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities (e.g., has difficulty remaining focused during lectures, conversations, or lengthy reading).
  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly (e.g., mind seems elsewhere, even in the absence of any obvious distraction).
  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish school work, chores, or duties.
  • Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities (difficulty managing sequential tasks; difficulty keeping materials and belongings in order; messy, disorganized work; has poor time management; fails to meet deadlines).
  • Often avoids or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort (e.g. schoolwork or homework.)
  • Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities (e.g., doesn’t come home from school with his jacket.)
  • Is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.
  • Is often forgetful in daily activities.

List Two

  • Often fidgets with or taps hands or squirms in seat.
  • Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected.
  • Often runs about or climbs in situations where it is inappropriate.
  • Often unable to play or engage in leisure activities quietly.
  • Often “on the go” acting as if “driven by a motor.”
  • Often talks excessively.
  • Often blurts out answers before questions have been completed.
  • Often has difficulty awaiting turn.
  • Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations, games, or activities. May start using other people’s things without getting permission).

You may know some children who have at least six of these behaviors. Perhaps they indeed have ADHD, but perhaps not.

Some examples of issues that have similar symptoms to ADHD are:

Auditory Sensitivities

Auditorily-sensitive children may act differently in a noisy restaurant or classroom. They suddenly cannot sit still, are jumpy, or may start climbing on things. Just a few moments earlier, when they were outside, they were fine. Sometimes the classroom may change – construction might’ve begun outside the window, or new, louder students joined the group. Imagine trying to concentrate on something while someone is playing a tambourine in your ear. A child with sensitivities can experience what we perceive as moderate sounds in this way.

Some auditorily-sensitive children may get more fidgety or fearful when in a car or plane. Their symptoms could be that they suddenly “talk excessively” and “butt in on” a conversation. The underlying cause could be a sensitivity to movement combined with auditory issues. This is called vestibular hypoacusis and is often overlooked.

Visual Sensitivities

Have you ever felt kind of “off” walking through a brightly-lit grocery store? Or noticed a “blinking” happening in a light above you? This could be a sensitivity to fluorescent lighting. Imagine this 100 times brighter while you’re trying to get school work done. A child who is acting agitated in the classroom and unable to focus could be experiencing this scenario without the ability to articulate what is bothering him or her.

Deeper visual developmental issues such as amblyopia (often known as “lazy eye”) or tracking issues are difficult to diagnose unless a child is seen by a developmental ophthalmologist. School screenings do not cover this, and children can have 20/20 vision in a regular vision test while the issues such as tracking or amblyopia remain undetected. These children can appear to have difficulty paying close attention to their written homework, or may appear to not be “paying attention” because they bump into other children or cannot follow a ball when playing sports.

Treatment of sensory processing disorders (SPDs)

Undergoing sensory integration therapy (through occupational therapists, vision therapists, and audiologists) could make a child become temporarily “unglued” while in therapy or after. For one child I worked with, the reintegration process manifested as extreme anxiety. Every child is different, but you might be able to check every item on the ADHD symptom lists (plus a few more!). 

Imagine having someone help you to reset how you use your eyes, ears, sense of balance, where your body is in space in relation to the world, how you taste, and how you feel things on your body. Not only are you having to get used to all of these new feelings independently, but your brain must work on integrating them all to work together. It can be very disorienting. Some practitioners who specialize in SPDs are finding innovative ways to more quickly and gently help children integrate their sensory issues and to prevent this “integration reaction” from happening at all.

Boredom and giftedness

Giftedness can include sensitivities and talents that are often misunderstood in the regular classroom setting. Giftedness may, ironically, create difficulties in the typical school setting and can make a child appear “not so smart or talented.”  A child who is bored with a topic may look like they have ADHD in the classroom. Because they are able to think so fast and digest information so easily, especially (and sometimes only if) they are interested in the topic, it makes other topics or going too slowly on a topic very painful.

Imagine someone explaining to you all the steps required to brush your teeth. Every detail of it. And then giving you a quiz on all the steps and marking you incorrect if you got the tiniest detail wrong. This is how a gifted child may experience the classroom setting. Giftedness exists on a spectrum. A common story of children in high school is that they take medication to get through homework that is monotonous and repetitive. These same children often have issues with anxiety and depression.

Learning style

Some children need to move when processing information. This type of child may fidget in his desk while trying to solve a problem in his head. A child like this may do better if he could get up and move around while trying to think or while listening to a lecture.

Other sensitivities

Some children can be sensitive to the feeling of clothing such as tags or the seams in socks. Others are particularly sensitive to what an adult or other children think of them. An example of this might be a child who gets jumpy or hides under a desk when an adult perceived as negatively judgmental is present. Others may have food sensitivities that might manifest as hyperactivity after eating a frosted cupcake. Still others might fall to pieces before lunchtime when their blood sugar takes a dive from not eating.

This is just a short list of examples of what can be causing ADHD-type symptoms. As with any diagnosis, a child can have one or many from the list above and ADHD.

Another consideration in the diagnosis of ADHD in children is that we are still trying to understand how and when parts of a child’s brain develop. An article in Medical News Today stated that the findings of a recent study show that, “[a]s children age into adolescence and on into young adulthood, they show dramatic improvements in their ability to control impulses, stay organized, and make decisions.”

The area of the brain most relevant to ADHD is the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functioning. Executive functioning is the term used for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation, in other words, the skills needed to regulate the symptoms of ADHD. Some say that this area does not fully develop until after adolescence, others say there is a big boost at about age 12. Either way, we know that it is not fully developed in children and may, therefore, contribute to symptoms that are linked with ADHD.

Some examples of executive functioning skills are:

  • Being able to pay attention
  • The ability to control what one does or says (A child might observe “That kid smells!” then think, “Will I blurt something out, or will I think about how this will affect things?”)
  • Working memory
  • Reasoning
  • Cognitive flexibility (“I know she doesn’t like broccoli, but I do and that’s okay.”)
  • Problem solving
  • Planning
  • Following through on plans

These are all things that most children are working on at some level. What ADHD is diagnosing is the ability (or inability) to use our executive function. If some of the events from the “What else looks like ADHD” list above are happening while a child is trying to figure out their executive functioning skills, or if their prefrontal cortex is developing at a different rate, you can imagine how it could look like ADHD to parents and clinicians.

With these developing years being so crucial to setting the stage for the adults we are actualizing, I urge parents and clinicians to consider the additional or alternative explanations for behaviors we associate with ADHD. Some non-ADHD issues are easily detected and addressed and others may take more of our time and resources, but the results can be remarkable. Even when ADHD was an accurate diagnosis, I have seen profound and positive changes in children whose parents have dared to look further.

The Best Way to Tell the Difference Between Sensory Issues and Other Childhood Disorders

Sensory processing issues can be misunderstood and misdiagnosed as a number of things, most commonly ADHD and anxiety disorders.

Sensory processing issues can be misunderstood and misdiagnosed as a number of things, most commonly ADHD and anxiety disorders. In my opinion it is necessary to rule out any sensory issues or address them as thoroughly as possible before considering other diagnoses.
Does your child seem agitated and is he agitating to be around? Or conversely, does she avoid being with others, and seem to shut down when she would really like to connect? Usually our kids want to do things right – to listen, sit still, control their impulses, be a member of the group – but sometimes they’re unable to. This can be frustrating for children, especially when they are blamed for such behavior.
In my practice, I see many kids like this. They appear to have signs of ADHD, but it could be something entirely different. Some of the behaviors may be part of these children’s hard wiring, but the sudden outbursts, the inability to control impulses, or the intolerance of any noise in the room could indicate sensory processing issues. I highly recommend getting children checked for sensory issues before anything else.
Sensory processing issues are often misunderstood. They have more to do with how the brain processes the senses rather than the senses themselves. Children with sensory processing issues can be either sensory seekers or sensory avoiders. For example, a child may make loud sounds in order to hear the reverberation in her head that she is craving because her brain has not registered certain pitches of sound. Alternatively, a child might find the seams in her socks are intolerable because her brain is receiving too much stimulation. Both of these could be going on within the same child.
To further complicate things, standard testing of visual and hearing exams won’t necessarily indicate problems. In fact, visual and auditory issues are often missed. Most exams for vision and hearing at schools and in the doctor’s office do not test for deeper visual and auditory issues.
If sensory issues are found, addressing these issues with appropriate therapies as early and as thoroughly as possible is important. I find that some alternative therapies, such as brain balancing therapies, to be more efficient than others. The right sensory therapies will reconnect wiring in the brain that is out of balance, solving the problem at its core. Only once that’s done can you or a professional see more clearly if there are other issues.
An example is Jane (name has been changed). She seems jumpy, has difficulty reading, and tends to not have a good “space bubble” around her, meaning she gets a little too close to friends and knocks things over accidentally. She consistently tested as having 20/20 vision, but through testing with a certified developmental optometrist, it was discovered that she has esotropia (one eye turned in at times) and tracking issues (had a difficult time finding words on a page when looking from left to right). Once her issues were identified and she received vision therapy, she was able to control herself. Her mother reported that she was “so much more grounded.” While she may still have ADHD, she appears much less agitated and has her self-esteem back because she’s no longer agitating to others!
Another child, Dennis, was very loud at inappropriate times, seemed agitated internally, especially in noisy environments, and was annoying to others around him. At times he requested to be in a room by himself; at others he joined the group, but became loud and aggressive. Similarly, his mom reported that he would begin yelling when a blender or vacuum was turned on. The paradox is that he may have been yelling to match the noise he perceived in order to tolerate it: He yelled as a coping mechanism to the overwhelm the loud noise makes him feel. While he was thought to have a problem with his ears, he tested as having good hearing.
After proper testing, it turned out Dennis had CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder), which made him unable to filter noises properly. He heard far away noises as if they were close up, and, unless he was looking at her lips, he didn’t hear his mother standing directly in front of him. His brain needed to be retrained to hear appropriately. After completing auditory therapy, he became more grounded and no longer shouted at odd times. Now, when his mother talks to him and he “doesn’t hear,” he jokes, “oh, now I hear you, I was just ignoring you.” At least now it is his choice and he’s kept his sense of humor.
An important point to make here is that these therapies can be intense for some kids and can temporarily exacerbate behaviors. At one point, Dennis stopped auditory therapy because he was very resistant to it. At about the same time his challenging behavior escalated. I urged the parent to continue the therapy, but with someone who knew how to regulate it according to what he could tolerate, and who could help balance his system while he was going through it.
I know that all of the therapies and diagnoses can be overwhelming. While we want the best for our children, many of our brains and budgets are overstretched. As someone who has been trained to diagnose children in the mental health setting, I know that sensory issues can look like any number of pathologies to professionals. I urge parents to look into sensory issues before accepting a diagnosis of ADHD or anxiety first and foremost. Considering and addressing sensory issues can actually solve many behavioral issues more efficiently and properly than more common treatments. It may lead to a more grounded, peaceful child who can manage his world. It may even make your world more manageable.

Could Your Struggling Kid Actually Be a Visual-Spatial Learner?

Visual-spatial learners tend to learn holistically or non-sequentially, a method that is at odds with a typical curriculum.

John*, as his mother will explain in an exhausted tone, is an energetic child. He loves Legos, creating unique contraptions, and he appreciates complex conceptual challenges. But in kindergarten and first grade, he struggled with many subjects. While he enjoyed discussing larger math concepts like infinity and fractals, he battled with basic math facts, spelling, and even writing (and was later diagnosed with dyslexia).
John was also very sensitive. When he knew that his teachers or other children were frustrated with him, he, in turn, acted out in frustration. He was eventually asked to leave first grade due to behavior problems.
John is what is called a visual-spatial learner.
According to Linda Kreger Silverman, an expert in visual-spatial learners, children like John “are individuals who think in pictures rather than in words. They have a different brain organization than auditory-sequential learners. They learn better visually than auditorily.”
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Additionally, visual-spatial learners tend to learn holistically or non-sequentially. This results in their sometimes arriving at solutions without going through the usual steps. Showing your work, often required by teachers, may be impossible and sometimes results in accusals of cheating. Visual-spatial learners may succeed in solving difficult problems while finding simpler tasks a challenge. Teachers might interpret this kind of student as being obstinate or contrary.
In one interaction with John, then seven years old, he informed me that “the parts of a tree are all the same.” I had a feeling he was onto something, so I encouraged him: “But an apple isn’t the same as its bark or its leaves. I can’t eat the bark of an apple tree, but I can eat the apple,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, searching for words to describe a concept that seemed so clear in his mind. “But the leaves, the apple, the bark, the wood, the roots – it’s all the same, through and through.” When I asked how he knew this, he strained to articulate his idea. Eventually, though he wasn’t able to give me the proper term, I believe he was describing what we call DNA.
Most teaching techniques in our schools are designed for linear-sequential learners whose learning progresses from easy to difficult material. Subjects are taught in a step-by-step fashion, practiced with drill and repetition, assessed under timed conditions, and then reviewed. Problem solving and learning is done in a systematic manner, using a series of logical steps: Memorize the math facts and then do algebra, or learn to read and write and then write your own story.
While these techniques work for some learners, they are counter to the visual-spatial style. More and more, I see children on the visual-spatial spectrum who don’t yet have the sequential learning skills required early on in school.

How to recognize a visual-spatial learner

Below are some general identifiers from Silverman. The appearance of one or even several of these does not necessarily indicate a visual-spatial learner. But if many indicators are evident, it’s worth looking into:
●    Thinks in images instead of words
●    Resists demonstrating what she or he knows
●    Has trouble with timed tests
●    Takes things apart to find out how they work
●    Is frustrated with writing assignments
●    Solves problems in unusual ways
●    Doesn’t memorize math facts easily
●    Reaches correct conclusions without apparent steps
●    Dislikes public speaking
●    Is not a good speller
●    Doesn’t budget time well
●    Doesn’t have neat handwriting
●    Is extraordinarily imaginative
●    Oral expression is much better than written expression
●    Is not well organized
One thing I would add to this list is the spatial component of thought. One child described it as thoughts that come in “chunks” or “globs.” Complex ideas present in units, and it’s in this way that many visual-spatial thinkers synthesize thoughts. So, I would add, “thinking in chunks.”
Today, I see many students trying to cope with an education system that doesn’t fit their learning style. Unfortunately, most professionals tasked with helping these children are trained to focus on behavior rather than learning style. As a result, these children are often given labels that only partly address their problem, or that don’t address their problem at all.

What can we do?

Andrew, another visual-spatial learner, was having problems in school. When he finished first grade, his parents decided to homeschool him. At a certain point in the school year, he asked, “What caused WWII?”
With his mother’s guidance, he researched the subject. He watched documentaries, acted out battle scenes, read maps, and used other aids to satisfy and stimulate his visual-spatial needs to find answers. Years later, he could probably still discuss, even reenact, some causes of WWII.
Andrew is now at a school that understands his learning style. Teachers allow him to study in-depth what engages him, even if topics are beyond his grade level.
Jeannie, a highly visual-spatial third grader, was refusing to go to school and cutting her arm daily. A mental health professional told her parents that she may have ADHD and depression. Medication was prescribed.
Instead, the parents decided to pull Jeannie from school. She stopped cutting immediately and exhibited happy behavior. This marked the beginning of the family’s journey in discovering Jeannie’s needs. They’ve since sought my help, and as part of that, have obtained appropriate assessments.
While Jeannie is sensitive, she shows no signs of depression. Her parents’ goal is to help her follow her interests, while making sure she learns the essentials. They’ve found, through some trial and error, that a mix of homeschooling methods, including “unschooling,” are the best fit for their daughter’s learning style.
Jeannie continues to be engaged, and while she previously had difficulties connecting with others, she now has a close group of friends with shared interests.
Schools designed for visual-spatial learners are obviously most appropriate for these children. Based on a homeschooling model, these “micro-schools” follow the intellectual curiosity of the children with project-based and learner-driven techniques. They address the varying needs of children through techniques such as Montessori math, (a process-oriented, tactile, and visual way of learning math), technology, and experiential learning methods. Their high student-teacher ratio and high teacher retention are key to creating and maintaining important relationships that develop over the years.
That there is great concern in our school systems’ ability to educate every child well, and it goes without saying that many parents cannot afford to homeschool or pay for a private school. But we can all agree that, when a child is having difficulties, it’s best to get to the root of the problem, seek resolution, and support the child at the earliest possible age. I speak for many parents who have discovered a successful educational fit for their child.
It is my hope that our public-school system can learn from techniques with which these micro-schools are finding success and incorporate them into their methodologies. Visual-spatial children are key to our societal advancement. As Silverman has found, they are often some of the most gifted creatively, technologically, mathematically, and emotionally.
Visual-spatial children are an integral part of what our future needs to be.
*Names have been changed for the purposes of the article.

Which Ten Executive Function Interventions Should Parents Try at Home?

Kids who appear to be underperforming in school but who don’t have a discrete, diagnosed learning disability could use these interventions.

Executive function is beyond the buzzword stage, it’s become the way of describing children who appear to be underperforming in school but who don’t have a discrete, diagnosed learning disability. There are private companies who train executive function coaches in week-long workshops, even if coaches have no classroom teaching experience or training in a related field. There are multiple games developed by scientists marketed to improve focus and stamina in children with diagnoses of ADHD and executive function deficits. It all sounds very technical, professional, and like we can fix executive function deficits with specific trademarked, commercialized products.
Not so much.
All kids are cognitively different both from each other and from adults. Executive function is a grab-bag descriptor of the various functions “executed” in the prefrontal cortex. These include: impulse inhibition, task initiation, working memory, cognitive flexibility, focus, and organizational skills. Executive function deficits are sometimes heritable, are always a matter of maturity, and are also affected by fatigue, stress, emotional state, and hunger. Reliable strategies for improving executive function skills are in huge demand and the marketplace is getting crowded. Sadly, there is little evidence that the current gains in understanding brain function have direct implications for “educational delivery.”
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What’s a teacher, tutor, coach, or parent to do?  While I can’t claim to “fix” a child’s executive function issues, I can say that experienced, well-trained, reflective practitioners who keep up on the research can help children improve their school performance. Parents can help too. Here are some methods that have positive results in classroom engagement and task completion:

1 | Validate  

We know what it’s like to be given a seemingly impossible task. When your child cries when he does his homework, feeling hopeless and helpless, the feeling is contagious. We feel hopeless and helpless as well, and that feeling can turn to anger. Break this cycle by validating his frustration. Say, yes, you realize math is difficult and his teacher might be a weirdo, but he still needs to try his best. First he should take a breather, dry his eyes, and have a glass of water (and maybe a cookie).  

2 | Differentiate

Help your child learn to distinguish between types of tasks. Memorization tasks can take a lot of energy and should be prioritized. Multi-step projects need to be planned out, even when teachers do not provide a planning template. (Planning templates can be found online or through a tutor or coach.)

3 | Create a fail-safe environment

Yes, your child should be able to keep track of her chargers, pens, pencils, and folder (even though she knows where her eyeliner is at all times). Still, the problem is real. She has nothing to write with and this wastes precious time and energy. Have charger, paper, a working printer, mechanical pencils, and extra folders around the house.

4 | Praise

Be positive. “Wow, it’s great you did your art project during your free period,” will go down a lot better than “You’re spending way too much time on nonacademic stuff.” Doing pleasurable activities actually primes the brain for moving onto more aversive or challenging work.

5 | Model good coping mechanisms

Notice if you vent when frustrated or give up easily on unpleasant tasks in front of your child. We all do this sometimes, but venting frustration as a habit can cost a student (or an adult) a lot of much-needed energy. Next time you break a wineglass, do the silent screaming thing, then calmly find the broom and dustpan and show your kid what perseverance looks like.

6 | Redirection

Redirect a distracted kid, but do so kindly. When we treat a distracted student harshly, we’ve added to his cognitive load. He now feels humiliated in addition to frustrated or fatigued. Say, “Hmmm, are those Pokemon cards part of a school assignment?” not “I’m going to flush these damn things down the toilet next time I see them.”

7 | Ask, don’t tell

When a child is frustrated, lost, or unfocused, ask what’s up rather than lecture them on what they’re not doing. They know already! They may have some important insights on how they are thinking. Sometimes, kids day-dream while they are reading, fantasizing about what it would be like to be a character or to live in a certain time period. This is age-appropriate, even for teens. Such dreaminess is not time-effective, but it can foster creativity.

8| Help with task-comprehension, not task-fulfillment

Often kids overreact when they see a new word in an essay question or if a page of homework looks unfamiliar in format. Model how to engage with a novel task or concept. Read the task aloud and ask which parts are difficult to understand, but then let your child muddle along in completing the assignment.
It can be frustrating, even saddening, to watch a child struggle, but learning to struggle is essential. School assignments today are often more complex than assignments we may have gotten as students. Open-ended, thought-provoking, complex questions prepare middle schoolers for high school and high schoolers for college. These assignments are supposed to be challenging.

9 | Use timers

Short breaks help your child focus. Many kids rush through assignments but others drag out work, so a task that should take half an hour takes an hour instead. When they see how time-effective focused attention can be, kids are often delighted. Don’t take this from them by keeping them busy with chores or music practice. Let them taste the freedom!
For the rushers, the timer demonstrates how much time they should actually be investing in their work. They may recognize that when they read for 30 minutes straight, not 10, they can keep up with the pace set by the teacher.

10 | Listen to failure

Be a listener when your child fails, not a lecturer (or at least wait to lecture). Ask how he feels about his low performance on his math test and how he’d like to problem-solve. When your child believes he’s been given agency, he’ll focus better and be more self-motivated. He may not suddenly become an A student, but self-control must be experienced to be improved upon.
This piece was previously published on my (not very active) blog.

Fidget Spinners: Helpful Tool or One More Way to Annoy Adults?

Fidget spinners claim to help with a number of health issues like autism, ADHD, and anxiety. But is there any proof that they actually work?

I just got clued into fidget spinners in the last week or so. First, an email was sent out by our school principal banning them because they were too much of a distraction. (I had no idea what she was talking about when I received that email.) Then there was a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit about a boyfriend buying a gold fidget spinner enhanced with diamonds for his anxious, irritated girlfriend. Finally, my son received one for his birthday from a friend and has been walking around the house with it ever since.

It got me wondering – what’s this trend all about? Why are kids so attracted to them, yet schools want them to be kept at home? Are these gadgets helpful or harmful?

As it turns out, fidget spinners claim to help with a number of health issues like autism, ADHD, and anxiety. But is there any proof that they actually work?

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What are fidget spinners, anyway?

A fidget spinner is a small, three-pronged device that fits in the palm of your hand. It contains ball bearings inside that allow it to rotate between your fingers. You hold the center of the spinner with your thumb and one finger and then use the other hand or other fingers of the same hand to create momentum to get it to spin quickly. It looks a little like a mini ceiling fan as it spins around and around. They provide a soothing sensory experience that is practically hypnotic if you stare at it. Kids are also doing tricks with them, such as balancing or rotating the spinner on their thumb, which takes quite a bit of concentration.

Fidget spinners were invented by Florida chemical engineer Catherine Hettinger in the early 1990s. Her goal was to help solve world peace by providing a tool that would calm kids down. She was inspired by stories of children throwing rocks at police in Israel. She thought that if the kids had something else to hold in their hands to keep their attention, they would no longer choose violence.

At first, her invention did not take off. Hasbro passed on it and her patent expired in 2005. Recently YouTube videos showing kids playing with the spinners went viral. Although fidget spinners were essentially unheard of until April, they are now one of the top 10 best-selling toys on Amazon and stores are struggling to keep them in stock. Have your kids asked for one yet?

The science of fidgeting

According to Brain Balance Achievement Centers, fidgeting is a common symptom of neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, processing disorders, learning disabilities, and Asperger’s. Children fidget when they’re doing tasks that don’t interest them enough to keep their focus.

There are a number of theories about the purpose fidgeting serves. Some experts think that fidgeting helps satisfy the brain’s need for stimulation, while others believe that our brain is incapable of preventing the urge to fidget. Roland Rotz and Sarah D. Wright explain how fidgeting can prevent the distractions that come from boredom in their book “Fidget To Focus: Outwit Your Boredom: Sensory Strategies For Living With ADHD.” Moreover, physical movement may help us think and express ourselves more easily. Finally, fidgeting can serve as a ritual, with the repetitive motions helping to prevent our mind from obsessing over unhealthy thoughts.

Studies show that implementing certain strategies can help manage the need to fidget so that it no longer interferes with a child’s school performance. These tactics include taking frequent breaks, using stand-up desks, incorporating movement into lessons, and using fidget objects based on various modalities like visual, auditory, tactile, movement, taste, or smell.

Toys that are designed to allow an autistic child to fidget can be beneficial to them.  Occupational therapists often use sensory toys like tactile discs, Koosh balls, and putties or clays to soothe kids who have sensory-processing issues. In addition, research has shown that movement can help kids with ADHD focus. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology looked at eight to 12-year-old kids with ADHD. Those who participated in gross motor activity, such as moving their arms and legs around, performed better than those who sat still during tasks involving processing new information. Finally, exercise has also been proven to be helpful for kids with ADHD.

Fidgeting with an object in the hand helps kids stay focused when trying to complete a task or sit still for long period of time. For years, people have been using everyday objects like paper clips, USB thumb drives, headphone earbuds, sticky tape, stress balls, or a smooth stone to help them calm down and focus. More recently, specialized items like fidget spinners and fidget cubes have been marketed for this purpose.

Do they work or not?

Fidget spinners may be marketed as a solution to anxiety, autism, and ADHD, but there is no scientific evidence yet to back up this claim. Critics point out that fidget spinners were not created by behavioral scientists with a deep knowledge of intellectual disability.

According to Newsweek, Scott Kollins, a clinical psychologist and professor at Duke University, is concerned about parents using fidget spinners to address ADHD because there is no scientific evidence that they work. He said that there are lots of other games and products marketed toward individuals who have ADHD that have been studied more thoroughly. He’s afraid that parents are relying on this new product as a quick fix without knowing if it actually helps.

The biggest criticism about fidget spinners is that they don’t require the gross motor activity that experts have proven help children struggling with a variety of learning challenges. Instead of the kids physically moving around, the fidget spinner is the one doing all the work.

There have also been many complaints about their use in the classroom. They’re diverting attention away from the teacher and other classroom activities, and have become more of a distraction than a useful tool.

On the other hand, they’re so new that there hasn’t been time to study them thoroughly. There is some anecdotal evidence about how some special needs kids are benefiting from them.

Additionally, North Carolina-based science educator Beth Harris has appeared in many articles covering this topic because she wrote a blog post about how satisfying it is to hold the spinning, whirring toy between her fingers. Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, thinks that fidget spinners may be useful for some children in some situations who need to engage in sensory behaviors.

At this point, there are more questions than answers with regard to whether fidget spinners hold up to their claim. As studies are conducted, we will learn more about their effectiveness in helping with certain health and learning issues. What is certain, however, is that kids love them right now and enjoy playing with them, but they should probably stay out of the classroom since they are such a distraction. I personally tried my son’s fidget spinner out and did find it quite calming, so I might buy one and stick it in my purse for those anxious moments on the go.

Science Says This is Key to Your Kid's Academic Success

Could there be a much simpler, easier path to academic success? Research shows that exercise has a positive effect on school performance.

These days we’re obsessed with success.
Particularly big book smarts, AP classes, higher education, and a preoccupation with straight A’s, but piling on the homework and study time doesn’t always yield results. Pushing our kids for those perfect report cards often backfires.
Could there be a much simpler, easier path to academic success?
There is one thing that can help. It’s not hard to do, and it comes naturally to kids – and it doesn’t require sitting down with them to do common core homework even you can’t figure out. Yay!
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Research shows that exercise has a positive effect on school performance – especially for boys.
A collaborative effort between the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Jyväskylä and the University of Cambridge indicates that the more physically active boys are, the better they perform on academic tests including reading and arithmetic.
Side note: We should probably be taking a big hint from Finland. Despite a more laid back approach to education, the Finnish school system ranks among the best in the world and regularly turns out high-performing students. The publicly funded education program sets children off on the right track with a focus more on play and less on sit-down-and-study tactics, including 50-minute recesses. Interesting, right?
In this study, researchers analyzed children (89 boys and 69 girls) aged six to eight years in grades one to three. Heart rate monitors and movement sensors were used to track active and sedentary activity times.
They found that the more physically active boys were, the more likely they were to score higher on academic tests measuring reading comprehension and arithmetic skills, while more sedentary time correlated with lower scores.
“High levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and low levels of sedentary time in Grade one were related to better reading skills in grades one to three among boys. We also observed that boys who had a combination of low levels of physical activity and high levels of sedentary time had the poorest reading skills through grades one to three,” says Eero Haapala, PhD.
Interestingly, these results didn’t seem to apply as much to the girls.
This could be related to the fact that attention disorders that affect learning, such as ADHD, are more prevalent in boys.
Research is proving again and again that exercise is basically nature’s Ritalin.
For example, a nine month study on kids aged seven to nine showed that those who participated in a regular after-school exercise program had better executive function in the brain. This results in improved focus, working memory, and cognitive flexibility – all things that ADHD sufferers struggle with.
Regardless of gender, however, exercise is obviously beneficial for everyone. Even a short burst of exercise can improve test scores.
Maintaining a regular exercise routine long-term is important, but there are immediate benefits as well. Even 20 minutes of exercise prior to a test can boost scores. It’s no wonder, since it burns off excess nervous energy, boosts mood, and helps clear brain fog, thus helping the child think clearly and recall information more easily.
Of course, the benefits don’t stop at just school pursuits. Exercise impacts every part of a person’s health – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
You’re probably aware of the more obvious physical perks like increased cardiorespiratory fitness, endurance, and strength, as well as a lower percentage of body fat, and better balance and athletic performance. There are also numerous emotional and mental benefits that can make all the difference in your child’s quality of life.
For one, it’s a natural mood booster. Exercise causes chemical reactions in the body that trigger feelings of well-being. Research has even shown it to be an effective treatment against depression and anxiety disorders.
It’s no surprise that physical activity is a great stress buster. In light of increasing usage of medications to treat mood disorders and anxiety in children (and adults), it begs the question, why? Especially when we have instant availability to one of the greatest treatments available, and it doesn’t require a doctor visit. All we have to do is put on shoes and get our kids outdoors. It’s one of the best things you can do for them (and for yourself)!
One thing is for sure – our bodies were meant to move!
Given all this remarkable information, I am dumbfounded as to why a lot of schools in the U.S. are reducing or even eliminating recess.
At my first-grader’s school, in fact, kids actually lose recess time if they have been acting up in class. Um, won’t that just compound the problem? (They only get two 15-minute sessions a day anyway.)
Cutting physical activity in favor of sitting and “focusing” for longer periods is counterproductive to the developing brain and body. Even as adults, sitting is the new smoking considering how detrimental it is to overall health.
So what’s a frustrated parent to do? You just want to help your kids succeed in life, including doing well in school and staying healthy.
Even if your local school system isn’t quite on board with the importance of physical activity, you can do plenty at home to set your kids up for success. Here are a few to start:

Lock them outside

Okay, maybe not lock them out, but you know what I mean. Outdoor time is so simple yet so amazingly beneficial. There are so many reasons to have them play outdoors. This naturally fosters fitness, learning, and creativity, all at the same time. Help them help themselves by getting outside for a dose of nature and sunshine.

Let them go out for sports

When you sign your kid up for soccer, baseball, track, etc., you’re setting them up for a multipoint system of success. This is the fun alternative to an “exercise routine” with regimented workouts that won’t stick (heck, we struggle with that as adults). It’s better to get them involved in something enjoyable and socially engaging. This way they get their hearts pumping and at the same time build relationships, learn new skills and how to work on a team, and grow a healthy competitive side, too.

Just play!

Activity sessions don’t have to be in the form of organized sports. Whether outdoors or indoors, letting it be fun is key. Just getting outside can lead to active exploring or trigger games of tag, hopscotch, leapfrog, or whatever else they come up with.
If you are stuck indoors, there are still active things to do. Turn on music they can dance to. Find some fun kids workouts on YouTube. Save all the bubble wrap from your delivered packages (or buy a big roll) and let them jump on it. A hopper ball with a handle is a worthy investment. Or simply turn off the screens and see what happens – they’ll usually come up with something on their own.

Get yourself in shape

Do you know what’s more effective than just telling your kids to go be active? Setting the example yourself. As in most things, kids follow examples better than verbal direction. Your influence has more of an impact than you think. You are ultimately responsible for setting them up with a healthy lifestyle.
So let them see you make fitness a priority. Get on an exercise plan yourself and let them see you in action. Or involve them by going for walks, bike rides, or hikes together. Bonus: This doubles as family time. You’ll create positive memories they’ll remember for a long time to come.
No matter how you go about it, it’s clear that getting active is nothing but beneficial to the body and brain.
So get moving!

What Can the US Learn From France When it Comes to ADHD?

The way France defines, treats, and prevents ADHD could shed light on how to better treat the condition here in America,

For any parent with elementary-aged children (and even younger), ADHD is a hot topic. The condition is so prevalent in modern American society that playground discussions frequently center on diagnoses, medications, and how the behavior affects Johnny’s grades in school.
For parents – especially parents of boys – any demonstration of hyperactivity, raucous behavior, or short attention spans automatically earns that boy an ADHD label, even before the official diagnosis comes from a medical professional.
As a mother to two boys, I can certainly tell you that they are FULL of energy. But isn’t that what the power of youth is all about? It seems that ADHD is on the rise, especially in young American boys, but is it really?
When compared on a global level, ADHD diagnoses and treatments vary dramatically. For instance, the way France defines, treats, and prevents ADHD not only sheds light on how to better treat the condition here in America, but it also hints at elements in our society that could be causing other problems.
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First things first: What is ADHD?

To really understand ADHD and why it appears more in American society, first let’s take a look at the actual definition of the disorder. It is important to note that it is not defined the same way globally.


French doctors define ADHD as a sociological disorder caused by social situations. French doctors do not use the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Rather, they rely on the Classification Française des Troubles Mentaux de L’Enfant et de L’Adolescent (or CFTMEA for short).
This manual was created by the French Federation of Psychiatry because French doctors wanted more than what the DSM-III offered. The CFTMEA “encourages psychiatrists to identify the underlying issues that cause a child’s symptoms and to address them using a psychopathological approach.”
This ideology shapes the entire way in which the French culture interacts with ADHD.

United States

According to the DSM, ADHD is a neurological disorder that stems from biological conditions.
Even though France and the United States define the causes of ADHD very differently, the main signs and symptoms do align:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Inattention
  • Impulsivity

Diagnoses around the world

Even though the two countries disagree on the causes and treatments for ADHD, the fact remains that ADHD exists and affects the quality of life of those afflicted.


Incredibly, only .5 percent of children in France are medicated for ADHD. That period is not a typo. I repeat, only .5 percent of children in France are medicated for ADHD.
This statistic has everything to do with their definition and treatment of ADHD.

United States

Contrasted with the near non-existence of children medicated for ADHD in France, American stats illustrate more of an epidemic. Depending on the source (CDC or APA), medicated cases in America range from nine to 15 percent of children.
The American Pediatric Association, however, believes that only five percent of those diagnosed are actually true sufferers.


How a disorder is defined affects how the treatment course is planned, and ultimately makes a statement about our culture.
Because the diagnostic manual in France encourages doctors to look for an underlying cause, the treatments then focus on treating the cause, usually of an environmental nature. French doctors first take a holistic approach, using medication only as a last result when holistic approaches do not solve the problem. The most common treatments for ADHD in France are:

  • Cycling
  • Time spent outdoors
  • Diet changes

In the United States, ADHD is treated as a neurological disorder, which means that a heavy emphasis is placed on altering the child’s mental state through medication.
The .5 percent of medicated kids in France indicate that holistic approaches do not solve 100 percent of cases. Still, the vast majority of cases are successfully treated without medication. This is important to keep in mind when considering whether or not ADHD is spurred by social or neurological conditions.
Children in the UK who exhibit these symptoms are also typically listed as having a conduct disorder – not a neurological one.

Spending time outdoors

While French doctors routinely examine the quantity of a child’s time spent outdoors and its effect on mental health, American doctors are slowly beginning to examine the multitude of positive effects the outdoors can have on mental and emotional health.
It is well-known that being outdoors improves physical health and sleep patterns, but the effects on mental and emotional health are just as numerous. A study published in the “Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being Journal” revealed that children (diagnosed with ADHD by a physician) who spent time outdoors reported a lessening of ADHD symptoms.
This validates what the French have known all along: Situations and environments can affect ADHD.

The diet factor

When examining how French doctors treat ADHD, it may seem surprising at first to see “diet changes” listed as an actual treatment plan. It’s actually more than just a treatment option; it is also a preventative measure. Why?
Food may contribute a great deal to ADHD, or at least ADHD symptoms. Studies show that there are at least nine food additives that affect ADHD and/or mimic its symptoms. These foods additives include:

  1. Red no. 40: The most commonly used dye, used in everything from packaged cake desserts to frosting to chips to yogurt, and even oatmeal products.
  2. Red no. 3: Listed as Carmoisine, this dye is used in candy and cake icings.
  3. Green no. 3.
  4. Yellow no. 5: The second most used dye, it appears in chips, waffles, cheese dips, puddings, and mac and cheese.
  5. Yellow no. 6: Used in the same products as Yellow no. 5.
  6. Blue no. 1: Frequently used in brightly colored cereals, ice cream, hard candies, certain yogurts, and chips.
  7. Blue no. 2: Used in pet foods and sugary, brightly colored cereals.
  8. Sodium benzoate: A preservative used in pickles and carbonated beverages.
  9. Orange B: Used in the casings of sausages.

According to a report from ABC News, these additives are banned in many European countries, including France. This fact alone speaks volumes about the disparity between the number of cases in these two countries.
It also begs the question: If American diets were revolutionized, would ADHD cases dwindle?

What does this say about our culture?

None of these facts should be used to devalue someone’s (especially a child’s) experience with ADHD. As the pop culture saying goes, “The struggle is real.” For those diagnosed with ADHD, their symptoms are real.
However, in the spirit of expanding how we think about mental disorders, what if we did question the status quo and follow the lead of the more holistic doctors around the globe? What if these children didn’t need to suffer anymore because we decided to implement some of the holistic treatment options used in France?
Looking more closely at the relationship between the food we eat and it’s effect on our brain, the quality and quantity of outdoor time, and our overall social environment could make a world of difference for children suffering from ADHD.
While mental disorders are nothing to take lightly, as a country, we should embrace a more holistic approach to our daily lives. Perhaps other treatment options could help minimize the need for medication.
My comparisons between French and American cases are not to dismiss the disorder as purely American. Indeed, ADHD occurs globally. A study from “World Psychiatry” pointed out that 19 percent of children who lived near Chernobyl were later diagnosed with ADHD. (But even this statistic begs the question regarding environmental causes of ADHD.)

What is the takeaway?

While conflicting reports of the number of diagnosed cases, varying definitions, and radically different treatment options may be enough to make a parent’s head spin, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
A diagnosis is not a defining characteristic of a child’s personality. A diagnosis means that considering a range of treatment options makes sense, and implementing some holistic practices regardless can improve a child’s emotional and physical well-being – not to mention the well-being of the whole family.
Reexamining how you define ADHD – as well as what effect a label has on a child – will make you better equipped to help your child through a diagnosis. If nothing more, questioning the status quo will make you more confident in any decision or treatment plan that you make.