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Have you noticed your child losing focus in conversations or struggling to complete homework? Does it seem like they can’t sit still or let others finish talking?

Occasional daydreaming or unruly behavior isn’t uncommon — kids are naturally curious and full of energy. But if what you’re noticing is ongoing and interfering with school performance and relationships, you may want to have your child evaluated for ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder).

ADHD is a chronic condition that makes it hard to control behavior. A child with ADHD can show signs of inattention, hyperactivity or impulsivity, or a mix of symptoms. Symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty holding attention on tasks, schoolwork, play, or in conversation
  • Seeming not to listen when spoken to directly
  • Making careless mistakes or frequently losing and forgetting things
  • Trouble following through on instructions or finishing tasks
  • Avoiding activities that require sustained focus
  • Not being able to sit still or stay seated
  • Talking excessively
  • Trouble playing or doing an activity quietly
  • Frequently interrupting or intruding on others
  • Trouble taking turns or waiting for things

While the cause of ADHD is unknown, recent studies show a link to genetic factors. It is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in children, affecting about 9.8 percent of U.S. children ages 3 to 17. “This is a biological condition and not laziness or a personality trait,” says Summit Health pediatric neurologist Leonid Topper, MD.

“ADHD can deeply impact a child’s social interactions, academic performance, and overall well-being,” adds Catalina Scarfone, DO, a pediatrician at Summit Health. “Early diagnosis and treatment can achieve target outcomes such as improved relationships, educational advancement, and rule-following in multiple environments.”

Getting answers about your child’s condition can feel overwhelming. You may also be unsure of how or where to start. Taking the following steps might be helpful in your journey for information, treatment options, and support.

1. Take note of the signs and symptoms that concern you.

Write down answers to questions your health care provider may ask, such as:

  • When did you first start noticing symptoms?
  • When and how often does the troubling behavior happen?
  • How does the behavior impact their performance at home, school, or extracurricular activities?
  • How is the behavior affecting their social relationships at home, school, or in extracurricular activities?
  • What is your child’s daily routine, including diet and sleep patterns?

Get input from other people your child spends time with, such as teachers, coaches, babysitters, friends’ parents, and other family members.

2. Make an appointment for an evaluation.

A child can be evaluated for ADHD beginning at age 4. Your pediatrician can perform an evaluation, or they may refer you to a specialist, such as a pediatric neurologist or mental health professional.

“It’s important to get all the information about home life, school, and any possible coexisting conditions to get a complete picture and initiate the appropriate guidance,” says Dr. Scarfone.

There’s no single test for ADHD, and the evaluation process may depend on your child’s specific symptoms and problems. Still, it’s likely an evaluation will include:

  • An exam and review of personal and family medical history to rule out other possible conditions
  • Permission to interview people, such as teachers or coaches, who know your child well and can comment on their behavior in different settings
  • Assessment tools for parents and teachers, such as the Vanderbilt ADHD Diagnostic Rating Scale — a psychological assessment tool that is designed to measure the severity of ADHD symptoms
  • Use of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) to confirm whether your child meets the standard criteria for ADHD.

Dr. Topper says that to meet the DSM-5 criteria for ADHD, children up to age 16 must have shown at least six persistent symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity for at least six months. Additional criteria include:

  • Symptoms must have been present before age 12
  • Symptoms must be present in two or more settings, such as school, home, and sports or other activities
  • Clear evidence that symptoms interfere with or impact the quality of schoolwork or social functioning

3. Decide on a treatment plan if your child is diagnosed with ADHD.

Depending on your child’s age and the severity of their symptoms, treatment recommendations may include behavioral interventions like individual or family counseling, parental training and education, or medication.

“We’re there every step of the way to help guide parents and provide education to help make informed decisions,” says Dr. Scarfone. “For younger children, behavioral therapy often works wonders. Sometimes, medication along with home and school modifications are the best course of action.”

Dr. Topper notes that families may need to address co-occurring conditions that also require treatment. “We want to ensure a child is healthy because even little things can affect attention,” he says. Additionally, looking for symptoms of anxiety and learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, is very important. Other conditions that could lead to symptoms of ADHD may include low blood sugar, absence seizures, thyroid conditions, low iron storage, sleep disorders, or hearing problems. 

4. Understand your child’s educational rights.

Most schools offer special services and accommodations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Work with your child’s school to find out if they meet the eligibility requirements to receive support through an individualized education program (IEP) or a 504 Plan. Your pediatrician or neurologist is an

important resource who can also help guide you through this process.

“Accommodations may involve preferential seating at the front of classroom away from distractions, splitting assignments into smaller parts, and taking frequent breaks to move around the classroom,” says Dr. Topper. “Some kids will need special education services.” These small accommodations can help your child concentrate, better process information, and improve their behavior in the classroom setting.

5. Support treatment with education, communication, and teamwork.

There is no cure for ADHD, but the outlook is encouraging for children who receive treatment. Dr. Topper says many children who take medication may need it less over time. For example, as they age, some kids may only need it while they are in class or studying.

Any effective treatment involves long-term planning, including:

  • Setting realistic goals for your child’s behavior, such as better schoolwork, improved relationships, or fewer disruptive actions
  • Monitoring and follow-up activities, such as behavior checklists, teachers’ reports, and provider visits
  • Revisiting the treatment plan to track progress against goals and make modifications as needed

“It’s vital to regularly monitor adherence to the treatment plan, any adverse effects of therapy, and overall response to therapy,” says Dr. Scarfone. She advises follow-up visits with a pediatrician or neurologist every six months for children not on medication. For those taking medication, she says visits may be weekly or every other week to start and then spaced out as doses are adjusted.

In the meantime, learning all you can about ADHD and educating the people in your child’s life can support their treatment. Some ways you can help your child get the help they need to succeed include:

  • Asking your provider for reliable ADHD information sources. These may include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders). Dr. Topper says he often recommends the book “Taking Charge of ADHD” by Russell Barkley, PhD.
  • Talking to the adults in your child’s life about their diagnosis and agreeing on how to handle behavior issues. Encourage regular communication to address any concerns.
  • Joining a support group or seeking a mental health provider to share what you’re experiencing and support your well-being.
  • Helping your child not only with behavior management techniques, but also by recognizing their successes, building on their strengths, and creating positive experiences you can enjoy together.