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An alternative diagnosis to ADHD

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An alternative diagnosis to ADHD: Schoolchildren need more time to move

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post
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JOHN D. SIMMONS - CHARLOTTE OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
Children who move and have plenty of playtime are able to concentrate better during classroom time.

 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that in recent years, there has been a jump in the percentage of young people diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD: 7.8 percent in 2003 to 9.5 percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2011.

 The reasons include changes in diagnostic criteria and greater awareness of the condition. In the following post, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and the founder of TimberNook, a child-development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors, suggests yet another reason more children are being diagnosed with ADHD, whether or not they have it: the amount of time kids are forced to sit while in school. This appeared on the TimberNook blog: www.timbernook.com.

A mom pours her heart out to me over the phone. She complains that her 6-year-old son is unable to sit still in the classroom. The school wants to test him for ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). This sounds familiar, I think to myself. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I’ve noticed that this is a fairly common problem today.

The mother goes on to explain how her son comes home every day with a yellow smiley face. The rest of his class goes home with green smiley faces for good behavior. Every day this child is reminded that his behavior is unacceptable, simply because he can’t sit still for long periods of time.

The mother starts crying. “He is starting to say things like ‘I hate myself’ and ‘I’m no good at anything.’ 

Over the past decade, more and more children are being coded as having attention issues and possibly ADHD. A local elementary teacher tells me that at least eight of her 22 students have trouble paying attention on a good day. At the same time, children are expected to sit for longer periods of time.

The problem: It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues and hectic schedules. Let’s face it: Children are not moving nearly enough, and it’s a problem.

Nonstop fidgeting

I recently observed a fifth-grade classroom as a favor to a teacher. The teacher was reading a book to the children. I’ve never seen anything like it. Kids were tilting their chairs back at extreme angles, others were rocking their bodies back and forth, others were chewing on the ends of their pencils.

My first thought was that the children might have been fidgeting because it was the end of the day and they were simply tired. Even though this may have been part of the problem, there was certainly another underlying reason.

We learned after further testing that most of the children had poor core strength and balance. In fact, we tested a few other classrooms and found that when compared with children from the early 1980s, only one out of 12 children had normal strength and balance. I thought to myself: These children need to move!

Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting to get the movement their bodies so desperately need and are not getting enough of to “turn their brains on.” What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brains go back “to sleep.”

We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended, and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough.

In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.

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