Having personally worked with hundreds of children who have “attention problems,” we have discovered dozens of reasons leading to such a misdiagnosis.
The following are all based on real kids that have come to us. Some just did the assessment and some did a program with us. Some were easy to identify and others took longer to understand.
Before considering medication, discipline, counselling or other extreme measures, please carefully and thoughtfully consider the following list:
- Stuffy head caused by allergies: We have worked with a least 100 children who had learning and attention problems caused primarily by allergies. If your head is stuffed up, you can’t think very well. Consider when you’ve had a cold and still had to go to work. That would not have been the best day for you to participate in an employee training program. Some kids are stuffed up and not thinking clearly every day of their childhood. Get rid of the cat! Use an antihistamine. Excuse that child from mowing the lawn. Vacuum daily. Do whatever needs to be done to help your child think clearly during allergy season.
- Youngest child in the class: Consider any classroom and there is one year in age difference from the youngest child to the oldest. A surprisingly (no, horrifyingly) disproportionate number of kids diagnosed with ADHD are among the youngest kids in that classroom. Of course a child who is one full year younger (especially in the primary grades) is not as capable of performing socially or academically as the older children.
- Itchiness caused by eczema: No one can think clearly and pay attention when they are itchy. I recently assessed a boy whose parents were considering medicating him for ADHD based on the teacher’s recommendation. During the assessment with us this boy could not stop scratching because of his eczema. We don’t think he has ADHD. We think he is very, very itchy. Frequently, eczema is actually contact dermatitis caused by allergies. Change laundry detergent (Nellie’s laundry soda is hypoallergenic) and wash all his clothes and bedding. For my eczema, I also need to be very careful of soaps. I only use Dawn for dishes, Dove body wash, and TRESemme shampoo and conditioner. I have found that this perfect combination really improves my quality of life. (I’m also allergic to many metals and sensitive to latex.)
- Itchiness caused by insects and plants: As far as attention goes, an insect bite trumps a teacher’s lesson every time. Get a flea collar for the pet and possibly have the house exterminated. Don’t eat bananas in the spring and summer as they make you very attractive to mosquitoes. Use After-Bite on mosquito bites. Thoroughly wash nettle stings with soap and water as soon as possible and be amazed at how quickly they go away.
- Tiredness: A good night’s sleep is critical to attention and learning. Ensure an early bedtime. Is the bed comfortable? Is the room too noisy? I once had a student who couldn’t sleep because a noisy deep freeze was kept in his room. Is your child worried about a bully, teacher, or family problems? Look for the causes and search for non-medicinal remedies whenever possible. Ideas: Hot bath, warm snack, boring bedtime story, no screen time for at least one hour before bed, soft music without words.
- Hunger: Most children today eat a breakfast that doesn’t last. They are hungry within 30-60 minutes of eating. All cereals and breads cause blood sugar to spike and then drop. Feed your child a big breakfast of eggs with bacon, sausage, or ham. No toast, no jam, no hot or cold cereal, no pancakes, and no juice. You could see a huge change in your child from the very first day. The same applies to snacks and lunch at school. High fat/low carbohydrates/no sugar will help your child think better all day.
- Thirst: Brains get dehydrated. Two glasses of water before leaving the breakfast table. Two more glasses of water with dinner. Juice, pop, and other sweet drinks make you even thirstier. Many ADHD medications cause thirst.
- Toothache: One day I was doing an assessment on a boy who had recently been adopted from Africa. I noticed something wrong and he admitted to me that he had a toothache but didn’t want his new family to know about it as they might send him back for being an expensive child. He didn’t need any of our programs as he started doing very well in school once his tooth was fixed.
- Gifted: At least several times each year we will assess a child who supposedly has ADHD only to discover that he is highly gifted and bored to tears. Parenting gifted children is not always an easy task, they come with their own set of problems. But medication is usually not the best solution. There is also a diagnosis of Gifted/ADHD but I think it is usually Gifted/Bored. (As a member of Mensa, I can speak to this from personal experience.)
- Uncomfortable chair or desk: Is your child’s desk at school the right size? If his feet are swinging he may appear hyperactive. Skinny kids with bony, skinny buttocks will get sore and squirm. A too small desk will also be uncomfortable. Discomfort is not hyperactivity or an attention problem.
- Too cold or hot: Is your child’s desk in front of a window with the sun shining on him all day? Is she in a draft? It’s hard to pay attention when you’re freezing or boiling.
- Celiac disease: We had one student who frequently had tummy aches. Her teacher accused her of faking it to get out of doing her work. When gluten was eliminated from her diet the tummy aches went away and she liked school. She was tiny and not growing before the diagnosis. She grew like a weed and was able to pay attention to the teacher afterwards.
- Other medical conditions: We had one boy who was really struggling with attention in school. He didn’t eat, vomited when he ate, and wasn’t growing. His teacher thought he was doing this to get out of going to school. It turns out the opening to his esophagus was restricted. He received an esophageal stent and was cured of his learning and behaviour problems.
- Poor vision: On numerous occasions we have discovered that a child either couldn’t read the paper on the desk or a whiteboard across the room. Ask your child to read something close and a sign or billboard to see what happens. We had a boy with double vision and a girl who’s eyes didn’t converge. A “lazy eye” is basically blind. That matters! Get your child’s vision checked yearly. In BC these exams are covered by MSP. It always amazes me when learning problems are completely resolved by glasses.
- Bullying: Children keep bullying a secret. They go through their day afraid and can’t think of anything other than the beating or teasing that could happen at any moment. If there is a bully, as the parent you need to get on top of the situation.
- Learning disabilities: A diagnosis of a learning disability means that your child has a deficit in one or more cognitive skills. These are skills and they can be trained. We do it day in and day out with hundreds of kids every year. You need to contact us!
- Shame, embarrassment: How can a non-reader think when the teacher might make him read aloud at any moment? How can the struggling math student think when she is waiting her turn to go to the board to solve a problem in front of everyone? Embarrassment is a very powerful emotion that can shut down a brain. Find out why your child is struggling (see our assessment) and get it resolved.
- Physical discomfort: Many kids are bothered by the tags on their shirts, waistbands, toe seams on socks, and restrictive clothing. They can’t think when all they can do is feel their tight underwear. We’ve seen several children with wet feet due to holes in their boots or from wearing runners in the rain. Wet feet and an itchy sweater make listening to the teacher’s lesson almost impossible.
- Skeletal problems: Get your kid to the chiropractor or massage therapist if he’s always twisting and squirming his back or neck and looking terribly uncomfortable in a chair. Instead of ADHD it might be that something is out of alignment. Growing pains are a real thing and can cause a kid to wriggle and squirm for months.
- Raging hormones: Your teenager can’t think because the girl in front of him is cute and smells nice. Of course he’s not paying attention but it isn’t ADHD. Maybe he needs to sit elsewhere. Good luck with that.
- Environmental sensitivities: Some kids can’t think if there is an unpleasant or strong smell. Harsh lighting can cause eye strain or headaches. A noisy classroom can be almost impossible for some kids to cope with. What’s outside the classroom window that could cause your child to be overly distracted?
- Auditory processing deficits and disorder (APD): Does it seem as though your child doesn’t hear very well? Perhaps you’ve even had his hearing tested and he hears just fine. Auditory processing deficits are the leading cause of learning problems and are frequently mistaken for ADHD. Our assessments will determine if your child has auditory processing deficits and our programs can strengthen these abilities.
- Intellectual disabilities: Not everyone has strong intellectual abilities. Most are average (that’s why it’s called “average”), some are gifted, and others are weak. It’s hard to pay attention when the topic is beyond your comprehension.
- Sadness: How can you think straight when your best friend is mad at you, or your parents are fighting all the time, or your brother is mean to you, or your grandma dies, or you have no friends in this new school? Sadness is a true and honest emotion. Sadness doesn’t mean depression, it means you’re sad for a reason. What needs to happen to change the situation or the feelings brought on by it?
And the list goes on. There could be hundreds of reasons for inattention that are not ADHD and can be resolved without medication.
Look at your child with an open mind. Really try to get in his or her shoes and discover the reasons for the attention problems.
Our assessment tests a range of cognitive abilities. Sometimes that is where the problem lies, but not always. When we can rule out the problem being in the brain, it is often easier to determine what else it might be. We’ve gotten to be pretty good at observation and at asking the child the right questions to get to the root of the problem.