four kids playing with bubbles

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition recognized in about 5-9% of children in the U.S.

The diagnosis for ADHD usually includes inattention, distractibility, impulsiveness, and possible trouble regulating emotions. For some children this also includes a high level of activity.

You may be thinking that many kids are easily distracted and have a lot of energy. How do you know if your child has ADHD? Our experts at the UC Davis MIND Institute give you some signs to look for and advice for parents.

What does ADHD look like?

ADHD can look different in each child. Some children display more signs of not paying attention. Others show more hyperactive and impulsive challenges. It’s also important to note that boys and girls can have ADHD. However, boys are treated more often than girls. Boys are often diagnosed earlier, in part due to the emergence of excessive activity earlier. Girls are more likely to display the inattentive form of the condition, and this may not be noticed until later elementary school.

We know that ADHD traits are present in almost all children and are closely related to their developmental level. How can we determine which children actually meet the criteria for ADHD?

The answer is not always clear cut. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Psychological Association offer guidelines to help make the right decision.

Consider the following questions when looking at a diagnosis of ADHD:

  • How extreme is the behavior?
  • How much harm or trouble does it cause?
  • How far outside of typical development does it fall?
  • How much do the behaviors affect learning?
  • How much do the behaviors affect relationships with family and peers?
  • Are the behaviors limited to certain settings, or do they occur constantly?
  • Are the behaviors present most of the time?

Learn more about ADHD from the UC Davis MIND Institute

ADHD diagnosis

The diagnosis of ADHD requires a team approach. It should include your child’s doctor, a school or child psychologist, your child’s teacher, day care provider, and you. Typically, the process for diagnosis includes:

  • Complete medical and family history
  • Physical examination
  • Interviews with parents and child
  • Behavior rating scales completed by parents and teachers
  • Observation of the child
  • Psychological assessment if there are concerns about learning (However, psychological testing is not required for a diagnosis of ADHD.)

Brain imaging techniques are used in research to understand the disorder, but they are not used as a part of standard assessment. However, this is an area that holds promise for the future.

Learn more about diagnosing ADHD from the UC Davis MIND Institute

Learn how to get a referral to the UC Davis MIND Institute ADHD Clinic

Medication and treatment for ADHD

Treatment for ADHD usually involves the use of a stimulant or similar medication. Stimulants include medications such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) or dextroamphetamine (Adderall and Dexedrine).

There are nonstimulant medications to treat ADHD that may be used if your child experiences the following:

  • side effects from stimulants
  • other symptoms that contradict the use of stimulants
  • other symptoms that are not addressed by the stimulants

There’s not enough scientific evidence to support the use of herbal combinations, special diets, and megavitamin therapies. If you’re considering trying such interventions, discuss it with your child’s physician. Some of these treatments may be harmful.

Learn more about ADHD treatments from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Behavioral approaches to ADHD

In addition to medication, counseling and behavioral treatment is also helpful. While medications can help reduce impulsiveness and distractibility, counseling or therapy may help the child deal with features often associated with ADHD, such as depression or anxiety.

Parents can also benefit from a good therapist who has experience with ADHD. Parents can learn techniques that work well with ADHD children through Parent Management Training (PMT). These can include:

  • developing a reward program
  • learning how to give instructions effectively
  • keeping a regular schedule
  • limiting over-stimulating activities
  • using timers or other organizational tactics to help the child stay on task

Experts recommend avoiding physical punishment such as spanking. Instead, it’s recommended that you make clear rules with specific consequences for misbehavior. These can include an appropriate time-out or having to earn a certain privilege.

It’s important to always start with a positive reward program and then adapt it as needed depending on the child’s age and level of development. It’s just as important to give plenty of encouragement and clear positive feedback daily to help the child develop a good self-image.

Rewards given soon after appropriate behavior are likely to be most effective especially for children with ADHD for whom delayed rewards are less effective. For instance, it’s better to give a child a reward for doing homework every night, rather than waiting for a good grade on a report card.

The UC Davis MIND Institute has a list of Sacramento-area ADHD resources, including psychologists, tutors, and more. There’s also a list of online ADHD resources from reliable organizations and centers.

Learn about the UC Davis MIND Institute’s ADHD behavioral parent education workshop

Opportunities for success for children with ADHD

The good news about ADHD is that many children have the potential for success, given the right opportunities and support. ADHD will persist into adulthood for about 60% of people who are diagnosed as children. With the right intervention, many have the chance to make positive use of their enthusiasm and skills to think outside the box.

Recognizing the disorder and providing treatment early may help reduce the negative outcomes of ADHD, like poor academic or job performance.

It’s our job as parents and health care providers to ensure that these children are given positive reinforcement for their successes. We also must ensure that they have opportunities that match their strengths and have the encouragement and treatment they need to reach their full potential.

ADHD clinical evaluation and research studies

The UC Davis MIND Institute ADHD Clinic offers evaluation and short-term treatments for children, adolescents, and adults with ADHD.

Learn how to get a referral to the UC Davis MIND Institute ADHD Clinic

The UC Davis MIND Institute ADHD Research Lab is actively recruiting teens and adults with and without ADHD to participate in studies.

Learn more about current ADHD research studies at UC Davis Health