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Home » Chalk Talk – Whose Attention Deficit

Whose Attention Deficit

February, 2008

Why is it that parents have to wait a generation for headline-making scientific research to catch up with their own intuitive understanding of their kids? “ADHD Linked to Delay in Brain Development” (Education Week, 11/26/07) is just what that parents accused of having attention-deficit kids have been saying for years.

According to new research, for many kids labeled ADHD, their behavior “results from a delay in brain maturation” rather than “complete deviation from the template of typical development.” This developmental delay in the cortex, which controls thinking, attention and planning, goes hand-in-hand with a faster maturation of the motor cortex, accounting for the restlessness and fidgeting so common in some children.

Consider the all too familiar scenario – Johnny or Jane has a hard time sitting still, focusing on teacher’s directions as much as teacher would like or being able to comprehend lots and lots of words on a page without getting a bit distracted.

Teacher reports this distracting condition to parents, with hints that the child may have ADHD. Parent shows up at any number of doctors’ offices and without any scientific testing other than observation, a drug, typically Ritalin, is prescribed.

Within days the child is now sitting attentively without ants in her pants, and her reading, while far from better, appears to proceed more easily.

So do children, once diagnosed and treated for ADHD, become better students? Anecdotally, most ADHD kids on a drug regimen do not appear to do any better academically than the average kid with symptoms who didn’t get treated. But parents and teachers seem to be a lot happier with less unexpected activity and motion, and the sense that they are doing something to help the child.

However, this new research lends weight to many parents’ contention that a supportive environment, and, most of all, time, rather than drugs, might provide an equally effective, less invasive, approach. Finally there is evidence that the developing brain of a child exhibiting ADHD behavior has not derailed – it is simply taking a longer time to reach certain developmental milestones – 3 years longer, according to this latest research.

“Finding a normal pattern of cortex maturation, albeit delayed, in children with ADHD should be reassuring to families and could help to explain why many youth eventually seem to grow out of the disorder,” says Dr. Philip Shaw, lead researcher on the study.

I’m not saying that attention disorders are not a reality for any children, but perhaps we need to start thinking about adjusting the timeframe for such children’s developmental milestones, and creating environments that support that timeframe, rather than trying to get them into lock step with the group. Giving young children any medication on a consistent basis will impact them in ways, some known and many unknown, that may be irreversible. (Note: While it is in dispute, a study several years ago found a positive correlation between early Ritalin use and later drug abuse).

This new data makes clear that parents need to understand what their child does and doesn’t do, whether behaviors out of the mainstream represent a developmental deviation or simply a delay, and whether children’s behaviors, however challenging for adults, are a problem in search of a cure, or simply part of the unknown vagaries that make parenting – and teaching – such a joyful crucible, because, after all, “kids will be kids.”