Healthy Living: Identification & Treatment of ADHD 

By: Dr. David Prescott

What is ADHD?  Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is one of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in children, with lower prevalence among adults.  Estimates of its prevalence in children and teenagers typically range from a low of 5% to a high of 10%.

The symptoms and behaviors necessary to make a diagnosis have become increasingly familiar as identification and treatment of this problem has improved.  The key components of ADHD include:

  • Inattention: Children with ADHD often fail to observe important details or make many careless mistakes.  They are often unorganized and are easily distracted.
  • Hyperactivity: In some, but not all cases, children with ADHD have trouble sitting still, are fidgety, and are always on the go.
  • Impulsivity: Children with ADHD often blurt out answers in class, have trouble waiting their turn, and act without thinking through the consequences of their actions.
  • Symptoms present in two or more settings: One key component of diagnosis ADHD is that poor attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity must be present in more than one setting.  The patterns must occur across all aspects of the child’s life, rather than being isolated to one setting.

The ADHD Medication Debate: Given the widespread use of medications like Ritalin to treat ADHD, some people have questioned whether medications are appropriate or effective for ADHD.  In general, research evidence supports the effectiveness of medication in terms of helping children improve their schoolwork, think before acting, and getting more organized.  Estimates are that about 90% of children show improvement for ADHD with medication.

Treatment Guidelines for Children with ADHD Vary with Age: Diagnosing mental health problems in children, particularly very young children, should be done by a health professional, such as a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.  Pediatricians are able to screen and diagnose a large number of behavioral problems as well.  In terms of treatment options, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued practice guidelines for standard treatment approaches with ADHD.  They recommend:

Pre-school Children (4-5 years old): Behavioral Therapy which involves the parents and/or teacher is the preferred treatment for ADHD at this age.  If this type of treatment is unsuccessful, medication may be considered.

Elementary School Children (6-11 years old): Preferred treatment for ADHD between ages 6-11 is a combination of medication and behavior therapy.  Again, the involvement of parents and teachers is critical for behavior therapy to be successful.

Adolescents (12-17 years old): The evidence supporting the use of medications for ADHD in this age range is strong.  While behavior therapy is also recommended, the available research supporting its effectiveness at this age is not as strong as with younger children.

Ruling Out Other Causes of Inattention:  Poor attention and focus may be caused by many different mental health conditions.  Children with depression or anxiety disorders, for example, may have trouble focusing their attention on schoolwork. As with any potential mental health problem, evaluation by a licensed healthcare provider is critically important.

 For More Information:

American Psychological Association Help Center:

American Academy of Pediatrics:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: