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ADHD in the Pre-school Child

Bobby’s parents were concerned. Following his fourth birthday in the summer he had been enrolled in preschool three months ago. The teacher had already requested several conferences with the parents regarding Bobby=s work and play habits as well as his behavior in the classroom.

His mother brought along a note his teacher had recently sent home: Bobby has trouble sitting for more than two minutes before he is up and running about the classroom. He is restless at circle time and wanders around the room. He disrupts the other children who are trying to work. He cannot concentrate for more than a minute or two on a task because he  is so easily distracted.

 Bobby’s Story

I learned that Bobby was the first child in his family. His mother reported that he had always been difficult to manage at home. Always active and restless, he had difficulty staying at the table through a meal and getting to sleep at night. He acted without thinking and was repeatedly in trouble for things like jumping on the furniture or getting into places that were off limits.

When his cousin of the same age visited, he pushed and shoved and was over-excited. But he was not angry and seemed genuinely sorrowful when confronted about what he had done.

His mother had noted these behaviors but did not know what to make of them since Bobby was here first child. AI thought maybe it was because he was a boy.

Once he began to have persistent trouble at preschool the parents suspected that something was not right. The teacher suggested that he might be hyperactive, the father volunteered.

But I thought he was too young. Doesn’t that problem only occur in older kids?@ his mom asked.

In fact, most children with attention problems and hyperactivity are not recognized until early elementary school.

However, the characteristic symptoms of ADHD are typically present from early in life. Often parents as they present a detailed history of the older child recall that the one with ADHD was different from early in life. These difficult behaviors at the time were not clearly different form the typical toddler and preschool pattern. Because no one could put a finger on these differences, they were ignored, or at least tolerated, during the early years. Confusing the picture is the fact that toddlers and preschoolers are by nature active, impulsive, and easily distracted. So the child with developmental problems may be somewhat difficult to separate out at this age.

But, then, along comes a Bobby whose restlessness, impulsiveness, and pure motor hyperactivity cannot be ignored. Such a child has problems paying attention, following directions, and participating in cooperative play appropriate for their age. They are over stimulated easily in large groups or when excited. In a one-on-one situation they may be more attentive and cooperative but even here the short attention span is likely to be noticeable.

For instance, they may have difficulty sitting still at the table through a meal. They will want you to read to them but may listen for only a few minutes before they are up and running or asking for another book. They may hit, push, and shove impulsively, but yet, they are not angry or mean. One common symptom at this age is an incessant need to talk without any control.

 The Diagnosis

Indeed, Bobby did have attention deficit disorder.

After detailed observations were obtained from his parents and teachers, developmental tests were administered. He was cognitively advanced being particularly strong  in verbal skills. However, his motor skills were mildly delayed. The examiner noted that he had a very hard time keeping Bobby focused on the tasks.

Following this evaluation, Bobby was treated with a small dose of Methylphenidate. There was marked improvement in his activity level and degree of impulsiveness. He was much more controlled in school as well as in the home setting.

His teacher later wrote: Now Bobby is able to realize when he has done something wrong. He more often chooses positive options. He is able to sit and concentrate. He is choosing to ask for work which requires that he sit for 10-15 minutes at time. The amount of detail in his daily journal has changed tremendously. Before, he would draw just few lines with dark color in his interpretation was usually something violent and aggressive. This week, however he is taking his time and the colors and the details of his drawings are bright and clear.

 Management

The management of the young child with ADHD is certainly more difficult and complicated than with older children.

First, as we have discussed, it is not always easy to separate the attention behaviors from those behaviors which are typical of preschoolers. Not only is the initial diagnosis more confusing but it is also more difficult for parents to decide how to respond to a specific behavior.

Secondly, the preschooler is not sufficiently mature cognitively to understand the consequences of his disruptive behaviors. Thus verbal signals are often not well understood or received. Parents find themselves constantly interrupting and re-directing behaviors.

The excessive impulsiveness leads the preschooler to behaviors that can be dangerous to themselves and others. Parents must be on their guard for things like climbing to dangerous heights, playing with matches or fire, running into the street, etc. The children must be watched compulsively.

To complicate all of this, the preschooler’s response to stimulant medication is more erratic and unpredictable. Many physicians simply will not attempt to treat the young child with medication because they have had bad experiences with it or they are uncertain about how to administer it to this age child.

 The Use of Mediation With the Preschooler

Recent studies, however, have verified the fact that, indeed, preschoolers can be effectively and safely treated with stimulants with good response when the medication is managed appropriately for their age. The main problem is the narrow window between effective dose and side effects. However, by starting with a low dose and gradually moving upward, side effects can usually be avoided while finding that effective therapeutic window. While most stimulants are available in pill or capsule form only, there are some liquid form available. However, the liquids are all short-acting and require multiple doses during the day, however.

 Other Management Steps

In addition to medication when needed, other management steps are extremely important.

It is important for the home and school environment to be as calm and under-stimulating as possible while providing opportunities for learning. A consistent routine of living: eating, sleeping, play time, nap time, school, etc is essential.

An effective behavior modification plan is also important. Often behavioral counseling for the parents will be necessary to help them formulate discipline strategies and techniques to hand the specific bothersome behaviors of their preschooler. A developmental psychologist who understands preschoolers in a great help.

The preschooler with ADHD will often benefit from enrollment in a preschool at age three or four. The school should be quiet, structured, yet affirming in its atmosphere. Consistent behavioral management should be used.

Most of all, parents need relief. The supervision of the preschooler with ADHD is a very demanding, full-time job. This job can easily over-whelm the most energetic and well-meaning parents. Parents need to make good use of a competent preschool and mature sitters and relatives to get away and recharge their own batteries. Otherwise, they will collapse, emotionally, if not physically.

When confronted with the preschooler with ADHD we need to remember the natural tendency of ADHD to get better with chronological maturity. It we can provide right combinations of management at this early stage, we set the stage for more healthy growth later.

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