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Preschoolers and ADHD

Is it possible to diagnose and treat preschoolers with AD/HD? A new study provides much-needed insights.

By Arlene Schusteff, ADDitude Magazine

Mary K., of Hillside, New Jersey, suspected that her son, Brandon, should be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD). He was unusually active from the time he was born. "Brandon jumped out of his crib at age one, and hasn't stopped moving, climbing, and jumping since." At first, Mary and her husband ascribed Brandon's high activity level to 'boys being boys'. But when the preschool he attended asked the three-year-old to leave because of concerns about his aggressive and impulsive behaviors, she began to suspect an ADHD diagnosis was needed.

At home, life difficult - as it is for many families with children with ADHD. "Brandon drew on the walls and didn't listen to anything we said. He threw pictures or silverware across the room when he was frustrated, which was all the time. We lived and died by Brandon's moods. If he was in a good mood, everyone in the house was in a good mood, and vice versa. I had a three-year-old running my household," says Mary.

Mary and her husband stopped inviting relatives to their home because they were embarrassed by their lack of control over their preschooler and his ADHD behaviors. "Friends began to shy away from us — they didn't want their children to be around him. I felt like the worst mother in the world."

An elementary school disorder?

After Brandon was asked to leave a second preschool — he'd chased a girl around the playground with a plastic knife, saying he would "cut her up" — Mary booked an appointment with her son's pediatrician to ask about diagnosing the preschooler with attention deficit disorder. Her doctor's response, however, was that Brandon was much too young for an ADHD diagnosis. And this response is one that parents of children with ADHD across the country in similar circumstances can expect to encounter. Why?

Attention deficit disorder has traditionally been viewed as a disorder of elementary school children. While there are hundreds of scientific studies generating a wealth of data for diagnosing and treating ADHD in school-age children, there are few equivalent studies about diagnosing and treating preschoolers with ADHD. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) criteria used to diagnose ADHD include symptoms such as, "out of seat during school," "does not follow through on instructions," "avoids tasks with sustained mental effort," and "fidgety and restless while sitting"-describing behaviors that may be developmentally appropriate for some preschoolers.

Diagnosing ADHD in preschoolers

Is it possible, then, to diagnose children with attention deficit disorder when impulsivity, opposition, and extreme activity are normal preschool behaviors? Yes, but the tipping point in diagnosis is usually a matter of degree. "Children with ADHD are much more extreme than the average three-year-old," says Alan Rosenblatt, M.D., a specialist in neurodevelopmental pediatrics. "It's not just that a child with ADD can't sit still. It's that he can't focus on any activity, even one that's pleasurable, for any length of time."

Larry Silver, M.D., a psychiatrist at Georgetown University School of Medicine, says that an experienced teacher, one with a baseline of appropriate three-year-old behavior, can be a tremendous help. "You have to look at whether or not the behaviors are consistent in more than one environment," he notes.

But experts caution that, even with "red flags," early diagnosis of ADHD can be difficult. "You have to delve deep into the root of certain behaviors," says Silver. "A child might have separation anxiety, his fine motor skills or sensory problems could be making it hard for him to behave, or it could be evolving Pervasive Developmental Disorder," he says.

Nonetheless, Laurence Greenhill, M.D., of Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute, points to two behavioral patterns that often predict ADHD diagnosis later in life. The first, preschool expulsion, is usually caused by aggressive behavior, refusal to participate in school activities, and failure to respect other children's property or boundaries. The second, peer rejection, is one that parents can easily identify. Children with extreme behaviors are avoided by their classmates, shunned on the playground. Other children are "busy" whenever parents try to arrange playdates.

In these extreme cases, parents should take their preschooler to a pediatrician or a child psychiatrist. Diagnosis of ADHD should involve a thorough medical and developmental history, observation of social and emotional circumstances at home, and feedback from teachers and health professionals who have contact with the child. In many cases, neuropsychological testing may be needed to rule out conditions whose symptoms might overlap with ADHD, including anxiety disorder, language-processing disorders, oppositional-defiant disorders, and sensory integration problems.

Arlene Schusteff is the author of Peanut Butter, Playdates, and Prozac: Tales from a Modern Mom (Wyatt-MacKenzie). She lives in Deerfield, Illinois.

Reprinted with permission from ADDitude Magazine. All rights reserved. See for more articles like this one.

Comments from readers

"My son is 5 years old and he just got diagnosed with a small case of ADHD. He had the biggest heart and is very smart, but has a hard time not acting out when he's angry. He got suspended from kinder for fighting. After it happend he cried and said he was sorry. It's hard to see him struggle because he has an impulse to just react and then feels horrible after. We are trying to teach him to use his words and he has improved but it is still hard. Sometimes I feel like a failure as a mother cause I just want him to be okay and I want to help him learn to master this and not use it as an excuse. It really helps to hear that others out there are dealing with this as well. Thank you to all you strong parents and others who try there best for these children. God Bless!!! "
"I read the article and its nice that ADHD can be treated once it is detected because I usually say the same that boys will be boys but now I see it can be more than that"
"I have heard that taking children off of white sugar & white flour did wonders in their ability to concentrate & focus! Also, taking out MSG, artificial colors & flavors from their diet did wonders."
"I read this article and thought 'This is so familiar'. Thank goodness I had someone help me to diagnos my son's Sensory Integration Disorder and ADHD. When he was asked to leave his preschool due to aggresive behavior I was crushed and felt like a failure. It is not easy to find the help needed for your child AND family. Now two 1/2 years later as my son enters first grade, we still are searching for the 'right' answers. We've tried OT, counseling, diet changes, behavior modification and yes, low dose medication. They all help in little bits but it is a constant struggle to help my son stay focused, even though he also is very bright. I would like to know more about the 'parent effectiveness training', as I've not heard of that. Can anyone enlighten me? Mindy"
"Thank you for this information. I would like to know if you recommend any specialist or any Center for Advancement of Children's Mental Health in Dallas, Texas. My almost 5 years old , is been making noises at class, kind of active , he is not focusing. However, the teachers says that he is very smart, above average, and he is been telling me that he gets bored at PRE-K. I would appreciate your assistance."