It can be challenging to raise active children. Periods of inattention, mixed with restlessness and sudden bursts of energy, can be difficult to manage, though are completely normal for little ones. However, if your child struggles with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these behaviors are magnified, making it next to impossible to find stimulating activities that present opportunities to self-regulate. Parentology reached out to three experts to learn their approaches for engaging young clients who have ADHD.
Focusing on mind and body, D1 Training’s approach for clients with ADHD is a holistic mix of personal fitness and scholastic training. “You have to go to the root of the problem when instructing children with ADHD,” Mike Kite, D1 Training’s Director of Education tells Parentology. “You can’t simply expect a child with ADHD to jump into an activity and stay interested, you have to employ tactics that grab their attention.”
Kite uses the power of exercise to keep young clients engaged. “I truly do think of exercise as a form of medicine,” he says. “Exercise causes the brain to release neurotransmitters, which help the brain and body communicate with each other. A key neurotransmitter, dopamine, is released during exercise, which helps with attention and clear thinking.”
Indeed, PubMed Central claims unmedicated patients with ADHD have lower concentrations of dopamine transporters, resulting in a lower attention span. Kite echoes this claim, adding that exercise is a key priority for children with ADHD, not just to clear their heads, but to release pent-up energy. “Kids with ADHD will also practice staying focused and goal-oriented, making exercise more fun.”
When choosing a sport or exercise for your child, Kite suggests mixing it up. “For team sports, make sure there’s an aerobic component so the body knows it’s working out,” he says. Great options include soccer, tennis, basketball and field hockey. Team sports such as football or baseball also work, but involve periods of inactivity, which can be a challenge for children who are easily distracted.
Solo activities need to be dynamic and challenging to keep kids’ interest, Kite says. “Karate, Taekwondo and jiujitsu are perfect examples of a solo exercise that will hold their attention span. [These types of sports] help with concentration, balance and fine motor skills.”
Kite has seen firsthand the positive effects of exercise on children, regardless of whether they have ADHD or not. “Most times, there’s a level of focus they didn’t have prior to training,” he says. “With all the hormones released during high-intensity workouts, training can be a true form of natural medicine. It makes for a nice relief.”
Becky Ward, the Tutor Experience Coordinator at Tutor Doctor, is familiar with the educational challenges students face, something exacerbated when a student has ADHD. Ward emphasizes there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to private tutoring. Therein lies the success of Tutor Doctor, which offers its clients a customized learning experience.
“The biggest challenge is finding what works for each student,” Ward tells Parentology. “Developmental disabilities, like ADHD, impact each individual differently. We learn about the needs of the student — both in and out of a learning environment — what interests them, works at home and at school, and engages them in learning. From there, we try different strategies to see what works best for the student.”
Individual strategies can include giving more time to complete tasks, using an exercise ball rather than a chair, or working in a solo environment rather than a classroom setting. “The stereotypical ‘misbehavior’ of ADHD is often the result of students not being engaged or challenged in the classroom,” Ward says. “ADHD is a difference in the way the brain is wired, so for students who have ADHD, a traditional classroom setting often fails to meet their unique learning needs.”
Part of strategizing includes acknowledges what worked one day may not work the next. “You have to be prepared to change your approach and plans. Every student can have an off day, where things just aren’t going to plan. As every student grows, their needs change,” Ward says.
The most important factor that drives the success of her students is focusing on their successes. Ward laments that the current educational system merely ‘manages’ students with ADHD, and focuses on mitigating ‘bad’ behavior, rather than celebrating a student’s success and what they’re actually good at.
“Students who have ADHD are often labeled as “bad kids” which can have a damaging effect on their self-esteem,” Ward says. “By putting students who have ADHD in positive roles where they can be leaders and/or show their peers and teachers what they are good at, we help boost their confidence and help students see that their needs are only a very small part of who they are as a person.”
By giving kids the tools they need to be successful, Ward says most of her students who have ADHD are able to participate in a classroom setting without issue. Ward encourages desirable outcomes with positive reinforcement and praise. “If a student has difficulty taking responsibility for their own belongings, give them a high five, praise, or a small reward when you catch them putting away their work materials without being asked,” she says. “Positive reinforcement is always more effective than nagging and it helps the student to turn those one-off behaviors into habits.” Similarly, breaking instructions down into clear, simple, brief directions can make them less overwhelming for a child with ADHD.
Understanding ADHD as part of the greater world of neurodiversity means placing the child before the diagnosis and understanding that everyone has a different learning path. “It’s so important that teachers and parents understand a diagnosis of ADHD is just a small part of what makes a student unique,” Ward says. “Changing our wording from “students who are ADHD” to “students who have ADHD” tells the student that you understand a diagnosis is not who they are, but something they have ownership over. It’s a simple change that can have a big impact in supporting students with different needs.”
Goldfish Swim School
Learning to swim is a lifelong survival skill, according to Jenny McCuiston, instructor and co-founder of the Goldfish Swim School. Being in the water requires full attention, which is great for children with ADHD. “It not only teaches critical life skills, but socialization and social cues such as waiting your turn,” McCuiston says. “It’s a great way to expend energy.”
While some team sports can be distracting to children with ADHD, swimming requires whole-body focus. McCuiston has developed her curriculum to keep kids engaged. “As they progress and become more comfortable in the water, we introduce games to help them develop their muscles, motor skills and endurance,” McCuiston says. “Fun activities are the key to holding any child’s attention.”
McCuiston has co-developed the Science of SwimPlay® methodology used in her swim training programs, which is rooted in two key factors that support a child’s cognitive growth: “A safe environment and learning through guided play at any age.”
Exercise is a great technique for managing ADHD, but swimming has additional benefits, such as the release of endorphins, according to Bupa.co. Endorphins are the natural ‘feel-good’ hormones that increase positivity. McCuiston has noticed swimming can have a calming effect on her young charges. “Motions are organic and fluid, which helps children feel at ease when they learn to float with an instructor,” she says.
Additionally, once children practice putting their heads underwater, “it mutes surrounding noise and distractions, allowing them to zero-in on a task,” McCuiston adds. She encourages parents to sign their children up as early as possible to get them comfortable with the water early on.
McCuiston’s curriculum aims at making swimming fun, and she’s certainly noticed a difference with her students, particularly those who struggle to focus or self-regulate. “At the end of a lesson, kids should be tuckered out – a sign of a productive session,” she says. “With a regular program to build focus and an outlet to burn energy, these life skills will start to become a habit and a way to control ADHD behaviors in the future.”