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We all know children who can’t sit still, who never seem to listen, who don’t follow instructions no matter how clearly you present them, or who blurt out inappropriate comments at inappropriate times. Sometimes these children are labeled as troublemakers, or criticized for being lazy and undisciplined. However, they may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), formerly known as attention deficit disorder, or ADD. ADHD makes it difficult for people to inhibit their spontaneous responses—responses that can involve everything from movement to speech to attentiveness.

Because we expect very young children to be easily distractible and hyperactive, it’s the impulsive behaviors—the dangerous climb, the blurted insult—that often stand out in preschoolers with ADHD. By age four or five, though, most children have learned how to pay attention to others, to sit quietly when instructed to, and not to say everything that pops into their heads. So by the time children reach school age, those with ADHD stand out in all three behaviors: inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

The signs and symptoms of ADHD typically appear before the age of seven. However, it can be difficult to distinguish between attention deficit disorder and normal “kid behavior.” The three primary characteristics of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. The signs and symptoms a child with attention deficit disorder has depends on which characteristics predominate.

Children who only have inattentive symptoms of ADHD are often overlooked, since they’re not disruptive. However, the symptoms of inattention have consequences: getting in trouble with parents and teachers for not following directions; underperforming in school; or clashing with other kids over not playing by the rules.

It isn’t that children with ADHD can’t pay attention: when they’re doing things they enjoy or hearing about topics in which they’re interested, they have no trouble focusing and staying on task. But when the task is repetitive or boring, they quickly tune out.

Staying on track is another common problem. Children with ADHD often bounce from task to task without completing any of them, or skip necessary steps in procedures. Organizing their schoolwork and their time is harder for them than it is for most children. They may also have trouble concentrating if there are things going on around them; they usually need a calm, quiet environment in order to stay focused.

Diagnoses of ADHD are on the rise. A population-based study published in 2015, which meticulously gathered reports from both teachers and parents, suggested that ADHD might affect up to 16% of elementary-school children (roughly one in six) which is three times higher than the estimated ADHD prevalence (5%) cited in the DSM-5. According to the CDC, ADHD diagnoses rose by 42% in less than a decade (2003–2011) for children and adolescents ages 4-17, translating into an average annual increase of 5%. Almost two-thirds (64%) of children and teens diagnosed with ADHD “had at least one other mental, emotional or behavioral disorder,” including behavior or conduct problems, anxiety, depression, ASD and/or Tourette syndrome. To learn more please see the additional resource/research tabs below.

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