Children diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) present a series of particular characteristics, which make their development, interactions, communication and evolution, in a certain way.

Logically, every child is different, but knowing these basic characteristics can help us to know how to treat a child with ADHD .

In this article, in addition to presenting the profile of a child with ADHD, we explain some guidelines (and how to apply them) that will help us relate to them, improve their quality of life and improve their self-control and behavior, among others.

What does a child with ADHD look like? Symptoms

Before offering some guidelines on how to treat a child with ADHD, in order to favour his development, facilitate his learning and the appearance of appropriate behaviours, improve his well-being, strengthen his bonds with him … We believe it is important to make a brief “x-ray” of the characteristics that children with ADHD may present.

To do this, it is important to understand that each child is a world , and that a diagnosis does not have to – nor should – pigeonhole or label it in any way.

It is true, on the other hand, that ADHD, like all disorders, presents a series of characteristic symptoms that will manifest themselves in an idiosyncratic way in each child. The key symptoms in ADHD are three: hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention.

For its part, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders) considers that ADHD can be of three types: with predominance of inattention, with predominance of hyperactivity or combined (with predominance of both types of symptoms).

1. Hyperactivity

Let’s remember that there are ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). In the case of presenting hyperactivity, this translates into a constant need to move .

Parents often talk about their children with ADHD as “children who have an engine inside, which never turns off” . In other words, alluding to this symptom, they are children who are moved, restless, with difficulties in sitting down or standing up, etc.

2. Impulsivity

Impulsivity, another key symptom in ADHD, consists, broadly speaking, in that inability (or great difficulty) to reflect before acting. Thus, they are children who act on impulses, who find it difficult to think about things before doing or saying them , with difficulties in waiting for turns, impatience, etc.

Logically, all this can be worked on, and like the rest of the symptoms, it is not something that defines them or “catalogs” them as such indefinitely. It is simply another feature of ADHD. Many times, as a result of this impulsivity and difficulty in waiting, behavioural disorders associated with the disorder (or for some other reasons) appear .

3. Inattention

Inattention, also present in many cases of ADHD (specifically, in the combined and inattentive subtypes), consists of the difficulty in maintaining sustained attention (concentration) during a certain period , towards some specific stimulus.

Many times there is also a deficit in selective attention (capacity to change the focus of attention), although what predominates is the deficit in sustained attention.

4. Interference

Finally, in order to be diagnosed with ADHD, it is necessary that the above-mentioned symptoms interfere with the child’s life , and that they also appear in more than one context: for example at home and at school.

How to Treat a Child with ADHD

How do you treat a child with ADHD? Yes, normally, but if we want to adapt to it, empathize, understand it, enhance their learning and improve their quality of life, we must follow a series of guidelines. Here we propose some (although there are more):

1. Working on self-control

Self-control is a difficult area in children with ADHD, since, due to their impulsiveness, they mainly present problems in relation to modulating their own actions. That is to say, they have difficulty controlling their actions properly, and have difficulty reaching that feeling of internal control so necessary many times.

So, a first guideline on how to treat a child with ADHD is to work with him/her on self-control. How can we do this? Whether we are teachers, educators, psychologists, parents … here you will know two resources.

1.1. The turtle technique

The first tool we propose is the turtle technique, which c onsists in teaching the child to respond in front of the keyword “turtle” (shrinking, closing his body, putting his head between his arms in a kind of imaginary shell…).

He will do this when he feels overwhelmed, angry or threatened, so that he can control his emotions and impulses in the face of environmental stimuli, for example.

1.2. Training in self-instruction

Another useful technique for working on self-control is through self-instruction, which involves helping the child to internalize the following steps, before making a decision :

  • STOP
  • ACT

We can work with images or pictograms, for example through the “STOP” symbol (traffic sign).

2. Reinforce appropriate behavior

It is important, in relation to how to treat a child with ADHD, to work on his or her behavior as well. There are different strategies for this. One of them is to recognise, reinforce and reward their appropriate behaviours , so that they increase.

3. Apply behavior modification techniques

Beyond reinforcing the appropriate behaviors, we can also use different behavior modification techniques, in order to improve also their inappropriate behaviors (reducing them and replacing them with others).

We can do this through different techniques (either at school, at home…), as they are:

3.1. Time out

It consists of removing the child from the reinforcing context in which he or she is immersed (for example the classroom or the playground), so that he or she “loses” the reinforcers (which maintain his or her problem behaviour) temporarily, and can reflect on his or her inappropriate behaviour. It is recommended that one minute of time out be applied, for each year of the child’s age.

3.2. Response cost

This technique implies that the child loses some object that reinforces him (or a token, in the context of an economy of tokens), as a consequence of inappropriate behaviour.

4. Avoid criticizing him in front of others

It seems pretty obvious, but sometimes it’s not. Another guideline on how to treat a child with ADHD is this: don’t criticize their behavior, or speak badly of it, in front of the other children.

It is important not to diminish their self-esteem and that they don’t feel ashamed, since many times it is something they cannot control, or simply haven’t been taught how to act better in an alternative way.

5. Avoiding excessive use of punishment

Often, punishment is of little use, because it does not teach the child alternatives to inappropriate behaviour. Besides, it is not easy to find a really effective punishment .

That is why we should avoid using it with children with ADHD, and replace it with: reinforcing appropriate behaviors, using over-correction (which does teach the child positive behavior), etc.

6. Explain the behavior expected of him/her

Another important guideline we can use is the following: explain to the child what is expected of him, for example when he is at home and must do certain tasks, or in the classroom, the park, etc.

Many times, they do not do it (or even act inappropriately) precisely because of ignorance, because nobody has explained to them explicitly what they expect from them, and not because they do not want to or do not know .

7. Describe your behavior, avoiding the verb “to be”

This is important not only for interactions with him/her, but also for possible school or psychological reports that we should make on a child with ADHD.

Thus, the ideal is to describe his/her behaviour (e.g. “his/her behaviour has been inappropriate…”), and not to describe him/her (e.g. “he/she is a rude child…”).

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychiatric Association (APA) (2014). DSM-5. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Madrid: Panamericana.
  • Horse (2002). Manual for the cognitive-behavioral treatment of psychological disorders. Vol. 1 and 2. Madrid. Siglo XXI (Chapters 1-8, 16-18).
  • Redondo, J.J. (2011). ADHD. Educational intervention program. MDELC SÁNCHEZ. International Journal of Developmental and Educational Psychology, INFAD Journal of Psychology, 1(1): 621-628