Looking back on my 3.5 year old son Brody’s behavior, it has always been animated, even unruly; I call him my drama king. While he’s extremely sweet, affectionate and loving, he experiences extremely intense emotions that flip on like a switch, and he has a tough time following rules.
Case in point: any time we participate in a parent-toddler class (gymnastics, soccer, yoga, music, etc.) the same dynamic rings true; I spend most of the class attempting to reign in Brody’s boundless energy while he runs off doing as he pleases. Of course, we have good days, but more often, it’s a struggle. I frequently asked myself what I’m doing wrong; most kids his age listen to their parents and follow along. Still, I had convinced myself Brody was like every other curious toddler, perhaps just a bit more spirited.
Impulsivity and lack of focus became a safety concern
This year, I enrolled Brody in preschool three mornings a week. Because of his spirited and independent nature, I felt the Montessori classroom would be a perfect fit; my little explorer would be free to investigate without restraint in an environment less structured than traditional preschool classrooms. I fell in love with the Montessori concept, which “…emphasizes independence, freedom without limits, and respect for a child’s psychological, physical, and social development.” Brody loved going to school every day, and seemed to be thriving.
Then, one rainy Monday a month into the school year, came a phone call requesting that I come in to discuss some ‘incidents’. In a way, I’d been expecting such a call, yet because no issues had yet been brought to my attention I was optimistic. When I arrived I was gently informed that things were simply not working out. That morning, Brody had pulled the fire alarm, ran out of the building, and tried to crawl under the gate of the playground to escape.
The teacher expressed several additional concerns about Brody’s behavior that involved lack of focus and involuntary impulsivity, an uncontrollable urge to touch. Specifically, his teacher said, “Even when asked to keep his hands in his own space, he reaches for other children’s hair, bows, work, teacher cupboards, etc. He wants to touch everything in the classroom. The more activities that are out, the less he is able to concentrate on one activity.”
What’s more, Brody required a teacher’s full attention to stay on task, a capacity the school simply could not fulfill. I tried to fight back tears in a futile attempt to keep my composure as I collected our family photo and the tiny slippers my son wore every morning in the classroom. I was devastated for my son.
Being proactive to find a diagnosis
In the following weeks, I placed Brody at the preschool where he’d attended one day a week the prior year. To explain the switch of schools, I told Brody that the teachers missed him so much they wanted him to come back. The Preschool Director was extremely comforting through this transition. “Kids deserve a fresh start. Brody is only three. He is in school to learn and teachers are here to guide. Maybe he just needs more structure and boundaries…Try not to worry, “she said.
We met with Brody’s pediatrician to express our concerns and were referred to School Psychologist Doug Felt at Center for Solutions in Brief in Toledo, where Brody would be evaluated for ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder.
I held onto my doubt, a security blanket of sorts. I still struggled to admit to myself Brody was exhibiting anything beyond typical toddler behavior. Don’t all three- year-olds struggle with impulse control? Wasn’t Brody too young to be diagnosed with something as daunting as ADHD or Autism? Yet in doing my own research, it was impossible to deny that ADHD made sense. The three main symptoms in toddlers are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Check, check, check. In my gut, I knew, but I didn’t want it to be true.
After our first session with Doug Felt, he gave us his opinion: Brody was exhibiting signs of ADHD. He explained that symptoms of ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder can be very similar, and hard to distinguish. Kids who are on the Autism Spectrum, nine times out of 10, will have symptoms of ADHD, because of problems in the frontal lobe, the decision-making part of the brain. We were given questionnaires about Brody’s behavior to fill out ourselves and additional assessments for his teachers to complete. Doug observed Brody during several more visits; at this time he does not think Brody is on the Autism Spectrum, but based on the data we submitted and Doug’s observations, Brody ranks extremely high, in the 98th percentile, for ADHD.
Time to think
Upon reflection, the diagnosis makes complete sense. Doug said, “Kids with ADHD have lower impulse control- they make premature decisions. Impulsivity results in making decisions too quickly based on emotion rather than based on the rules.” Doug explained that while kids with ADHD know the rules they are expected to follow their brain does not allow them to access the rule before they act out on an impulse.
“Children with ADHD can only focus on an activity when it is interesting to them. Usually they move from toy to toy quickly, unless it is constantly changing and keeping their mind captivated,” Doug explained, adding the goal for us as parents: offer mini-consequences as kids with ADHD can’t store/access big consequences. He advised that we remain neutral when rules are broken. “When you can’t regulate emotions (as with ADHD), little things trip you up. Your goal as parents is not to give any energy (emotional feedback) when he’s emotionally flooded. Do not provide nurturing feedback (a hug) or negative feedback (a lecture) because it sends a mixed message. Don’t interact with him but keep him safe.”
Doug advised that we regularly give positive preventative messages. For example, if Brody is playing with a toy, we might say ‘Look at that! You’re being so careful with that toy. I’m so proud of you,” as opposed to waiting until Brody is not being careful with the toy to give corrective feedback. “The toughest thing to deal with is the impulsivity. Because their attention span is often only seconds, keeping up with a child with ADHD can be exhausting. You (as parents) can’t anticipate what’s going to happen. Instead, search for times when he’s coping with novelty, change, and disappointment. These are times of emotional reaction when punishment is very ineffective. You need to change the person from within by encouraging them to make better choices,” Doug said.
Working together in early intervention
Brody’s teachers have been absolutely amazing in working with us. In order to give him every advantage and resource available, we’re in the process of having Brody evaluated by our school district’s office of disability services. A school psychologist will observe Brody first at home, then at his preschool to determine whether his ADHD impairs his learning, and see if he qualifies for placement with a preschool that offers special needs assistance. My hope is that we are able to help Brody now, before he starts Kindergarten, so that he doesn’t have such a hard time. I am thankful that the first line of attack is behavioral modification, not medication.
With behavioral issues, it is only natural to ask, “What did I do wrong?” Knowing that my son’s struggles are not a result of bad parenting has been an immense weight off my chest. I have learned to lean on others, and as a result have been comforted by many supportive friends. And to me, Brody is perfect- he’s just a little “more” than most kids.