School-aged children who have behaviour and learning problems may show signs of hyperactivity and/or inattention. If these problems are severe enough, they may be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The disorder impairs social and academic functioning and is often noticed in children who are failing to learn at school.
ADHD has received a lot of attention; discussion and debate amongst parents, teachers and the wider community in Australia because of the apparent recent increase in the diagnosis of the condition. Controversy has arisen over the use of medication, such as Ritalin, to control symptoms and help manage behavioural and learning problems in children.
There are two main criteria used to make a diagnosis: attention symptoms and hyperactivity symptoms.
The key features associated with symptoms of inattention include:
The key features associated with symptoms of hyperactivity (sometimes known as hyperactivity-impulsivity) include:
To fulfil a diagnosis of ADHD, each symptom must persist for six months or more.
While ADHD is recognised as a disorder that is distinct from other childhood disorders, it frequently overlaps with other conditions such as Conduct Disorder. This can make diagnosis difficult. Also, many of the symptoms of ADHD are shared by other disorders.
Usually a medical professional such as a paediatrician or child psychiatrist, conducts the initial assessment or diagnosis of ADHD. It is also common for psychologists to be involved. Psychologists focus mainly on how the disorder affects behaviour and learning, and what can be done to improve this.
There are various ways to measure ADHD. Psychologists use rating scales, questionnaires and other tests for collecting information from the children themselves, their parents/caregivers and their teachers. Children are observed at home and school.
Treatments can include medication, training for parents/caregivers/teachers, and tailored behaviour management programs for children. Medication is generally used in more severe cases to help focus the child’s attention. Psychological treatments generally aim to develop skills for successful behaviour at school.
Typically, the most commonly prescribed medication is a stimulant such as dexamphetamine and methylphenidate (Ritalin). The high level of prescribing of these medications has caused some community concern.
Psychologists commonly provide the following treatments:
Medication should generally not be regarded as sufficient on its own for treatment of ADHD. Even children with severe ADHD should have access to long-term behavioural programs, as should their families and school. Close collaboration and consultation between professionals involved with children with ADHD can ensure medical and psychological interventions are coordinated, to maximise the benefits and outcomes for each child.