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Misdiagnosing ADHD in Children

Jul 01, 2015 12:27AM
by Peter Riddle

Over the past 10 years, millions of children in the United States have been misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Often, a child’s elementary school teacher requests that a child be assessed when the teacher notices the child fidgeting in class, or what the teacher perceives as a lack of focus.

An ADHD diagnosis is largely made on a subjective basis by many health professionals and can lead to years of medicating a child who may not even have ADHD. But many questions remain: Are such common diagnoses the work of physicians’ knee-jerk reaction to stigmatized behavior or are there underlying, underexplored reasons for why some kids are unfocused, fidgety and lower performers academically?

The biggest problem facing kids and parents today is misdiagnosing a disorder, even more so than not diagnosing itToo many kids are mislabeled, ending up in a cycle that leaves them untreated or improperly medicated, helpless, unable to perform and stigmatized.

The diagnosis of ADHD is by far the most common label given to fidgety kids who lack the ability to focus in an age-appropriate manner. Yet, there is a FDA approved technology for diagnosing this condition by measuring brain wave patterns (Neurolex QEEG - quantitative electroencephalogram). With 96 percent reliability, this noninvasive, detailed diagnostic tool, in combination with an assessment by a seasoned learning professional, is the most full-proof strategy to identify children with ADHD.

It would be a great service to parents and particularly children if more pediatricians would carefully rule out ADHD with these multipronged diagnostic tools as there are dozens of other conditions with symptoms that present with lack of focus and fidgety behavior. Once it is clear what condition the child may be suffering from, only then can a path to resolution and successful learning be planned and taken.

Parents are only getting part of the story when they look to teachers and report cards to tell them about their children. Teachers are not diagnosticians. They work to teach to the common core and students who may not fit into their preferred student personality type may be singled out as a cause for concern. Report cards hold merit. These communicate several pieces of relevant information that shouldn’t be overlooked: final grades, test scores, a snapshot of a child’s perceived effort in class, the quality of submitted homework, behavioral issues that might have contributed to less-than-exemplary results in some or all of the above. The question as to why they are struggling, fidgeting or not focusing, however, remains unanswerable by report cards.

A thoughtful teaching strategy along with heightened self-esteem and confidence are the most powerful sources of change in children. Pharmaceutical intervention has its place in many cases, yet it is sadly a first treatment for thousands when it ought to be a last resort. Standard performance metrics like the traditional report card need to be reevaluated. Report cards only scratch the surface of a more complex, layered story that could be telling us much more critical information about a child’s challenges with learning that will help inform a learning environment and style that really fits their needs.

Parents need to get a 360-degree view of their child, their developmental landscape, their strengths, weaknesses, potential and help their kids succeed by having their needs professionally assessed and addressed. Are there fine motor skills that are underdeveloped that present through difficulty writing that are dismissed by teachers as laziness? Perhaps a child is fidgeting not because they are poorly behaved and undisciplined but because there are neurological system underdevelopments which create imbalance and the need for movement to concentrate.

When we comprehensively look at and work with the whole child and developed the underlining issues, we can break the cycle of misdiagnosing behavioral disorders that wreak havoc on children, their families and society.

Peter Riddle is a 37-year learning specialist and co-founder of Empowered Learning Transformation Centers, Peter and his team have helped over 750 children transition off medication. For more information, visit


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