Column: Whether or not to medicate children for behavioral problems

Aerial Liese
The Daily Times

I received the following: "My son is 7 years old, and I think he has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Last year, we experienced severe behavioral problems with him at school. I really don't want to medicate him, but feel like this might be the only way to control his behavior this school year."

First, I recommend to parents with similar concerns to seek a thorough psychiatric evaluation and proper diagnosis for their child. Second, it is imperative to understand that medication is a treatment, not a cure. You're taking a serious step when you make medication a part of your child's learning process. I'm not opposed to medicating children for ADHD. However, in my book, "Ants in Their Pants: Teaching Children Who Must Move to Learn," I discuss how parents should look at every possible internal and external factor that may be driving behavioral problems, such as inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, before considering medication. Medication is a powerful tool to use on young developing minds.

Sometimes, it's a lifestyle tweaking that can be implemented instead. I discuss several below:

Is the child getting enough sleep?: Few people function properly without adequate sleep, especially children. Does your child have a regular bedtime schedule and routine? Does the child go to bed with an electronic device or play video games that may be keeping him awake?

What does the child's daily diet look like?: Poor nutrition can change a child's mood. What exactly is your child consuming? How many sodas a day versus water does the child drink? Too much fast food? I suggest logging everything the child eats as closely as possible for a few days. Look at what you wrote down. Is it in the same ball park as the nutritional recommendations for children? Or is it way off in left field?

Is there trouble or change at home or school?: Insert a stressful situation where consistency and harmony once flowed, and a child's behavior will change, nine times out of 10. That's especially true for a situation with significant stress levels, such as a divorce or a death in the family. A major move could also be extremely bothersome to a child. Other troublesome changes include the birth of a new sibling, moving to a new school, having a new caregiver, experiencing the death of a pet, having a parent always gone and experiencing sibling rivalry.

Is a learning disability surfacing?: A learning disability can be defined as a disorder in the ability to process information resulting in attention, perception or memory deficits. Children with learning disabilities experience difficulty learning in school, despite adequate hearing, vision and intelligence. Children with learning disabilities, particularly in the primary grades, can display distractibility, carelessness, poor organizational skills, poor coordination, poor fine and gross motor skills, poor reading and writing skills (usually first to surface) and poor self-esteem and are easily frustrated.

Are sensory problems a possibility?: Sensory problems could be to blame for an obvious increase in poor or erratic behavior. For example, a child who is very sensitive to noise, where a normal or relatively low sound hurts or is intensely troublesome to hear.

Is the child's system sensitive or allergic to certain foods?: Some children are very sensitive to sugar. Are new flavors being tried that might not be sitting well with the child? Have you or the family switched brands on certain food items?

What sort of teaching style does your child's teacher have?: Educators have the power to make or break a child's school year. How does your child's teacher run his/her classroom? What kind of classroom environment is your child experiencing daily? Is it an over-stimulated or under-stimulated classroom? Are there too many students in the classroom? Is the classroom poorly organized? Is the classroom environment competitive? Are rules watery and unclear? Has a substitute teacher been filling in? The same should be questioned about parenting style.

Is the child just sick, tired or hungry?: The mixture of hunger and fatigue can alter a child's behavior and performance in school. Children who aren't getting enough rest are more susceptible to colds and viruses, which, in turn, can "run them down" easily.

Are low iron levels to blame?: Irritability can set in if system iron levels decline, especially in children. Other symptoms of low iron levels include a lack of concentration, shortened attention span and impaired cognitive skills. Low blood sugar can also cause irritability. Contact the child's pediatrician with low iron level concerns.

Is the child's routine sliding?: Children require structure and consistency in daily routines. Severe slacking of any sort will usually result in poor behavior.

Here is a list of additional possible causes of inattention, hyperactivity, irritability and carelessness: abuse/neglect, anger from within, attention seeking, boredom, defiance, fear, jealousy, peer pressure and seasonal concerns. If your child's behavior persists or increases in severity, contact a professional immediately.

Aerial Liese has been an educator for more than 15 years. She has three children and is the author of four books. She is an educational doctorate student and teaches at San Juan College. Contact her at 505-258-1029 or go to