Understanding attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a developmental disorder that causes poor concentration and impulse control. This can affect a child’s learning, social skills and family function. ADHD is not an illness, but with treatment, understanding and care, a child with ADHD can live a normal life. Roughly 3-5 out of every 100 children in Australia is diagnosed with ADHD and it is more common in boys than girls.

Signs and symptoms of ADHD

ADHD must be diagnosed by a trained and experienced health professional using information from home and school. It is important to make sure the symptoms are caused by ADHD and not something else that may require different treatment.

Common symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Inattention
  • Difficulty concentrating or forgetting instructions
  • Talking over the top of others
  • Overactivity
  • Constant fidgeting and restlessness
  • Impulsivity
  • Easily losing control of emotions
  • Being accident prone

It is important to remember all young children have a limited attention span and do things without thinking, and this does not mean they have ADHD. A diagnosis can only be made after a range of information is collected, and if symptoms are obvious in most areas of the child’s life. There is no single test to determine if a child has ADHD.

What causes ADHD?

No one knows for certain what causes ADHD, but scientist have found that it can be inherited, with research suggesting that if one parent carries a specific gene, the child has a 75 per cent chance of inheriting it, despite only one parent having this gene. Scientist have also found some association between ADHD and injury to the brain, but the results are not conclusive.

What treatments are available for ADHD?


Stimulant medication is the most effective treatment for symptoms of ADHD at this point, and has been the standard treatment since the 1980s. Approximately 1-2 per cent of Australian children are prescribed stimulant medication. Side-effects can usually be controlled through adjustments to the dose and strength.

Behavioural therapies

Home and classroom strategies like boosting self-esteem, building social skills, keeping structure and planning the physical and learning environment can help. Occasionally counselling for the child or family is also required.

The most important things to remember about ADHD are:

  • Children with ADHD need understanding and support from both family and teachers
  • Not all overactive, inattentive and impulsive children have ADHD
  • Medication, support from school, positive parenting and counselling can help children with ADHD
  • There is no one test that can diagnose ADHD

Strategies to help your ADHD child succeed

Give clear instructions

Keeping instructions clear and brief, and asking the child to repeat them back to ensure they understand, can help with retention of information. Saying the child’s name or tapping them on the shoulder can help maintain eye contact. Prompting, monitoring and encouraging your child can help keep them focused on the task.

Helping your child in written work

Using capital letters, bold text or asterisks to highlight important points can help filter the less important information and reduce distractions. Giving out information sheets and limiting the amount of information needed to be copied from a black or white board ensures that all the information is received.

Learning strategies for children living with ADHD

Providing one-on-one instructions and a class buddy can help reinforce instructions. Make sure activities can be hands-on to accommodate a different learning style. Having a checklist of tasks can help keep a child with ADHD on track. Having the most important learning take place during the child’s best concentration time ensures that the most learning gets done.

Managing the physical environment is also very important. Sitting the child near the front of the classroom and having planned seating can help decrease distractions. Having a quiet place that is free from clutter is important for completing homework.

Managing energy levels and fatigue

You can manage energy levels and fatigue by building rest breaks into activates and alternating academic tasks with brief periods of physical exercise. Having fun low-pressure activities to help calm the child down can reduce stress and limit any outbursts.


Children with ADHD benefit from having a structured routine and can struggle with change. Having a fixed routine, a schedule and any classroom rules displayed somewhere for the child is important. Telling the child about any changes to the schedule in advance and giving warnings just before the change occurs can help decrease any stress felt by the child. Having well organised, predictable classroom activities and keeping choices to a minimum can also help reduce stress.


Keeping the self-esteem of a child with ADHD high is important to keep them on track and ensure they continue to try new tasks. Setting achievable goals and activities where they are likely to succeed can raise self-esteem considerably. Acknowledging achievements through verbal and/or written congratulation, reviewing accomplishments daily and focusing of the best parts of written work can build self-confidence is children with ADHD.

Attending to any learning difficulties as soon as they arise can help to restore any lost confidence.


Teaching a child with ADHD about how to react appropriately when feeling provoked, discussing the consequences of certain actions and having prompts to remind the child to think before they act can help decrease outbursts. Keeping the child in smaller groups where possible and rewarding appropriate behaviour will help build and reinforce good social skills.

School-home communication

Keeping the line of communication open between school and home through the use of a daily communication book allows teachers to inform parents of any positive or inappropriate behaviour that occurred.


Keeping the child’s homework area attractive, but not distracting, and keeping a scheduled time for homework will help increase concentration.

The key things to remember when helping a child living with ADHD are:

  • Talk about the consequences of certain actions with the child
  • Reward and acknowledge accomplishments and positive behaviour
  • Address learning difficulties when they arise
  • Having a quiet place for homework is important
  • Medication, school support, counselling and parenting strategies can help most children with ADHD and their families.