For many children with ADHD, a call from a teacher was the first time their parents started discussing the possibility of ADHD.
"The vast majority of cases are brought to the attention of parents by educators, either at the preschool level or elementary school level," says George DuPaul, PhD, of Lehigh University. He has a background in school psychology, with a special interest in ADHD.
But even though teachers spend the entire day watching kids' behavior, "sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong," DuPaul says.
Getting a proper diagnosis is important for anyone who seems to have symptoms of ADHD. Many other mental and physical issues can cause similar symptoms. "Upward of 40% of elementary students are reported by their teachers to have distractibility problems or problems with their activities," DuPaul says. "That doesn't mean they have ADHD."
The description of ADHD in the manual that mental health care providers use to diagnose emotional and mental concerns is fairly simple. It offers nine symptoms related to inattention and another nine symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. Someone with ADHD must show at least six from each category for at least 6 months, and to a degree that is inappropriate for their age and is disruptive or impairs social, school, or work functioning.
But getting to that diagnosis isn't necessarily quick or easy, DuPaul points out. Other issues that can cause these symptoms include:
Short attention span. Some kids can naturally focus longer than others.
Emotional issues. Kids who are anxious or depressed may have trouble paying attention.
Problems at home. Kids' thoughts may be stuck on a family crisis when they're supposed to be focused on a test.
Classroom chaos. If a classroom is noisy and poorly managed, kids' attention can wander from the task at hand, DuPaul says.
There is no single test that diagnoses ADHD. Instead, the diagnosis should rely on different types of input from several people in the child's life.
These five steps can help you discover if ADHD is causing your child's symptoms:
1. Go to the right professional.
"The best thing parents can do is identify, either in the school or the community, a mental health or health care professional who has expertise in ADHD," DuPaul says. Some schools have a psychologist on staff who can evaluate kids for ADHD. Other options include a child psychiatrist, a pediatrician who specializes in developmental problems, or a psychologist in your community.
Of course, most parents head to their pediatrician or family doctor. Sometimes these doctors are properly trained to make this diagnosis, he says -- but not always. If you go this route, ask the doctor about their background and comfort level in diagnosing ADHD.