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When it comes to ADHD, there’s not a single magic pill to treat it. No single type of therapy will instantly meet all your child’s needs either. Most kids need a multipronged approach: a combination of behavior therapy, behavior training for parents, extra support in school, and yes, sometimes medicine.

Here’s a look at how all these pieces come together to create a well-rounded treatment plan for children with ADHD.

Behavior Therapy

Behavior therapy is a key part of ADHD treatment. The aim is to strengthen positive behaviors and get rid of problem ones.

Behavior therapy has two main parts:

Parent training. Young kids aren’t mature enough to change their behavior without their parents’ help. If you have children under 12, this training is very important. You’ll go through eight to 16 sessions with a therapist, where you’ll learn strategies to help your child. You may complete the training one-on-one or in a group with other families. You’ll meet with the therapist regularly to monitor your progress and get support.

It’s key that you find a therapist who focuses on training parents. That’s not the same thing as talk therapy or play therapy, neither of which have shown to help kids with ADHD.

Child training. In this type of therapy, children develop skills to help control some of their ADHD symptoms. They may learn ways to focus and stay organized. For example, they might practice following a checklist or keeping a daily planner. The therapist can also help your child learn to follow rules and directions.

Again, it’s important to find a therapist who offers training to children with ADHD. Other forms of therapy, like cognitive behavior therapy, don’t seem to be as useful in kids with ADHD.

Medicine

If your child is over 6, they may benefit from certain medications for ADHD. Several different treatments have FDA approval for kids with ADHD:

Stimulant. In general, these drugs speed up brain activity. But in people who have ADHD, the medicines can help calm and focus the brain. About 80% of kids with ADHD report significant improvement in their symptoms once they find the right dose of the right stimulant.

Your child may try short-acting stimulants, taken every 4 hours, or extended-release, taken just once every morning. Either form can cause side effects, such as loss of appetite and sleep problems.

Nonstimulants. Strattera (atomoxetine), Intuniv (guanfacine), and Kapvay (clonidine) are the three nonstimulant drugs approved to treat kids with ADHD. The benefits of these medications might not be as strong as those of stimulants.  Atomoxetine, for example, is about two-thirds as likely to help kids with ADHD as stimulant drugs are, and it may take up to 6 weeks to work. Like stimulants, atomoxetine can interfere with appetite and sleep.

Compared to stimulants, there’s not as much research to support the benefits of these medications.

School Support

School should play an important role in a child’s ADHD treatment plan. Because kids with ADHD can find it hard to pay attention, sit still, and control impulses, they may struggle in school.

It’s important to make sure your child’s school offers the following:

Behavioral classroom management. This is a way for teachers to encourage positive behaviors, often through a reward system. This method may help your child focus and engage at school. Though research shows it works well in kids of all ages, only about 1 in 3 kids receive behavioral classroom management at school.

Organizational training. This teaches kids skills to help keep them on track at school, including time management, planning, and how to keep school materials organized.

Special education services and accommodations. Most kids with ADHD receive some special services at school, thanks to laws designed to protect children with disabilities. One accommodation is an individualized education program (IEP), which provides special education services to meet the unique needs of your child with ADHD.

An IEP might include:

  • Occupational therapy to help with handwriting
  • One-on-one tutoring with a special education teacher
  • Extra time on tests

Another accommodation is a 504 plan, named for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It requires public schools to provide the services and support that kids with disabilities need in order to learn. A 504 plan might, for example, allow for a child with ADHD to take a movement break during class.

Whatever support your child needs, trained staff, including teachers, counselors, and school psychologists, need to be involved to make sure there is a specific plan for your child.

Lifestyle Changes

A healthy lifestyle should be part of any ADHD treatment plant. Healthy habits can help control ADHD symptoms and also prevent overweight and obesity, which are more common in children with ADHD than in other kids.

Key components of a healthy lifestyle shown to help kids with ADHD include:

Healthy eating habits. Focus on fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins.

Daily physical activity. Research suggests that just a half hour a day of moderate to vigorous exercise can improve ADHD symptoms and cognitive function in kids.

Limited screen time. Kids with ADHD are more likely to get hooked on the internet. Keep entertainment screen time to under 2 hours a day. You may also want to encourage your child to take a “technology break” every 15 minutes, where they turn off their electronics, including computers and phones, for a couple of minutes.

Plenty of sleep. Not enough sleep -- or poor sleep -- can make symptoms of ADHD worse.

Stick With Tried and True Options

While you may be eager to try anything to help your child with ADHD, not every therapy you read about is proven effective.

Some parents try complementary therapies like vision training, megavitamins, special diets eliminating sugar or certain food additives, EEG biofeedback (training to increase brain-wave activity), or applied kinesiology (realigning skull bones). But there’s not good evidence that these treatments work, and they can be expensive.

The time and money you spend on these unproven strategies may prevent you from getting your child the well-rounded care they need for their ADHD.

© 2022 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Show Sources

Photo Credit: KatarzynaBialasiewicz / Getty Images

SOURCES:

CDC: “Parent Training in Behavior Management for ADHD,” “Therapy to Improve Children’s Mental Health,” “ADHD in the Classroom,” “Protecting the Health of Children with ADHD.”

NYU Langone Health: “Behavior Therapy for Attention Deficit Activity Disorder in Children.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Common ADHD Medications and Treatments for Children,” “Nonstimulant Medications Available for ADHD Treatment.”

FDA: “Dealing with ADHD: What You Need to Know.”

Pediatrics: “Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function.”

UpToDate: “Treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children (Beyond the Basics).