We often receive questions from parents whose children were recently diagnosed with ADHD. While the diagnosis can sometimes be a relief because it explains the unruly and frustrating behaviors they have been dealing with for a number of years, it is also a confusing time. Over the first couple of weeks, parents often see an improvement in their child's behaviors, frequently in school, but still deal with impulsive behaviors at home.
Learned Patterns of Behavior
Your child has "learned" how to act. His behaviors are a result of ADHD but also a result of his environment. This isn't to say that your parenting or your home environment has caused the ADHD, it hasn't - parenting skills, good or bad, don't cause ADHD. But at the same time, your child has learned how to act based on your actions. He may have consistently heard statements such as "Stop that" or "Just sit still."
As a parent of a child with ADHD, it is easy to fall into the habit of ignoring your child when he is acting right and to give attention when he is not. Imagine Tony, a very active, impulsive 5 year old boy. After hours of running around the house, he has finally settled down, playing on the floor with trucks. His parents spent those hours correcting him, telling him to stop running, stop jumping on the couch, stop picking on his sister. When they look into the family room and see him quietly playing, they sigh in relief and walk away, thinking they have a few minutes of quiet to get some of their chores done. They don't want to say anything and interrupt the moment; they don't want to chance ending the quiet.
Without realizing it, Tony's parents are reinforcing the hyperactive, impulsive, unruly behavior. They gave Tony attention when he was giving in to his ADHD impulses and withheld attention when he was quietly playing. Tony is learning that he gets attention when he doesn't control his ADHD symptoms and gets ignored when he does.
The Difference Between Home and School
One of the most confusing aspects of a new ADHD diagnosis is the change in your child's behavior at school. Often, after a diagnosis, teachers see an immediate change in behavior. While this can sometimes be explained by medication being taken early in the day and lasting through the school day, there may be more to it than that. The school day is naturally more structured than the home environment and children have already learned that there is a difference in how they should act at home and in school.
Teachers can more easily adapt to ADHD by instituting a few changes in the classroom. By adding in clear expectations, specific rules and paying attention to behaviors common in children with ADHD, positive changes can happen quickly. Teachers familiar with ADHD may begin to comment when your child sits still, pays attention or hands in his homework on time. His teacher may send home daily or weekly reports, making sure to point out the improvements in behavior.
This consistent and immediate, positive feedback gives your child specific ways to change his behavior. He may suddenly enjoy having the teacher focus on what he is doing right and strive to do it again and again. He may want to have a good report sent home. You may have put specific rules and expectations in place - homework handed in on time, not getting up from his seat, paying attention when the teacher is talking. You have set the stage for your child to change certain behaviors and see and feel success.