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Category Archives: Living with ADHD

ADD Alternatives

When it comes to ADD, alternative approaches are no longer considered outside the treatment toolbox. On the contrary – experts are now saying that medication, if used, should never be the only treatment. “Diet, nutrition, exercise and sleep all play important roles in how the brain works,” says Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Driven to Distraction.

The following options are appropriate for those who use medications and those who don’t; they can be effective for people new to ADD and for seasoned veterans who are familiar with the ways of the attention challenged. You can get professional consults for things like behaviour therapy, but you can also start using many of the ideas on your own. Remember that not every strategy or combination works for every family – it’s very much a trial and error process, so best to go slowly. Choose one or two to start, then make more changes as it makes sense for you.


Behaviour therapy is very structured and based upon rewards and consequences. A therapy plan requires extremely clear and concise achieveables, and can be a challenge to carry out at home – expect some kinks in the process. Parents can have trouble when they set too many rules, apply the plan inconsistently, communicate unclear expectations, dwell on negative and give up to soon.

Whether you do behaviour therapy or not, a predictable routine is a great place to start and something you can implement on your own. See how much it helps to establish a regular schedule for meals and activities, followed by a nightly bath and a regular bedtime to ensure plenty of rest.


With a lack balanced nutrition, anyone can look like they have ADD – when we don’t eat right, we can become distracted, restless and impulsive. So it makes sense that people with ADD absolutely need proper nutrition, not only to avoid the perils of bouncing blood sugar, but to fuel the brain with everything it needs to function well.

The best advice says avoid junk food – and anything that comes in a box, bag, wrapper, package or tube. Include protein with every meal, along with veggies, fruits and complex carbs. Boost servings of blueberries, almonds, cashews, walnuts, broccoli, salmon, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, watercress, avocado, cumin, turmeric and meats – these foods are like premium gas for the brain. Another option to investigate: food sensitivities and allergies. Remove any dietary irritants found.


B vitamins, especially B-6 seems to increase dopamine, which improves alertness. Zinc, iron and magnesium help to synthesize dopamine, and fish oils help with mental focus and cognitive function. Check into ginkgo and ginseng as well – they act like stimulants without the side effects. And, as always, the picky eaters at your house may benefit from a good multivitamin.


Exercise is good for everybody, but it’s especially good for those with ADD. Like medication with side effects, exercise boosts the brain’s levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and seratonin – all chemicals that affect focus and attention. It helps to develop resilience and persistence, and physical activities involving complex movement cause helpful connections to form between neurons in the brain. Combine activity with time outside – walking the dog, bike riding, walking to school, sports. Studies show that as little as 20 minutes daily can help reduce ADHD symptoms.

ADHD Working Memory Issues

‘He seems to be constantly day-dreaming. And when he’s not day-dreaming, he’s being distracted by something. He never listens!’

This is a common complaint from school teachers as they attempt to explain how a normally bright child in their classroom behaves during a typical school day. The child’s poor attention may be caused by working memory problems.

Is working memory a better predictor of academic success than IQ?

Recent research studies suggest it is because memory is closely linked to learning. Forgetfulness is a characteristic that makes students look like they’re lazy or they lack motivation, or they simply just don’t care but the reality is, it is a classic characteristic of poor executive function skills. Delayed executive function skills often accompany a diagnosis of ADHD and or LD. Dr. Russell Barkley states that these students are 3 to 5 years delayed in the development of their executive skills. Academic tasks influenced by executive functions can include organizing materials, getting started on school work, remembering homework and text books, memorizing facts, writing essays, solving complex math problems, being on time, controlling emotions and planning for the future. This has a huge negative impact on learning and behaviour when you consider a 14 year old beginning secondary school student may have the executive skills similar to an average 11 year old in grade 6! These students require much more direct supervision and monitoring than is normally provided for their age group.

Remembering is a far more complex task than we often realize. In order to successfully remember, students must:

  • pay attention
  • ignore distracting interruptions
  • store information
  • find information
  • quickly retrieve it
  • act upon the information

Working memory is only one portion of the executive skills but a highly critical piece for academic success regardless of IQ potential. It is a student’s ability to hear the teacher’s instruction, go into their long term memory and retrieve what they already know about the subject, connect the new information to the old, keep out distractions from the environment and then manipulate the problem and respond appropriately. Working memory can only hold a certain amount of information; when this is overloaded it is extremely difficult to ignore distractions. Imagine the ADHD student reading quietly to herself, struggling with mechanics of decoding the words, processing lengthy sentences, retrieving vocabulary meanings and applying appropriate meaning to the passage when the PA announces band practice — all of a sudden, she finds herself thinking of music and all memory of the reading has vanished!

Working memory is linked to reading comprehension and written expression as both are very complex processes. Working memory enables the processing and recording of information here and now. Long-term memory in turn is a theoretically unlimited memory store that holds and organizes everything we know and can do. Consequently, writing essays, drafting book reports or answering questions on tests or homework is often very challenging for these students. For example, when writing essays, students often have difficulty holding ideas in mind, acting upon and organizing ideas, quickly retrieving grammar, spelling and punctuation rules from long-term memory, manipulating all this information, remembering ideas to write down, organizing the material in a logical sequence, and then reviewing and correcting errors.

Abilities that are affected by poor working memory are:

  • remembering and following instructions
  • memorizing math facts and spelling words
  • performing mental computations
  • completing complex math problems such as algebra
  • remembering one part of an assignment while working on another portion
  • paraphrasing or summarizing
  • organizing and writing essays
  • learning from past behaviours
  • judging the passage of time accurately
  • examining or changing their own behaviour
  • preparing for the future

Ideas that may be helpful are

  • Create checklists and “to do’ lists (externalize memory)
  • Estimate and keep track of exactly how long tasks take to complete
  • Break long assignments into small chunks and assign time frames for completion
  • Use visual calendars (4 months at a view) to track long term projects and assignments
  • Write the due date on the top of every assignment
  • Ask for written directions
  • Organize the study space so all materials are easily accessible
  • Minimize distracting clutter
  • Schedule time to review and organize
  • Prepare for upcoming changes in routine and activities
  • Keep to routines as much as possible – automatic behaviours do not over load memory

When you understand these unseen disabilities, you are in a position of strength and have compassion to support and assist your child.

Remember “Your child’s experiences in school will have a lasting impact upon their future. School success is very therapeutic!”

Motivation: Lessons From the Olympians

The following note was written by a youngster with a learning disability.

The Way I Learn and What I Think About It

By: Jason, Age 12


I would like to express my thoughts and feelings about learning differences. I’m learning disabled. I learn best by using my body, saying what I need to learn verbally, and making songs to help me. Sometimes it is hard for me not to doubt myself. Some of my strengths are I am strong in English. I’m good with other people. Also I am good in many physical activities. One of the downsides of learning differently is that it takes me a lot longer to do or learn things. I think being LD means that it takes someone a little longer to learn some things than another person. Also I think it means the teacher needs to find other ways to teach you. People with learning differences are the same as everyone else, but when it is time to take a pencil, paper and do their work they may need help from a teacher, and someone else may not. If you are LD, you can reach your goals; you just may need to try a little harder.

Jason’s story could be repeated by all of your children I am sure. If anyone ever says a learning disabled child is lazy then they have never attempted to understand what it is like to hold focus while their mind is racing off at super speeds, or following a twisted path such that at the end you can’t remember where you began or listening to the teacher talk and not understanding what she has said, or starting off down the hall on an errand and remembering only the last instruction, or having to think if the letter b is the one that has the stick that goes up & ball to the right or the ball that goes down or the stick that goes down or … or….. This is why it takes longer! Your children try harder and experience fewer successes than their non learning-disabled peers. When you ask them what they like about school they often have to think. We all must play to their strengths and give them credit for their successes.

How far would our Olympians have gone if we constantly pointed out their shortcomings? Imagine the lessons that these athletes could teach us all:

  • Alex Bilodeau: It’s about inclusion and being totally inspired by his brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy.
  • Joannie Rochette: The courage to keep chasing your dream amid great adversity.
  • Jenny Ciochetti and Ryan Blais, the bobsledder and aerialist who both fell painstakingly short of making the Olympic team but still came to support their teammates.
  • Clara Hughes: How finding your passion can rescue you from a dead end path.
  • Jasey-Jay Anderson: Never give up. Stay true to yourself.
  • Brian McKeever: Refusing to let a disability define you. Handling a setback with class.
  • Jon Montgomery: ADHD perseverance, dedication and focus despite impulsivity.

In this last term of the year, we have to encourage every student to find their own personal, inner Olympian so they are able to successfully reach the finish line of the academic marathon.

“We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee”— Marian Wright Edelman