Twenty-five years ago my husband and I began to take seriously our suspicion that our two-year-old son, Pete, was different from his little peers. Just a month into his nursery school program, his teachers were frequently calling about him being hard to handle in the classroom. We knew he was a handful, but weren’t all boys that age little whirling dervishes? Evidently not, we soon found out.
Our first step to help him was art therapy, once he had passed a hearing test showing that he heard very well, despite often not responding appropriately. Speech therapy followed for assistance with expressive language, which seemed difficult for him. The diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a new concept back then, was gradually made, and after some denial, we accepted it as it explained his differences well.
I began to actively keep up with the growing research, quipping that ADHD was my second specialty, in attempts to do more to help Pete, who as the years went by was increasingly unhappy at school. Sitting in the classroom was torture for him and he felt like an outcast; the other children found his behavior unpredictable (frequently throwing jello at them did not help).
Halfway through kindergarten we took him out of school while we searched for a better learning environment. Since Pete was gifted, excelling at math and reading, this was not an easy task, but we ultimately found suitable elementary and high schools. His teachers were determined pioneers in educating children with ADHD.
The definition of ADHD has evolved since then and is currently defined by the National Institutes of Mental Health as a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.1
Inattention means a person wanders off task, lacks persistence, has difficulty sustaining focus, and is disorganized; these problems are not due to defiance or lack of comprehension. Hyperactivity means a person seems to move about constantly, including in situations when it is not appropriate, excessively fidgeting, tapping, or talking. Impulsivity means a person makes hasty actions that occur in the moment without first thinking about them and that may have high potential for harm. ADHD affects 3 to 5% of children and adults around the world.
My personal memories of Pete’s school years revolve around micromanaging him as his caseworker, educational and legal advocate, daily scheduler, and medication expert. My time for just being Pete’s mom, enjoying my son like other ‘regular’ mothers did, was limited by the need to fulfill these busy roles to keep him safe and functioning. But I was so fortunate compared to many low resource parents I met on this journey. As a physician it was easy for me to analyze the research, understand ADHD as a brain disorder, not an emotional or psychological problem, and realize that our spirited but challenging children were not purposely ‘kooky’ or defiant.
I frequently fantasized whether Pete would be happier if he had been born in a different time and place, where his high energy, strong will, and intense ability to concentrate on what interested him may have been strengths: perhaps to a farm or ranch family. Then reality would creep in: these settings would pose other potential hazards to an inattentive impulsive child.
Although there have been successful people with ADHD throughout history, in Pete’s life education was important. After much soul-searching we began medication to help him tolerate the school setting. There was no doubt about the benefits of medication for Pete, but it did seem to dim the sparkle in his eyes.
Pete’s composure and bodily comfort level always improved after outdoor exercise. We integrated good nutrition (when possible) and activities that we now know connect mind and body, such as jujitsu, golf and other sports, and then pushed Pete into a two-week experiential wilderness camp in the Wyoming mountains when he was 13. This sparked his lifelong love of nature, hiking, and travel, and a passion to work to preserve the environment that ultimately led, despite many twists and turns in college, to a Master’s program in Environmental Policy. As Pete matures he is successfully compensating for his ADHD symptoms.
Advances in neuroscience and education research have greatly enhanced our understanding of the ADHD mind since Pete was a child. And ancient mind-body therapies such as meditation, yoga, and qigong have been found to be helpful for ADHD symptoms.2
For children with ADHD, outdoor exercise, even just walking to school every morning, improves attention in the classroom.3 Brain Power Wellness is a program that has, since 2006, brilliantly utilized the evolving knowledge from these multiple perspectives, along with real-world classroom experience, to help children maximize their physical, emotional/social and cognitive health.4
I often wish this Brain Education curriculum had existed when my son needed it.
Created by Ilchi Lee, who in retrospect was challenged in school by his own childhood ADHD, this program improves school experiences for all children, but to me seems perfectly suited to those with ADHD.
I spoke about the program with my friend, Katie Brisley-Logue, Assistant Program Director for Brain Power Wellness, who has 30 years of experience working with children with ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism. The program empowers students with ADHD by utilizing the body as a tool to focus the brain.
To counter inattention and improve focus on an upcoming task like a test, students first engage in physical activity like stretching or body tapping which increases blood and oxygen circulation and reduces overactive brain activity. This naturally brings the focus of the brain to the body, and it is easier for students to guide their focus and be aware when their mind is wandering or distracted.
Fun memory, imagination and mindfulness games enhance organization, creativity, brain flexibility, and coping skills. At the same time, stress that can lead to behavioral problems is released, and students can better regulate their emotions.
Impulsivity is reduced by exercises that nurture self-awareness and mind-body communication. Breathing and relaxation activities connect mind and body, reducing hyperactivity by calming brain waves.
Learning about how our brains, senses, and emotions work and the great creativity and potential of our brains brings hope and insights to students about their ADHD symptoms. The activities take only a few minutes and are easily incorporated into existing classroom curriculum.
Brain Power Wellness takes a positive approach with sayings like “Good news makes a good brain” and “Mistakes are okay,” helping the demoralization, anxiety, and depression that may result from being known as a problem student. The program fosters the value of each child as an individual who can develop a personal vision to help themselves and the Earth.
The forthcoming book, The Brain Power Classroom, by Brain Power Wellness Head National Trainer and Program Director, Dave Beal, combines background scientific information on Brain Education principles, inspiring stories from 12 years of field work in 400 U.S. schools, and 30 practical classroom activities educators can utilize. Look out for it, it’s coming soon!
Thankfully, many improvements in understanding and educating children with ADHD and other learning differences have been made since my son was little. Enlightened innovative programs like Brain Power Wellness will support more schools to be welcoming, fun, inclusive, and successful for all children, teachers and parents.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26861158. The Effects of Physical Exercise on Functional Outcomes in the Treatment of ADHD: A Meta-Analysis
- The Power Brain: Five Steps To Upgrading Your Brain Operating System, by Ilchi Lee. Best Life Media, Gilbert, Arizona 2016.