Specialists Offer Ideas for Coping with Learning Disorders

To support parents striving to help their kids with specific and common challenges to learning, the Learning Solutions Network of Northern Colorado and Poudre School District hosted a panel of five speakers, each representing a profession dealing with kids and their ability to achieve success in school and life.

Student Services Coordinator for PSD, Melanie Voegeli-Morris, tells us that two main factors in a childʼs success are his ease of processing and any avoidance behavior. Ease of processing points to a “hard-wiring” issue, or not. This includes memory, reasoning, speed and fluency. This category also includes “executive function,” which refers to often being unprepared, unorganized, missing deadlines and losing things. Avoidance behavior is a good indicator that a child needs help coping with difficulty. It applies to school as well as home, and can account for long-standing problems with a studentʼs success (lack of follow-through alone can ruin class grades). These signs often show as early as preschool.

To select the right strategy for a struggling student, it helps to discern which processing area is challenged. By examining completed work, parents and teachers usually have an idea of a childʼs learning weaknesses. The right strategy may highlight the studentʼs strength and build on it; or it may be time spent to strengthen a weaker skill. Things like occupational therapy, enhancing study skills with outlines and highlights, and test taking strategies fall into this category. Voegeli-Morris believes the goal is for children with learning problems to be able to apply their best strategies without needing prompts. Knowing that you need to chew gum or use ear plugs are examples of behaviors that someone might adopt to cope with their learning challenges. Independent habits bring success.

Child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Michael J. Mullin, completing his fellowship at the University of Colorado, specifically addressed ADHD. Up to five percent of children qualify for the diagnosis, with twice as many boys as girls (perhaps because girls have the hyper component less often, and so their difficulties call less attention). Nearly half of children diagnosed with ADHD will continue to have it as an adult. Students with ADHD usually present before the age of 7 years, with symptoms lasting longer than 6 months. The troubles carry across social, school and home life. Genetics are often involved (though parents may not have formally recognized their own ADHD tendencies). Other risks include exposure to prenatal drugs or alcohol, birth prematurity, low birth weight or brain injury.

In his discussion of medical interventions, Mullin cautioned that certain disorders mimic ADHD and can also coexist with ADHD. These include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and other learning disorders that may be specifically treated before giving the broad diagnosis of ADHD.

Long-acting and short-acting stimulants may be helpful, but also, non-stimulant medicines like Clonidine are gaining popularity as an option for kids who canʼt tolerate the change in appetite that often accompanies stimulants. Mullin also said that neurofeedback has been successful and is a resource worth pursuing for families either wanting to avoid medicines, or looking for tools to grow beyond needing them.

Bringing a new perspective to the conversation, Licensed Family Therapist Anca Niculae encouraged the audience to look beyond the deficits and challenges of ADHD to respect the contributions of these other-abled people. She practices the “Nurtured Heart Approach” which takes the perspective that what we focus on will gain strength, good or bad. Reactions invoked from those around people with ADHD can have great significance for all those involved. The world needs the creative spontaneity and enthusiasm of those with ADHD.

Psychiatrist Scott Shannon has gained acclaim for his book, “Please Donʼt Label My Child.” He is President Elect of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine. Shannon does prescribe medicines to modify detrimental behaviors, but he claims to do so as a stop-gap measure or last resort, after considering all facets of a childʼs life that may be working for or against her. He said that 30% of youths with ADHD do not respond well to pharmaceuticals because of side effects like nausea, weight loss and insomnia. Despite that, 2.5 million in America are on prescription stimulants.

These are some of the holistic remedies Shannon suggests:

• “More protein, less sugar,” is Shannonʼs universal tip to combat ADHD. “A high-protein breakfast is one of the best things you can do for your kid,” he said.

• Food allergies are a common culprit. A few symptoms to watch for are “allergic shiners” (dark eye sockets), chronic eczema, growing pains, foot odor, bad breath, or a chronic runny nose. Itʼs been said that changing peopleʼs diets is more difficult than changing their religion, but Shannon offered if parents were willing to try an elimination diet, the most frequent culprit is milk. He advises eliminating all dairy for two weeks, and then reintroducing a lot of it at day 15. If the result isnʼt obvious, next try two weeks without wheat. The list continues with corn, soy and citrus. Families trying this method need to be firm in total elimination of the food, or the allergen will continue to be elusive and the efforts in the kitchen wasted.

• Clinical studies show that over 80% of ADHD kids had abnormally low levels of ferritin, a type of iron. Low ferritin levels have been correlated with more hyperactivity. Increasing iron aspartate (a chelated variety) significantly decreases presentation of ADHD symptoms after 12 weeks.

• If a childʼs body is low in zinc, she will not respond well to stimulants used to treat ADHD. Zinc lozenges are an effective remedy most kids tolerate.

• There is no direct evidence that television time creates ADHD, but frequent television viewing has shown to aggravate the negative symptoms of ADHD. A National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that followed 1,300 kids showed that a high amount of television viewing in early years was consistently connected with kids diagnosed with ADHD at 7 years old. Shannon suggests setting an end time before bedtime for all electronics in a childʼs life.

These tips are things we can do at home, but analysis of vitamin or mineral deficiencies and ruling out other medical or emotional conditions when ADHD is suspected, is best done with help of a specialist. Parents are increasingly seeking holistic options for addressing the vexing aspects of their childrenʼs behaviors and learning challenges, and while there is much we can do, a cupboard full of expensive supplements and wishful thinking may only delay the most effective help. Yet, understanding the many options available today gives us more control over a diagnosis that has skyrocketed in the past two generations.