William Norris is in Karate class. The quiet 9 year old and his mother are the only students today. William’s 7 year old sister Elizabeth is humming and dancing around the perimeter of the mat. William and Elizabeth both have ADHD. Their mother, Vickie says getting her children to do things they like is crucial to helping them manage their disorder.
“I treat their interests as very important and I think that gives them confidence and helps them. And of course, we do the outside stuff. They spend time outside. They go to an after-school program. They ride their bikes.”
Norris encourages her children to be active and play outside. When she hears about the study linking time outdoors to a lessening ADHD symptoms, she says it sounds like common sense to her.
“I do think there’s some scientific basis for the old mother statement ‘go outside and get some fresh air’.”
But Dr. Bart Hodgens, clinical psychologist at UAB’s Spark Clinic, isn’t quite so sure fresh air is enough to do the trick.
“I can’t see where just going outside and walking around and looking at the birds is necessarily going to have an effect on children’s behavior. I think it’s a very preliminary study and leaves you wondering what it is they’re saying is having an actual effect.”
Frances Kuo, one of the authors of the greentime study, explains time spent in green environments is what’s seeming to help. The study took a national survey of parents and had them record the effects of different environments on their children’s behavior. The study found that after children spent time in outdoor, natural environments, they had an easier time concentrating. Kuo says she based her study on a theory of developed by the University of Michigan’s Stephen Capland.
“He’s suggesting that environments and stimuli that are kind of naturally engaging, that put us in kind of a quiet fascination mode allow us to rest the part of the mind that’s used in concentrating. And so life, especially for kids in school, is fairly mentally effortful. The idea is that that part of their mind gets fatigued and then they need to recover before they can be very effective at doing homework or paying attention to their parents.”
That may be true, but according to Hodgens the only treatments that have withstood the test of time are medicine and behavior therapy. Norris agrees, but says sometimes those two aren’t enough.
“The medicine helps. It’s not a magic bullet. It doesn’t cure everything. And then the behavior therapy helps a lot too. You have to use those hand in hand. And then, you just have to know your child and know what works for them.”
It might seem that the media is saturated with the release of new studies on ADHD. But Kuo says parents are the best judge of what therapies will be effective for their children.
“Parents really do know what things are good for their kids and what things are not good for their kids. The advice I would give is pay attention. Start trying. If the kid seems to be a mess after watching Power Rangers all afternoon, cut back on the Power Rangers.”
Norris says she’s open to trying what’s making news, but says, for her, the best source of information on how to manage children with ADHD comes from real-life experience.
“Parenting is not a science. It is very much an art and there is a lot of hit and miss. And you have to try new things and see what works.”
One of the new things Norris tried was UAB’s Summer Treatment Program. Started last summer, the program combines traditional academic classes with recreational group therapy sessions. The kids also spend a significant amount of time playing sports. Hodgens is the director of the Summer Treatment Program. Though he isn’t confident in the green-time study, he believes there could be a link between getting children to work up a sweat and ADHD relief. He?s actually done some work in the area.
“Aerobic exercise does produce changes in the brain, nuero-chemical changes in the brain and you can make the argument that those changes could lead to changes in behavior. I think it’s an intriguing idea to look at its effects on children with behavior problems like ADHD.”
Until then, Norris says parents of ADHD children should just pass on the sage advice of their own mothers.
“You need to go outside and play. Get some fresh air and see your friends and run around.”