Five No-Risk, Non-Drug ADHD Treatments That Work

These simple changes can help your child’s executive function.

Posted Nov 11, 2019

In my clinical practice, I have worked with high-energy, impulsive, inattentive children (typically labeled with ADHD) for more than two decades. A seasoned observer of the rising tide of the ADHD epidemic in our country, I thought that nothing could surprise me. However, this week what a mother told me about her son Adam’s first-grade class was shocking even to me.

The mother said that Adam’s class consisted of 12 boys and 14 girls. A few weeks into the school year, she received a note from Adam’s teacher requesting that he be evaluated for ADHD. So had nine other parents of boys in her son’s class. Instead of rushing to Ritalin as her pediatrician suggested, she came to me seeking non-drug interventions for Adam.

With the parents faithfully following my directions, Adam’s behavior at school improved without medication. But nine out of the 12 boys in Adam’s class were now taking Ritalin or Adderall. That is, 75 percent of the boys in Adam’s first-grade classroom were being medicated with stimulant drugs. This is far greater than the Centers for Disease Control number suggesting that 11 percent of American children and 12 percent of boys are diagnosed with ADHD.

I was truly shocked to hear Adam’s mother’s story. Yet I believe that this scenario is being repeated in schools all around the country, as teachers struggle with larger classrooms, fewer teacher aides, and high energy boys who are spending too little time outdoors playing and too much time on electronic screens.  

The non-drug “treatments” that I recommended for Adam, and recommend to parents of other high-energy impulsive boys, are these:

  1. Get him more physical exercise. Adam’s mother enrolled him in soccer. Other sports like basketball, swimming, tennis, bicycling, and even family hikes can help. Children diagnosed with ADHD often have problems with executive functioning—that is the mental process that enables the child to organize, focus attention, and juggle multiple tasks. Research suggests that regular aerobic exercise has the potential to improve executive functioning in children as well as adults. 
  2. Cut down on your child's screen time or even have him take a 2-5 day “fast” from electronic screens. Constant stimulation from the internet, video game players, smartphones and TV can over-stimulate children’s brains and make them “hyper” and anxious. Limit your child to one hour of "screen time" per day. This means limiting television, electronic games and other forms of eye candy. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that early exposure to television is associated with ADHD in children. Read to your child or play a simple board or card game with him instead of using an electronic babysitter.
  3. Teach your child meditation (sometimes called mindfulness). Meditation can be as short as five minutes and can be conducted anywhere. Teach your child to simply sit, close his eyes, and listen to his breathing. Soothing sounds can also help. Find audio of breaking waves or chirping birds and listen to them with your child for a few minutes.
  4. Keep a calm home environment. This means not yelling at your child if he doesn't mind you or settle down to do his homework. Of course, every parent can be pushed to the extreme and "loses it" occasionally. Every parent yells or screams at a child once in a while. If this happens, simply apologize to your child and reassure him that you love him, while explaining that his behavior is sometimes frustrating.
  5. Have clear rules and enforce them consistently. Parents should come to an agreement about the rules concerning their child, and back each other up. Being on the same page about discipline is especially crucial if a child is having trouble focusing. When parents ask me about a good book on discipline, I always recommend 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. His method really works if used consistently.

These no-risk non-drug treatments for ADHD have helped more than 1000 children in my practice over the years. Since they can do no harm, parents have nothing to lose by trying them out before rushing to medicating their child.