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What boys really need – and it is not labels!

A mom reported recently to me that her son’s teacher is pushing for an ADHD diagnosis. While this mom is taking the school’s comments seriously, she and her husband are also seeing the bigger picture. She told me, “He is only seven – and a happy, smart, loving boy… and I think we just all need to put our heads together to figure out how to best motivate him but in a positive way.”

This is the right approach… not rushing into using labels for early struggles, or worse, starting a seven year old on a possible life-long course of medications he may not need.

Nationally, more and more boys are being diagnosed with ADHD  – and in my opinion – it often has nothing to do with a true disorder.  It’s more about improper teaching methods and sedentary classroom approaches and misunderstanding how boys think and learn.

Schools don’t lookmoving in classroom at themselves. Instead, they too often focus on blaming boys (and their brains) for tuning out in class. Schools rush to use psychological tests. Worse, they casually hand out behavior rating scales designed to find ADHD. They put time and energy into highly subjective diagnoses – rather than doing what we know works to spark the developing minds of young boys and men.

What boys need to learn is simple. Moving while thinking, promoting hands-on activities, healthy competition, and spending less time sitting and prepping for standardized tests.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

Big, Scary Thoughts

Thinking student sitting at deskA parent of a gifted five-year old wonders why her son often sounds unhappy and fears growing up.

Many smart youngsters can become easily overwhelmed by their brain’s capacity to think too big. Imagine you are only five and you’re thinking about the meaning of life, growing up and having to find a job, wondering what it would be like to be alone! Very young children have no real-life experience to put any of these big, scary thoughts into perspective.

I recommend not spending lots of time talking about these big thoughts with very young kids. That only reinforces them to feel worse. If your child isn’t sharing these uncharacteristic big (negative) thoughts away from you, that may be a sign that you are fueling those concerns accidentally.

Better to acknowledge big, scary thoughts fast, then put them in their place!

First explain that thoughts are in our control: “I know you have very strong feelings and worries. Sometimes your feelings get too big – but they are only feelings and they can change. We can make them smaller or turn them into happier thoughts if we want to…”

Then show your child how to control them: “Let’s move, let’s go outside, let’s do something real like play, run, wrestle, and that’s how we stop those feelings. We don’t have to think of them right now – but if later you still feel them – we can talk about them. We can find good ways (like drawing or singing or making a play about them) to make sure they don’t seem too big or stay around too long.”


Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

The ADHD Excuse


ADHD symbol design isolated on white backgroundA parent I know is questioning if her second grader has ADHD. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. There are many things that mimic the symptoms. It takes time to make an accurate diagnosis and well-trained professionals should always be consulted. Meanwhile, her son has picked up on the ADHD terminology. He’s saying he can’t focus on homework because his “brain is distracted.” When he gets caught doing something he shouldn’t – like swearing at his brother – he says he’s “being impulsive.” Are his problems due to an attention deficit? Perhaps. But he’s also complaining that sorting his laundry is way too hard. And the Legos that cover his bedroom floor can’t be organized, because, well – it’s “just too hard.” This boy is smart and I think he’s found a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card … an excuse he can call up whenever the going gets tough. Whether this boy has ADHD or not, excuse-making is a slippery slope. In time, he might start believing these limitations.


If you’re investigating a diagnosis of ADHD, or your child/teen currently has this diagnosis, here’s how to avoid ADHD excuses.


  1. ADHD should never be framed as a serious disability. Tell kids that ADHD is a brain style. It doesn’t completely define who they are or limit what they can do. In fact, this brain style can have great advantages (such as athletic skill, creative thinking, and healthy risk taking). ADHD also lends itself to a mind-set that we adults strive for – living more in-the-moment and being more mindful. Yet, there are potential downsides. There are struggles keeping on task, especially when there isn’t something novel or very interesting to focus on. Patience is a serious challenge. Delayed gratification can be hard too. And, not all risks taken are positive.


  1. Emphasize that what matters is how ADHD fits (of fights against) the demands that different environments place on people.


  1. Remind your child that any problems with ADHD (high motor activity, sustaining focus, and being impulsive) can be worked on with or without medications. Most important, remind them that ADHD symptoms tend to decrease (or drop away) as kids grow – as development of the frontal cortex catches up in teenage years.


  1. Remind your child that their brain always has the capacity to learn and change. Pushing oneself to improve, develop better work habits, and maintain healthy life routines – like getting enough sleep, exercise, and eating right – will help control ADHD symptoms. Watch over-exposure to screens too… those have been correlated to higher ADHD symptoms.


  1. Finally, and most important, push back on any ADHD excuse-making. ADHD should never be a reason to avoid trying new things or giving up.


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Another reason to get boys moving

recessA parent recently checked in about her son being accused of tackling another boy at school. When the teachers observed more carefully, it turned out he wasn’t the only one. Many of the second grade boys were tackling each other, mostly during recess. Should there be a no-touching rule instituted and swift discipline applied for any boy caught doing this? Consider that these boys wouldn’t need to be aggressive in this way if they got more movement throughout the day. They need daily opportunities to channel their natural aggression. All-boy schools give us a model to follow. They give boys many ways to release strong natural urges to show physical power and force. Don’t stuff aggression, work with it. Guide it. Channel it. Anything less denies a part of who boys are.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

Should your young child be tested?

Notes coming home from teachers? Are they telling you your child’s not focusing or they’re wandering off during circle time? With schools under much stress these days to keep to government performance standards, many teachers are recommending to parents that young children be tested for learning problems. Most are young boys. Is this helpful?

Most classroom adjustment issues are temporary. They don’t require testing. They are developmental – and buying your child time often does the trick. But if teachers continue to recommend testing, how should you proceed – and what’s the right age to do it? For common early behavior issues (that are mostly showing up at school but not home), I’d wait until 7 years old (or a bit older) as testing very young children doesn’t yield as much reliable data.

Second, what “tests” are used and “who” does the testing matter. At the least, a WISC (intelligence test) is valuable. Also some educational tests too (those are simple grade-level tests to assess ability on typical classroom tasks… such as language and number skills). Be weary of quick scales (the Conners, the Vanderbilt, and the Achenbach are typical examples) that teachers and parents are told to fill out. Those are highly subjective. In my opinion, they yield much less valuable information, especially for very young boys. They are also geared toward looking for hyperactivity, impulsivity, and focus… sending (mostly boys) down an ADHD path and to medication. These are self-report style scales should never be used alone (independent of more powerful, better designed tests) and shouldn’t be relied on exclusively to make diagnostic decisions.

If the school offers to do 1-1 testing – performed by a good/qualified (at least masters level psychologist) – consider having it done. But ask them up front specifically what tests they plan on using and how experienced is the tester. Also, ask up front what they plan on doing with the test information and does it necessarily require you adopt their special education services… it might, and that’s generally ok, but you want all that explained first. Then, if you agree to testing, see where the data falls. Think of it as a snapshot. It may reveal an underlying developmental lag that does deserve some extra (in class or out) help. Hopefully the school will provide that service. Also, check with your pediatrician on basics. Vision and hearing, sleep, getting enough physical activity, diet and allergies… many things can cause behavior issues at school, including stress at home. every child is different. Keep up with good behavior training at home (see my other posts).

For most boys, who have a rocky start to school, they just need time. Some continue with struggles and need special services, and a few may need something more – a different school environment (smaller classes, more boy-friendly activities and matched teaching style). Again, buying a little time makes the most sense. Not rushing the developmental process. Not automatically reacting to teachers who may themselves be struggling or stressed. It gives your youngster time to grow and develop and adjust to new demands.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.