The rapid pace of infant development begins to change as the child enters the first stage of formal learning. At approximately four years old many children go off to Kindergarten — excited anticipation for some, pure dread for others (and that’s not just the parents!).
At 5 years, 96% of Australian children are in Preschool. This is an important stage in development as the child takes the initiative interacting with the world around them. It is also now that they pit themselves against the demands of the world outside their families, especially formal education — schooling. For some children these years are a relative ‘breeze’, for others they are frought with feelings of shame and inferiority.
By about year three (7 to 8 years old) children have a sense of their academic ability compared to others, yet a lack of self-understanding. It is at this time that issues of learning and behaviour are most often brought to the fore with teachers and parents seeking ‘answers’ to this child’s differences. Minor variations in development can lead to significant difficulties for children outside the understanding and acceptance of a loving family.
One person's experience
Bobby was born into a comfortable middle class home where he had an older sister, mum and dad. As a baby he had some sleeping and eating difficulties, but not enough to worry the doctors. He was always on the go though. If he wasn’t active then he was cranky — so of course he was given lots of chances to be active! He loved to run and climb and he was affectionately known as ‘the little monkey’.
At kindergarten and preschool he excelled at outdoor games, and could even sit still and listen to a story, for a while, but his favourite thing was racing cars around the carpet — no matter who got in the way.
With first grade came more structured work. Bobby wanted to learn to read and do his math. He tried hard but he hated sitting and listening to the teacher and he was often in trouble when there were out-of-seat activities. He loved lunchtime — running around the playground with his friends. In second grade his parents were informed that he was not doing as well as expected, but could do better if he concentrated on his work.
Bobby started to feel that school wasn’t that great, he was in trouble for talking in class, getting out of his seat and not remembering what the teacher had said.
By fourth grade Bobby had given up on learning, especially reading and spelling; he just went to school for his friends, even though he got into a few scrapes in the playground. Underneath, Bobby was angry, sad, and disappointed in himself.
Bobby wasn’t the only one to give up — teachers felt that Bobby was just a ‘naughty boy’ who wouldn’t listen and do as he was asked. He proved them right! Until his problems were investigated.
Bobby was experiencing the impact of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and subsequent learning difficulties. He found it too demanding to maintain attention to instructions and tasks. He was able to maintain normal attention for about 20 minutes before it all started fraying at the edges.
Attention Deficit / Hyperactive Disorder
It is difficult to establish prior to school when demands for sustained attention become important. Attention issues are four times more prevalent in boys but do exist in girls, affecting 3 to 5% of the population.
While inattentive characteristics can become less prominent after adolescence, unsupported children with ADHD often experience significant personal issues including learning difficulties, depression, anxiety, and social difficulties.
A range of treatments may be available for Bobby:
Neuropsychological assessment — testing Bobby in a range of important areas may help a psychologist build a good picture of what is going on. For example, it can help Bobby’s family and school understand how much of his learning struggles are due to poor attention, hyperactivity and challenging behaviours, and how much of what they’re seeing is due to the way he learns and processes information.
Paediatric assessment — to understand any medical and physical factors that may also be affecting behaviour.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Neurofeedback therapies — a family may benefit from CBT and other therapies.
Behaviour management — armed with a new understanding of ADD/ADHD and a thorough behavioural and neuropsychological assessment, families can work together with a psychologist to set up a plan for managing and improving behaviour at home and school.
Medication — in extreme circumstances of severely affected children, a paediatrician may prescribe medication that improves attention and activity levels enough to allow a child to re-engage in learning, and help families implement behavioural plans that work.