Taking a Whole-Child Approach to Treating ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

When parents seek out the help of a psychologist or meet with their child’s teacher, discussions typically focus on finding solutions for ADHD-related challenges. While these problem-focused conversations are necessary - and are often very helpful - they run the risk of being so ADHD-centric that a child’s strengths and positive qualities are overlooked. As a result, a child isn’t really discussed as a whole person, but is instead talked about only within the context of his or her ADHD. Ultimately, this focus does the child a disservice, because opportunities that capitalize on the child’s strengths are overlooked. 

While it’s undeniably important for all kids to develop their strengths and talents, it would be hard to overstate just how important this is for the emotional health and well-being of kids with ADHD. Even in the most supportive school environments, kids with ADHD receive more negative feedback than kids without ADHD. Every day they are told that they need to be more focused, be more organized, or be less active. They repeatedly receive the message that they aren’t reaching their full potential because their ADHD symptoms are getting in the way. When these same kids are given the opportunity to engage in activities that capitalize on their strengths, they receive the opposite message. The pendulum shifts and they are suddenly the child in the room who is being called out for their positive qualities rather than their impairments. They stand out because they are doing so well, not because they are falling behind. Over time, these experiences build confidence and resilience, and help counteract the negative effects that ADHD can have on their self-esteem. A child’s inner dialogue can shift from, “I’m not as good as other kids.” to “School might be harder for me than it is for other kids, but when it comes to (sports or art or music) I’m really talented. That’s where I really shine!”

For many parents and teachers, finding the time to help a child develop his or her strengths can feel like a challenge. Fortunately, when a child is more engaged in activities that play to his or her strengths, managing ADHD symptoms will become easier and less draining for everyone involved.

  1. Start by pointing out your child’s strengths on a daily basis. Every day there is at least one thing that your child does well. He or she may sound great when singing along with the radio, or run really fast when playing with friends, or do an excellent job teaching a younger child a new skill. Pointing out these little things to your child reminds him or her that there are many things that he or she is doing well.
  1. Reflect on your child’s positive qualities. Block out 5 minutes of time to sit and reflect on your child. What are the things that you enjoy about him or her the most? What are your child’s best qualities? If your child could be on summer vacation all year long, what athletic, creative, musical, technical, or artistic activities do you think he or she would enjoy the most? Are there things your child has expressed an interest in, but has not had an opportunity to try?
  1. Have a conversation with your child. Next spend a few minutes talking with your child. Ask him or her to imagine an endless summer vacation. What kinds of activities would he or she like to spend time doing? You can help him or her brainstorm by doing some research online with your child. A good place to start is by looking at activities that are available at some summer camps, since these are naturally geared toward a variety of interests (check out a list of activities at http://www.ourkids.net/camp/types-of-camps.php).
  1. Talk to your child’s teacher and other staff at your child’s school. Meet with your child’s teacher, and with other supportive staff at the school, to talk about your child’s strengths and learn about relevant programs or activities that your child may be able to participate in during the school day or in an afterschool program.
  1. Look for outside resources and at-home activities. Be creative and look for activities your child can do at home or through programs in your community. When your child participates in these activities he or she may even be motivated to do his or her schoolwork quickly and do it well – since once school work is done he or she will have more time to spend on other activities that he or she will enjoy!

Kids with ADHD thrive when they receive treatments and accommodations for their symptoms and are surrounded by people who help them recognize and develop their strengths. As kids grow into adults, this whole-person approach will guide them toward selecting work, activities, and social groups that capitalize on their strengths and minimize the impact of ADHD symptoms on their daily life.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit www.huntingtonfranchise.com.

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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