What is ADHD? Common—and Surprising—Symptoms

Do you frequently start and abandon projects?  Does your ability to concentrate flip-flop between The Laser Beam and The Disco Ball?  Sometimes ADHD is obvious, but sometimes it can fly under the radar.  The Savvy Psychologist explains the common, and not so common, signs of this disorder. Plus, learn about medication-free tips to manage ADHD in kids and adults. 

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
8-minute read
Episode #14

Medication-Free ADHD Treatments for All Ages

  • Get more sleep. Kids (and some adults) with and without ADHD often manifest fatigue not by getting tired, but by getting wired.  A 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics shows that behavior deteriorates when sleep time is cut by as little as 30 minutes, and improves with an extra half hour or more. So make sure that you or your child gets plenty of zzz's.
  • Exercise.  A recent study showed that just 20 minutes of exercise improved kids’ self-control and attention, whether or not they had ADHD.  Kids with ADHD showed specific behavioral improvements as well. Here's a great episode from Get-Fit Guy about how to get your kids fit.
  • Take one thing at a time.  Multitasking quickly descends into chaos for those with ADHD.  Focus on doing one activity at a time. Also, multi-step directions can be difficult to process for kids with ADHD.  A request like “Clear your dinner plate, find your backpack, and start your homework” will likely result in several detours and much exasperation.  Break it down into three separate requests, however, and everyone will be happier.

Medication-Free ADHD Treatments for Kids 

  • Praise good behavior.  Often, kids with ADHD get negative feedback about their attention, motivation, or behavior.  A positive, loving, non-critical, and helpful home is the best foundation.  When a kid with ADHD is behaving appropriately, praise him and his efforts.
  • Build in immediate reinforcement.  A recent book for psychologists described this tactic for a boy with ADHD: The teacher wrote answers to worksheet questions in invisible marker; he could answer the question and immediately color the space to reveal whether or not he was right.  He went from pestering the kids next to him to answering almost every question correctly.  Immediate feedback pays off.  Try offering praise or another reward immediately after good behavior.
  • Be on the lookout for learning disabilities. Dyslexia or difficulties solving math problems commonly coexist with ADHD. 
  • Make eye contact and gentle physical contact when you need their attention.  Calling from the adjacent room, “Put on your shoes!  We’re late!” is like talking to the wind.  Instead, go to the child, touch her arm, look her in the eye (requesting “Look at my eyes,” can help), and then ask her to put on her shoes.
  • Request a desk in the front of the class.  Not having to filter out a classroom’s worth of distraction can work wonders.
  • Include more “green time.”  In a 2009 study, just 20 minutes of walking in a park, compared to 20 minutes of walking in an urban downtown area or a residential area, was enough to improve attention in kids with ADHD.

Medication-Free ADHD Treatments for Adults

  • Choose an organizing system and stick to it.  Many adults with ADHD know they need to get organized, but they abandon system after system.  Pick one and stick to it for at least a few weeks, not just a few days. Get-It-Done Guy has an article to help you create a custom organizational system.
  • Break down onerous tasks into small chunks.  Tedious tasks, like filing or sorting, often fall by the wayside.  Tell yourself you’ll file 5 pieces of paper, sort 10 items, or pay 2 bills.  Once the task is started, often the momentum will carry you beyond the initial quota. Check out the article on speed-dating your tasks to help you stay on track.
  • Use technology to keep you focused.  One patient of mine created a text alarm on his laptop; it scrolled across the screen every 15 minutes and read “Are you doing what you’re supposed to be doing?”  Another patient set her phone alarm to beep at 20-minute intervals in the early afternoon, when she knew her medication was likely to be wearing off. How can you use technology to keep you motivated and on track?

Finally, be patient.  It isn’t possible to will oneself out of ADHD, but with support and persistence, it can be well-managed. Just look at Modern Manners Guy, Richie Frieman.  He struggled with ADHD his entire childhood, and now he's published a bestselling book!

Thanks for reading and for your, well…attention!


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.

Weiss MD, Worling DE, Wasdell MB. (2003).  A chart review study of the inattentive and combined types of ADHD.  Journal of Attention Disorders, 7(1):1-9.

Kessler RC, Adler L, Barkley R, Biederman J, Conners CK, Demler O et al.  (2006).  The prevalence and correlates of adult ADHD in the United States: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(4): 716-23.

McGough JJ, Barkley RA.  (2004).  Diagnostic controversies in adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 161: 1948-1956.

Shaw P, Gornick M, Lerch J, Addington A, Seal J, Greenstein D, Sharp W, et al. (2007).  Polymorphisms of the dopamine D4 receptor, clinical outcome, and cortical structure in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.  Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(8): 921-31.

Spencer TJ, Biederman J, Mick E.  (2007).  Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: diagnosis, lifespan, comorbidities, and neurobiology.  Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 32(6): 631-42.

McGough JJ, Yang M, McCracken JT, et al. Psychiatric comorbidity in adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: findings from multiplex families. Am J Psychiatry. 2005;162:1621–7.

Gruber R, Cassoff J, Frenette S, Wiebe S, Carrier J.  Impact of sleep extension and restriction on children’s emotional lability and impulsivity.  Pediatrics.  2012; 130(5):e1155-61.

Pontifex MB, Saliba BJ, Raine LB, Piccheietti DL, Hillman CH.  Exercise improves behavioral, neurocognitive, and scholastic performance in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.  Journal of Pediatrics.  2013; 162(3): 543-51.

Neef NA, Perrin CJ, Madden GJ.  (2012).  Understanding and treating attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.  In APA Handbook of Behavior Analysis: Volume 2.  Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Taylor AF, Kuo FE. Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park.  Journal of Attention Disorders, Vol 12(5), Mar, 2009. pp. 402-409.;


ADHD child image courtesy of Shutterstock.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.