Summer ADHD brain drain

Research tells us that during the summer, the average student loses one to three month’s math and reading gains made over the prior year. Academic losses are so common among students that educators have given the phenomena a name: Summer Brain Drain.

Summer Brain Drain may even be worse for ADHD students already having trouble at school.

Going to school daily provides schedules and routines. The summer break means those routines aren’t there. Expectations are lowered or relaxed. Even sleep schedules are often totally abandoned.

Unfortunately, exercise is often replaced with computer time, watching movies, or playing video games with friends. That’s a bad idea. While there’s nothing wrong with playing video games or watching movies, sedentary activity must always be balanced with exercise. This is especially important for an ADHD student. 

I’ve included some specific articles that approach this topic from varying perspectives. Enjoy and gain the benefits this summer!

Children with ADHD benefit from time outdoors enjoying nature


News Bureau at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from May 15 through June 8. — Kids with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) should spend some quality after-school hours and weekend time outdoors enjoying nature, say researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The payoff for this “treatment” of children 5 to 18 years old, who participated in a nationwide study, was a significant reduction of symptoms. The study appears in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

“The advantage for green outdoor activities was observed among children living in different regions of the United States and among children living in a range of settings, from rural to large city environments,” wrote co-authors Frances E. Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor. “Overall, our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children.”

ADHD is a neurological disorder that affects some 2 million school-aged children, as well as up to 2 to 4 percent of adults, in the United States. Those with ADHD often face serious consequences, such as problems in school and relationships, depression, substance abuse and on-the-job difficulties.

“These findings are exciting,” said Kuo, a professor in the departments of natural resources and environmental sciences and of psychology at Illinois.

“I think we’re on the track of something really important, something that could affect a lot of lives in a substantial way,” she said. “We’re on the trail of a potential treatment for a disorder that afflicts one of every 14 children – that’s one or two kids in every classroom.”

If clinical trials and additional research confirm the value of exposure to nature for ameliorating ADHD, daily doses of “green time” might supplement medications and behavioral approaches to ADHD, the authors suggest in their conclusion.

Kuo and Faber Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher who specializes in children’s environments and behavior, recruited the parents of 322 boys and 84 girls, all diagnosed with ADHD, through ads in major newspapers and the Web site of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Parents were interviewed by means of the Web and asked to report how their children performed after participating in a wide range of activities. Some activities were conducted inside, others in outdoor places without much greenery, such as parking lots and downtown areas, and others in relatively natural outdoor settings such as a tree-lined street, back yard or park.

The researchers found that symptoms were reduced most in green outdoor settings, even when the same activities were compared across different settings.

“In each of 56 different comparisons, green outdoor activities received more positive ratings than did activities taking place in other settings, and this difference was significant or marginally significant in 54 of the 56 analyses,” Kuo said. “The findings are very consistent.”

The two researchers have been pursuing the ADHD issue as an extension of a long line of previous research they’ve conducted on the nature-attention connection among the general population in mostly urban settings.

“The medications for ADHD that are currently available work for most kids, but not all,” Kuo said. “They often have serious side effects. Who wants to give their growing child a drug that kills their appetite day after day and, night after night, makes it hard for them to get a decent night’s rest? Not to mention the stigma and expense of medication.”

Simply using nature, Kuo said, “may offer a way to help manage ADHD symptoms that is readily available, doesn’t have any stigma associated with it, doesn’t cost anything, and doesn’t have any side effects – except maybe splinters!”

There are a number of exciting possible ways in which “nature treatments” could supplement current treatments, she said.

Spending time in ordinary “urban nature” – a tree-lined street, a green yard or neighborhood park – may offer additional relief from ADHD symptoms when medications aren’t quite enough. Some kids might be able to substitute a “green dose” for their afternoon medication, allowing them to get a good night’s sleep.

“A green dose could be a lifesaver for the 10 percent of children whose symptoms don’t respond to medication, who are just stuck with the symptoms,” Kuo said. As Kuo and Faber Taylor wrote, a dose could be as simple as “a greener route for the walk to school, doing classwork or homework at a window with a relatively green view, or playing in a green yard or ball field at recess and after school.”

The National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council, U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service supported the project.

Exercise Improves Learning and Memory
Chalk up another benefit for regular exercise. Investigators from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) have found that voluntary running boosts the growth of new nerve cells and improves learning and memory in adult mice.
"Until recently it was thought that the growth of new neurons, or neurogenesis, did not occur in the adult mammalian brain," said Terrence Sejnowski, an HHMI investigator at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies. "But we now have evidence for it, and it appears that exercise helps this happen."
USA Today (

ADHD treatment is getting a workout
Doctors haven’t done many definitive studies about exercise and ADHD, says David Goodman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. But Goodman says it makes sense that working out would help people cope with the condition. Studies show that exercise increases levels of two key brain chemicals — dopamine and norepinephrine — that help people focus.

"Your cognitive function is probably better for one to three hours after exercise," Goodman says. "The difficulty is that by the next day, the effect has worn off."

If kids could exercise strenuously three to five times a day, they might not need medications at all, says John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Ratey is so intrigued by the question that he’s writing a book about how exercise can reduce symptoms of ADHD or at least help patients cope.

Team sports might help children with ADHD in several ways, says James Perrin, a professor of pediatrics at Boston’s MassGeneral Hospital for Children. Children with the condition benefit from following a regular schedule. Coaches who lead kids through structured exercises also might help build concentration and organizational skills.

Sleep Disorders & ADHD

It’s suspected that nearly 25% of all cases identified as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are not really ADHD at all, but are symptoms related to sleep disorders.

One of the leaders in this research is University of Michigan professor Ronald Chervin.  Chervin theorizes that very important brain development is done during sleep. Among other things, this includes the ability to regulate emotion and processing. So, if a child has chronic sleep problems, brain development may be impaired. Chervin also suspects that the brain does not receive enough oxygen if the child snores which further inhibits development.  According to Chervin’s research, children who snore are more likely to have ADHD.

He likens the ADHD-sleep connection to a child who doesn’t get a nap; he becomes restless, irritable, and acts out.

Chervin developed his theory based on a sleep/behavior survey of the parents of 866 children.  Chervin’s data exposed a sleep disorder -behavior relationship.  It was only logical to conclude that if the sleep disorder could be corrected, the ADHD symptoms would be extinguished. 

According to Newsweek: “To test this theory, Chervin then studied 79 kids (5 to13 years old) who were about to have an adenotonsillectomy. Prior to the surgery, 22 of the 79 were categorized as having ADHD, based on standard measures for such a diagnosis. One year later,  Chervin’s team tracked down the kids for a follow-up. Of the 22 identified as having ADHD, 11 kids no longer qualified as having the disorder.”

Two problems lingered: 1) New cases of ADHD cropped up and 2) 50% of the surgical patients received no benefit at all.

Before you go and get your child’s tonsils and adenoids out, let’s discuss the distinct problems in the logic associated with this research.

First, we have a problem of antecedence; does ADHD exist because of sleep problems? or does the sleep problem exist because of  ADHD? That relationship cannot be clearly identified and is a confounding problem.

Secondly, new cases of ADHD appeared and others did not benefit at all from the surgery. This would lead one to think that the outcomes may not be related at all to the procedure.

I’m reminded of an old story about researchers who taught a frog to jump upon saying, “Jump!” Many weeks were spent training the frog.  The researchers were quite happy that they had proved the frog could hear and could respond to the human voice. One of the researchers  decided they should amputate the frogs hind legs. After carefully surgically removing the frog’s legs and rehabilitating the poor frog, the researchers stood in front of the frog and yelled, “Jump!” When the frog did not respond, they all heartily nodded in agreement that the frog’s hearing was severely impaired by the removal of his hind legs.

There is little doubt that sleep problems affect brain development. Past studies have demonstrated that preschoolers with a sleep disorder are twice as prone to substance abuse by early adolescence and more likely to suffer from anxiety in their 20s. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics concurs that sleep problems are not benign.

However, before we undertake invasive, painful surgery as an option, far more research should be performed to absolutely indicate a direct correlation. One currently does not exist and other options should be explored. playing241

It has become obvious that adequate, restful, uninterrupted sleep is essential to our personal well being. Abnormal sleep patterns may result in behaviors that can be easily confused with ADHD.

If your child has a sleep problem, taking them to a sleep specialist may help. Getting adequate exercise, providing a consistent sleep routine/schedule, reducing stress,  and eating a proper diet may also assist in getting better sleep and better behavior. 

  • Chervin RD, Arcbold KH, Dillon JE, et al. Inattention, hyperactivity and symptoms of sleep disordered breathing. Pediatrics. 2002;109:449-456
  • Chervin RD, Dillon JE, Bassett C, et al. Symptoms of sleep disorders, inattention and hyperactivity in children. Sleep. 1997;20:1185-1192
  • Chervin, RD, Rusicka DL, Giordani BJ, et al. Sleep disordered breathing, behavior and cognition in children before and after adenotonsillectomy. Pediatrics. 2006;117:e769-e778
  • Cortese S, Konofal E, Lecendreux M, et al. Restless leg syndrome and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a review of the literature. Sleep. 2005;28:1007-1013
  • Cortese S, Konofal E, Yateman N,et al. Sleep and alertness in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review of the literature. Sleep. 2006;29:504-511
  • Harnish MJ, Boyer S, Kukas L, Bowles AM, et al. The relationship between sleep disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): objective findings. Sleep. 2001;24:A14.
  • Owens JA. The ADHD and sleep conundrum: a review. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 2005;26:312-322.