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Beyond Ritalin: Help for kids with ADD/ADHD

By Wendy Burt-Thomas for LearningRx
If your child has been labeled "ADHD," you may already feel the pressure to pump him full of Ritalin. But while it's estimated that 6 million children will take Ritalin or other brands of stimulant medications, that doesn't mean that a prescription is right for your child.

Like all medications, there are risks and side effects associated with taking stimulants: insomnia, loss of appetite, irritability and perhaps most common a sense of emotional "numbness." And while some parents swear that the benefits have been enough to get their children back on track in school, there is a growing movement toward non-drug therapies to help kids with ADHD. One therapy that has proved particularly effective is called "cognitive skills training."

What are cognitive skills?
Unlike tutoring or computer-based programs that focus on behavior management or specific academic skills, cognitive skills training helps children with learning disabilities attend to and process information.

"Cognitive skills are the essential, but often overlooked fundamental tools of effective learning," explains Ken Gibson, founder of LearningRx, a national franchise that specializes in cognitive skills training. "Learning isn't about how much you know, but how effectively you process or handle the information you receive. Cognitive skills are the mental mechanisms that process incoming information."

Unlike academic disciplines, cognitive skills are not the subject taught in school classrooms. "Most parents and some educators - are unaware that there's a difference between cognitive and academic skills," says Gibson. "Cognitive skills are the underlying tools that enable kids to successfully focus, think, prioritize, plan, understand, visualize, remember and create useful associations, and solve problems."

How are weak cognitive skills identified?
Cognitive skills are not easy to see or recognize through casual observation. They function behind the scenes as you process the information received from every possible source - sound, touch, sight, and even information received from yourself when you are thinking, speculating, or recalling. Because of this 'behind the scenes' nature, an appropriate assessment test is essential for the identification and treatment of weak cognitive skills.

There are, however, common traits that children with weak cognitive skills often display, including:

  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Poor test scores, grades or reading comprehension
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty organizing activity
  • Poor study and work habits
  • Taking a long time to complete tasks
  • Disinterest (or dislike) in school
Parents can take a full online evaluation at to help them further identify their child's weak cognitive skills.

How does cognitive skills therapy help?
A child's cognitive skill set is made up of several cognitive skills including auditory processing, visual processing, short and long-term memory, comprehension, logic and reasoning, and attention skills. Each of these can also be divided into identifiable sub-skills. For example, attention is made up of sub-skills such as sustain attention (staying on task), selective attention (ignoring distractions) and divided attention (handling more than one task at a time). Each of these skills and sub-skills play a specific and necessary role, and must work in concert before an individual can learn effectively.

"Good programs use intense focused training to strengthen weak skills," says Gibson. "It's just like practicing the piano to improve your skill level. There are specific programs and exercises that specialize in identifying and strengthening weak cognitive skills. With the right program, most children who have been labeled as having ADHD, ADD or other learning disabilities can improve from three to five grade levels and about half the students no longer require medication."

"We were so thankful to find a program that gave good results right away," said Isidro and Luz (last name omitted for privacy), whose son experienced cognitive skills training. "Joshua had such a bad habit of chewing on his sleeves. A week after he started the program he stopped this habit. A month later we noticed how he started focusing, being more responsible with his schoolwork and his home duties too. Later friends started noticing how calm he was getting. We truly recommend (cognitive skills therapy) programs to anybody."

For Sheila and Sam, there was no question that cognitive skills training drastically changed their son's love for reading. "Yuri struggled significantly with reading before the classes. Now he is reading everything he sees posters, cereal boxes, street signs, etc. He loves being able to 'do it himself.' He also is better able to focus on what's important and ignore the other noises going on around him."

For those parents who are considering Ritalin or whose child is already taking it cognitive skills training may offer a more natural approach to learning disabilities. Just be aware of the benefits of the therapy: improved attention, higher grades, better performance, increased self-esteem, and perhaps most important a new love for learning!

Wendy Burt-Thomas is a full-time freelance writer with more than 1,000 published pieces. Her third book, "The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters" (landing articles, agents and book deals) and often writes for LearningRx, the brain-training company, with learning centers all over the United States.
You can find out more about Ms. Burt Thomas at her web site: or by contacting her at: .

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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