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ADHD and After-School Activities: Finding the Right Fit

ADHD can be a challenge but it needn't sideline kids from after-school activities.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Getting through the school day can be a struggle for kids with ADHD -- but after-school activities don't have to be. Given the right activity and adequate support, kids with ADHD can shine.

Consider Olympic champion Michael Phelps. ADHD made it nearly impossible for him to sit still in the classroom or grasp abstract concepts on the athletic field, but in the pool he displays extraordinary focus and drive. While not every kid with ADHD can become the next "phenom" swimmer, he or she can learn to feel like winners outside the classroom. Here's how.

"Know your kid," says Carol Watkins, MD, child psychiatrist and spokeswoman for CHADD (Children and Adults With Attention Deficit Disorder). "Children with ADHD are really quite varied. Some are hyperactive, and need to get the energy out. Some are more inattentive, and that's not what they need. Others have social skills issues. And some are really impulsive," she tells WebMD.

Activities to Pursue

While there's no single activity that guarantees kids with ADHD instant success, certain types of activities tend to reap more positive results. Here's what the experts suggest.

Seek activities that offer individualized instruction. Examples include diving, wrestling, tennis, and martial arts. "Most kids learn by watching kids around them, but many kids with ADHD don't learn as well by being thrown into the mix," says E. Mark Mahone, PhD, research scientist at Kennedy Krieger Institute and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. Rather, these kids tend to benefit from one-on-one instruction.

Consider activities that involve movement. Swimming and running top this list. "Kids with ADHD, especially boys, tend to show a preference for activities that involve a lot of movement, and intolerance for things that involve sitting around. They really benefit from physical exertion," Mahone says. But psychiatrist Steven Kurtz, PhD, warns that benefit cannot be considered a replacement for treatment. "There's no evidence that 'getting that energy out' will carry over into self-control," Kurtz, clinical coordinator of ADHD Institute for New York University's Child Study Center, tells WebMD.

Look for activities with a singular focus. Examples include archery, swimming, and running. Focusing on fewer things makes it easier for kids who struggle with hyperactivity and inattention to concentrate.

Try highly structured activities that promote self-control. Experts consistently cite martial arts as an excellent activity for children with ADHD because it develops increasing levels of physical control through practice and self-discipline. "Kids tend to do very well in this setting. And a well-run program holds kids accountable for how they use these self-defense skills," Kurtz says.

Explore activities that result in tangible rewards. Gardening and service-oriented activities can fulfill these goals. Watkins explains. "In gardening, you go out and you hit the dirt. It's very physical and you actually get a result from it," she says. The same holds true for service-oriented activities. "Getting kids involved in service activities can help build self-esteem. Helping others makes kids feel good," Watkins tells WebMD.

Activities to Approach With Caution

Just as the "right" after-school activities can help build self-esteem, instill self-control, and provide a sense of calm in children with ADHD, the "wrong" ones can do just the opposite. And while every child with ADHD will respond differently, certain activities are likely to present greater challenges than others. But that's not to say they need to be ruled out entirely.

"Activities that are very difficult for some kids with ADHD might prove to be less difficult for others," Mahone tells WebMD. "It depends on their support system, age, level of ability, and the severity of the ADHD." With this in mind, experts recommend that parents exercise prudence before introducing their kids to the following types of activities.

Activities that involve a lot of down time (Mahone cites baseball as a prime example) -- especially when kids are in a position that doesn't afford much action. "If you watch kids with ADHD on the playing field, they're often the ones doing other things, like cartwheels or picking at the grass, or distracting other kids," Mahone says. Kurtz agrees. "Down time is bad time for these kids," he says.