Hope for parents of hyperactive preschoolers

University of Otago psychology researcher Dr Dione Healey plays a game with Caydence Lane (3), the well-behaved daughter of a fellow psychology department staff member. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
University of Otago psychology researcher Dr Dione Healey plays a game with Caydence Lane (3), the well-behaved daughter of a fellow psychology department staff member. Photo by Gregor Richardson.

Parents of out-of-control preschoolers could be in for some relief if a behavioural programme developed by a University of Otago researcher proves successful.

Psychology researcher Dr Dione Healey has been developing a programme for hyperactive preschoolers since 2008 and is now running a trial involving 3 and 4-year-olds with poor self-control.

Dr Healey's research was partly as a response to findings from the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, which found poor self-control at age 3 was associated with negative outcomes in adulthood, including poorer physical and mental health and criminality.

It was hoped the new programme, apart from making life easier for exhausted parents, could help change that trajectory and improve a child's chances later in life.

The trial would test Otago University's cognitive development programme against the ''gold standard'' established programme.

What made the Otago programme different from other programmes or treatment with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs was that it was focused on long-term improvement through teaching children skills to control their own behaviour.

''Behaviour modification has been around for 50 years and we know it works and it's really good, but the main limitation with it ... is that it doesn't seem to work long term.''

''Typically, what you find is that as soon as you stop doing it, all their problem behaviours come back, so they are not actually learning the skill themselves.''

Part of the focus was also about making life easier for weary parents, of whom Dr Healey had seen many in the course of her research.

''They are often struggling with a difficult child and all the feedback they get from others and they feel not well supported and like they are a failure as a parent.''

Whereas friends and family might say a child ''just needs some discipline'' or parents were being ''too soft'', research showed ADHD was not caused by bad parenting and was instead an internal lack of self-control.

Dr Healey is still looking for more parents of 3 and 4-year-olds with poor self-control to take part in her study and those interested can get in touch by emailing engage@psy.otago.ac.nz

Caydence Lane is not part of the study.

- vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz