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Research Scene

Identifying ADHD Risk

Dr. Derek Montgomery, professor and chair of the psychology department, hopes his research will prove to be effective in identifying younger children at risk for later attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses, a step that would ultimately help them as they enter the classroom. Symptoms of the disorder in children include overactivity and difficulty staying focused and controlling behavior.

“I have always wondered why a subset of children have difficulty with our tests. When they walk into a room, I see no obvious differences,” Montgomery said. “I think the roots of later problems children have in school may lie in those subtle task difficulties some kids experience.”

Montgomery’s research involves administering a day-and-night task in which the children are asked to say the opposite of what they see when shown pictures of stars and the sun.

“This tests their inhibition and self-control,” he said. “The children have to stop themselves from saying what they would typically say. Inhibition is a key issue for children with ADHD.”

He added, “One of the strongest predictors of ADHD is response variability. When we administer a task to children, we notice that every now and then, some children have a rather long lapse between a stimulus and the response. These slow responses reflect inattention. Nobody has closely studied the relevance of these subtle, periodic lapses in younger children before.”

Children who showed variable response times also did poorly on the day-and-night task. “This connection is meaningful,” he explained. “It could be response variability is an objective way to determine if a child is at risk for inhibition problems and ADHD. The younger the child, the easier it is to intervene. If we can identify children at risk at an earlier age, it is much easier to help train them than when they are 12 or 15.”

Montgomery said training methods are already in place for young children: “Many innovative preschool programs suggest ways to help children learn strategies to pay attention and learn self-control. These programs are time-consuming and expensive, so it makes sense to identify children who are at risk and make sure they are included in them.”

The next step in his research will be to determine if there is a link between children with highly variable responses and behavior problems during the preschool years. “This link has been studied with older children, but nobody has looked at younger children,” Montgomery noted. “Researchers are starting to develop exciting new ways to objectively assess individual differences in younger children’s attention and control. Our research contributes to these efforts.” 

— Nancy Ridgeway, contributing writer