Physical focus

A McGill institute's new approach to ADHD childcare and teaching

Children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are continually being removed from classrooms every day. Teachers use much of their energy to overcome the challenges of educating children with behavioural problems. While positive teaching methods may be abundant in pedagogical literature, it may seem that often learning for many children becomes reduced to whatever posters hang drearily on the principal’s office wall.

The service-learning team at the Choices in Health, Action, Motivation, Pedagogy, and Skill (CHAMPS) lab of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute argue that these lost opportunities for learning are too costly. ADHD affects between 2 to 14 per cent of school-aged children, with 50 per cent experiencing difficulties in academic achievement.

Under the direction of William Harvey, the CHAMPS lab aims to increase self-control in young children with ADHD by using a more positive teaching approach to behaviour management. On Saturday mornings, a group of 8 to 10 children between 6 to 12 years old gather at the Douglas for two hours of physical activity led by student teachers from McGill’s department of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

Meanwhile, their parents take part in psychoeducation sessions with a Douglas social worker and psychiatric nurse. Parents acquire the necessary tools to effectively communicate and aid their child in coping with ADHD, such as learning how to use language understandable by both parent and child, or “mutual language.”

Harvey, an assistant professor of Kinesiology and Physical education, and formerly a Douglas physical educator and department head, has been enthusiastic about the program results. “There are so many levels of learning in our project. Children are learning how to play, parents learning how to play and communicate better with their child, and student teachers are bringing positive behaviour management techniques into the schools of Montreal.”

Approximately two years before the start of the program, Harvey’s lab found a significant link between the fundamental movement skills of children with ADHD versus those without ADHD. Children with ADHD had been found to have a significantly lower proficiency for movement skill patterns like running, hopping, skipping, catching, and kicking, in contrast to age- and gender-matched peers without the disorder.

What ensued was the impetus to redefine a physical activity intervention method for children with ADHD. In 2003, Harvey had created a social skills training model to teach behavioural control in physical activity, utilizing the unique benefit of mutual language to develop and hone these skills. At the Douglas sessions, student teachers reinforce language based on the model’s rules, which state that if you are “responsible” and “respectful,” meaning you are in “self-control”. If you are in self-control, then you can “participate.” Defining these terms is the key element of the model. To quote a ten-year-old participating in the program, respect means “don’t give anyone any lip.”

Joey Feith, one of Harvey’s former student teachers, put the model into action when he taught at École Secondaire de Chambly, south-east of Montreal: “I always try to include the model in my teaching, it really makes a difference when classes get a bit out of control, and they can actually tell me what behaviours they need to exhibit to be able to participate.” Feith added, “one thing I realized while teaching in the program is that these little kids are going through a lot in their lives, and when a child comes into your gym, you’re only seeing one side of them. I always think of this when I am teaching, it’s helped me always remember that you’re really only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

Service-learning programs, such as this one, can be helpful for the numerous children with ADHD in schools, their families and professional educators in the field. For teachers like Harvey and Feith, the gains in self-control can be translated back to school and home. Enacting positive behaviour management methods can help a child remain in the classroom, and avoid those robbed learning opportunities while sitting in the principal’s office.

The CHAMPS lab is seeking volunteers for various annual programs.  To get involved, contact William Harvey at