ABC's are the building blocks for learning, but ADHD is a road-block. It stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a fancy term for a chemical imbalance that affects attention. Dr. Karen Tyson explains: "It is primarily in the brain and it does affect behavior, which then also affects learning."
How big a problem is ADHD in Hawaii? Currently 6 percent of school children are diagnosed with ADHD, and there are three textbook types.
1) Hyperactive impulsive. Dr. Tyson says that "These are the little ones that have more trouble with the bouncing, the regulation."
2) Inattentive, formerly known as ADD. According to Dr. Tyson, "These are the kids that have difficulty focusing; they drift off."
3) Combination. The last is a hybrid of the two we'll call 'disrupters' and 'dreamers.'
Boys are between 3 and 4 times more likely to be diagnosed, because they tend to be the 'disrupters.' Girls are typically the 'dreamers.'
Dr. Tyson didn't realize her own daughter had ADHD for years. Her daughter, Stephanie Dobbs, says that "Paying attention in lecture is a big challenge for me. I just get bored I start thinking about 'Oh what am I going to do after class. Oh, I wonder what's going to happen in my next class.'"
Stephanie chooses not to use her prescribed Ritalin. Her phone is her lifeline. As she puts it, "You've got to put reminders on your phone. Leave check marks on your wrist to remind yourself."
Dr. Tyson helps hundreds of patients every year learn tricks, like playing with fidgets to cope with their learning disability, at the LD, ADHD Center of Hawaii.
9-year-old Keenin McCulloch was diagnosed two years ago. He told us, "I have melatonin to help me go to sleep, and this other medicine that's really gross. I forgot what it's called. It's supposed to help me focus."
Keenin's mom, Emaley, is a Behavioral Analyst. She tried behavior modification with some success, and gave her son stimulants reluctantly.
But seeing was believing. Emaley explains: "The teachers the first day said, 'What did you do?' There's something different and we couldn't ignore that."
Stimulants help 'wake up' the part of your brain that manages attention, but there are known side effects. Just ask Keenin.
"My old medicine did weird things to me," he said. "I would just see things and hear stuff."
The number of ADHD prescriptions shot up 39 percent from 2007 to 2011, growing from 34 to 48 million. So how do you know if your child has it?
"There's no one standard test that just says 'slam dunk,' here it is" says Tyson. "You can't take a blood test for ADHD."
There are tests that measure different type of attention: visual, audio, competing, and distractability. But the big test, according to Dr. Tyson? "This has to impede day to day functioning and academic functioning and social functioning."
Skeptics are quick to point out... "What child doesn't have a short attention span?"
Keenin's dad Doug explains his frustration with skeptics: "Often they'll just say 'Kids are kids right,'" says Doug. "My Dad's medication for ADHD was the back of his hand. There's jokes and wise cracks but they're usually people who don't have it."
Like father, like son, Doug McCulloch struggled in school his entire life. As he puts it, "I just thought I was either stupid or there was something wrong with me."
Doug actually learned he had ADHD when his son was diagnosed. His son Keenin is now on different medications at a new school.
'Assets' nurtures children with learning disabilities, utilizing small class sizes and a creative curriculum.
According to Assets School Director Paul Singer, "If a child really can be helped improved with med, in my mind, it's like refusing to give a child an antibiotic who has a strep infection."
In Singer's day, there was no such thing as ADHD. He was just known as the "bad kid," and because of that, he says, "I acquired deep rooted fears of inferiority and rebelliousness and by middle school, I was probably a teacher's worst nightmare."
Boston Red Sox All Star Shane Victorino is the face of the national "Own Your ADHD" campaign. He says, " I just couldn't focus. I was always interrupting my teammates."
There's no one size fits all treatment. Some can manage with tricks, like fidgets and phones. Others use meds daily, or to focus for certain tasks.
For anyone with ADHD, it's a constant struggle to find the right balance.
ADHD drugs are known by a different name on college campuses, study steroids. Coming up Monday on Hawaii News Now at 10, hear how students are using these meds to get ahead.