She started walking at 11 months and recited the alphabet at 1. But it wasn’t until Lauren Michelle Chao was 4 that her parents found out she had a learning disability.
“At school, they were concerned about her behavior — she was very active,” said Wendy Chao, Lauren’s mother. “She was a good kid; it was just very hard for her to sit down.”
After visiting a neurologist and a psychologist, Lauren was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. She was prescribed four medications and experienced various side effects, including hallucinations and aggressiveness. She was 4.
“The trauma comes for the parents when you have to think about the possibility of medicating your little child,” Wendy Chao said. “We learned that there are different medications, and dosage depends on the person’s body.”
As Wendy and her husband, Peter, educated themselves about ADHD, they received recommendations to the Summer Treatment Program, which is hosted by Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families.
“It was so ironic,” Chao said. “I’d heard about the program through a friend and an art camp Lauren attended, and finally decided to reach out.”
The Summer Treatment Program, which ends Aug. 12, helps children ages 4-12 with behavioral, emotional and learning challenges by focusing on problem-solving strategies, academics and behavioral treatments instead of medication. The program is broken down into several sub-programs: ADHD and behavioral issues program for ages 5 to 12 and pre-kindergarten; Healthy Lifestyle Intervention Program, for ages 4 to 6; and Autism in Rising Kindergartners.
“They learn how to control themselves and how to work with their emotions,” Chao said. “A pill is not going to be the cure to this, the child must learn self-control — that’s how the program works.”
The nationally recognized program was founded by William E. Pelham Jr., a clinical psychologist and director of FIU’s Center for Children and Families.
“We saw that children with ADHD had problems with peer relationships,” Pelham said. “If you have problems with peer relationships, then you are at risk for a whole lot of other problems when you get older.”
Pelham did some studies to see how he could intervene with this problem. One of them included a summer camp.
“We did the summer camp to conduct a study on ADHD, and it ended up being a great idea,” Pelham said.
The program has been recognized as a model program by the American Psychological Association and CHADD, an organization that supports children and adults with ADHD, and is funded in part by The Children’s Trust. Fees and payment plans vary per family based on income.
Since its start in 1980 at Florida State University, the Summer Treatment Program is available worldwide in places like Harvard University, the Cleveland Clinic, University of Kansas Medical Center, Japan, Chicago and Nashville.
The program came to FIU in 2010.
“We go out and train people, or they come here and get training,” said Erika Coles, clinical director of FIU’s Center for Children and Families. “We would like people to learn how to do exactly what we do because we can’t do everything.”
The program uses strategies like a daily report card and a point system to track each student’s progress.
“Throughout the day, students can gain points for good behavior in the classroom, and for following the rules,” Coles said.
Some of the rules are being respectful to others, raising a hand before speaking, and staying seated during class time. At the end of each week, students can cash in their points at the Points Store on campus.
“I had 8,000 points last week and got Shopkins,” Lauren said. “I learn a lot of things and it’s a lot of fun when I’m here.”
But children aren’t the only ones who receive help.
Parents are also included in their child’s treatment through weekly parent-training sessions that focus on simple systems to improve a child’s behavior at home.
“There are individualized goals and strategies that can be used between school and home,” Pelham said. “Parents are provided with a menu of things they can give as rewards.”
One thing Pelham suggested was to incentivize TV time and think of ways the child can earn it.
Wendy and Peter Chao began to see Lauren’s improvement in school after she attended camp last year.
“Before camp, Lauren was not able to complete tasks, even though she knew how, and her self-esteem was low,” Wendy said. “Now, she has high test scores and high self-esteem.”
Lauren is now preparing for third grade at Renaissance Elementary Charter School in Doral.
The Summer Treatment Program also hosts Saturday sessions during the school year to continue working with both the parent and child.
Pelham and Coles said there are many false treatment recommendations for ADHD that can cost thousands, including horse therapy, swimming with dolphins, brain scans and cognitive centers, but the only solution for improvement is a combination of behavioral modification and a stimulant medication.
To learn more about ADHD, visit FIU’s Center for Children and Families website at http://ccf.fiu.edu, or call 305-348-0477.