ADHD warning sign

ADHD is being diagnosed more and more frequently in our youth today. But despite the fact that most parents are well aware of the fact that almost 5% of children are afflicted with the condition, very few are aware of the early warning signs and what to do if they see them. So the purpose of this article is to give parents and caregivers proper information on ADHD behaviors of very young children (less than 3 years) and suggests referral guidelines along with intervention strategies.

ADHD Symptoms in Preschoolers and Toddlers

As is the case with both older children and young adults, diagnosing young children with ADHD can be difficult, as it is commonly associated with other conditions such as anxiety, learning disorders, and depression. However with that in mind, the following table presents several early warning signs of possible ADHD:

Early warning signs of ADHD
  • Acts before thinking
  • Changes activities frequently
  • Has a short attention span
  • Fails to focus and follow directions
  • Distracts easily
  • Has difficulty staying on task

Having a list of warning signs is well and good, but almost every child and youth will display at least one of these traits at one point or another in their lifetime. Therefore to understand whether or not it could be a true sign of a future diagnosis, one needs to look at the time, situation, and circumstances of each behavior. Table 2 indicates when the warning signs warrant a referral to a professional, and when they should just be observed and waited upon.

Refer behavior when… Wait and watch when behavior…
  • has been observed for at least 6 months
  • is a problem in several settings
  • occurs during independent and group activities
  • cannot be explained by other circumstances or disabilities
  • interferes with learning
  • affects peer relationships and social development
  • is inappropriate despite clear, consistent age-appropriate expectations
  • appears out of the child’s control
  • is recent and inconsistent
  • appears at a single place or time
  • occurs primarily during group times when prolonged sitting is required
  • could be the result of recent life events
  • indicates child is acquiring skills
  • demonstrates appropriate friendships and interactions
  • varies in the presence of different adults in the child’s life
  • appears purposeful or attention-getting

It is critical to be aware of and recognize reliable indicators of future ADHD diagnosis your child might be exhibiting in their behavior and interactions. By failing to take notice, or taking notice but not action, problems and undesirable behaviors become learned. It is important to recognize early that a problem exists so that problem behaviors are not adopted and that appropriate treatments, interventions, and dietary changes can take place.

If your young child exhibits any of the behaviors that call for a referral in the tables above, don’t hesitate to take the recommended action and ask a doctor about precautionary measures you can take.



Fewell, R., & Deutscher, B. (2002). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in very young children: Early signs and interventions. Infants & Young Children,14(3), 24-32. Retrieved from


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