Tips for Bringing Out the Best in a High-Energy Child

Tips for Bringing Out the Best in a High-Energy Child


What do you do with a kid who just won’t sit still? Give him a good scolding (which he probably won’t sit still for either)? Pump him full of ADHD drugs?

Or adjust your expectations to fit his inclinations?

Understand, I’m not advocating the laissez-faire approach that shrugs and says, “I wouldn’t want to restrict his creativity,” while a child balances on the edge of a high shelf, sending fifteen-pound items toppling seven feet to the floor. I do believe it’s unreasonable to expect any child to be quiet and still for periods that would leave most adults squirming—especially without being allowed any active contribution. And especially when the child is a natural “high-energy” type.

How to Recognize a High-Energy Child

High-energy children have suffered discrimination since the younger segment of the population left the farm for the schoolhouse. In the old days, adult authority answered restlessness with the wooden paddle, and later the detention room. Around 1990, the preferred response became the Ritalin bottle—which, while showing a little more empathy for the child’s struggles, still was used indiscriminately (often with unpleasant side effects) under the assumption that all children should be quiet and “well-behaved.”

Fortunately, methods for diagnosing and treating true attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder have become more individual-specific. But the high-energy child with no real disorder still suffers under adult attitudes that say “good” kids know how to sit still and shut up.

What indicates healthy high-energy inclinations?

  • Knowing what one wants and how one intends to get it (labeled “willfulness” by adults who think they know what’s best for kids)
  • A preference for active goals, combined with ability to meet them
  • Quick loss of interest in such passive activities as classroom lectures and television
  • Preference for recreational activities that involve physical exercise

Making the Most of High Energy

Assuming your child has been found ADHD-free, how do you encourage her to use high-energy inclinations productively, for constructive ends?

  • Always listen to, and try to understand, the child’s perspective—especially when she seems most annoying and constantly underfoot.
  • Help her get involved in sports teams and other programs that mix high-energy activity with structure. Play active games at home, too.
  • Besides limiting servings of sugar-heavy foods (especially caffeinated colas and chocolates, and especially in the evening), avoid providing these when a child is fatigued or grumpy—his brain chemicals will be in no mood for quick bursts of “rev-it-up” input. (This is good advice at any natural energy level.)
  • If your child frequently clashes with a sit-still-minded teacher, you may have to decide whether to advocate for change, switch classes, or help your child make a plan for living with the situation. (One good thing about school is that typical “situations” end on their own within months.) Before making this decision, get input from a non-school advisor and from your child.
  • If you’re a teacher, make sure your students have frequent opportunities to contribute personally and to get up and move around. (Even the lower-energy kids will love you for that one.)
  • Appreciate the long-term potential of a child who knows how to make things happen and get things done.