ABCs of Behavior: Better Health is the Foundation

Here’s something obvious: healthy children are more ready to learn. Health issues are considered to be outside of the classroom, but affeslide_368090_4214468_freect the child on every school day. So let’s state the obvious: health matters. Professionals draw a line around the professional sphere; health is the family’s business. Parents can set their children up for optimal learning with steps that are sometimes easy, sometimes obvious, and sometimes a lifelong quest. This series of blog posts will address common behavioral and medical issues and opens with roles of parents and professionals.

Grace: I’ve always been thankful my son’s life was never in danger from a medical condition. Parents worry about their kids. Pediatricians do what they can do, and generally tell parents not to worry. All healthy children are affected to varying degrees by these medically-related issues: digestion, sleep, anxiety, physical fitness, ear infections, and sinusitis. My son’s early childhood illnesses issues were the more minor types that affect many children: allergic, intestinal, urinary, sleep, and ear problems. Currently I’m helping some very young, medically unstable children who may or may not live to adolescence, and thankful for my son’s set of less severe problems.

Improvement: Medically, my son appeared to be stable his whole life. That appearance was false. Today he’s healthier than ever before. Here’s the kicker: his behavior is better now, too. It’s no coincidence. I’m here to tell you: if your child has even “minor” health issues, your child’s health and behavior can improve.

ABCs of Behavior: Health affects behavior. I’m not saying you should excuse all behavior as medical. I don’t even believe that judging behavior is productive. (See posts on ABCs of Behavior, e.g., naughty Maybe you remember holding an infant. Crying could mean: dirty, wet, hungry, thirsty, tired, or burp. Fast forward to a child who’s age 9 with head pain from sinusitis, or is age 4 with an ear ache. You probably won’t get tears, but you may see poor attention, crankiness, and reduced performance at school. If your child “has an attitude problem,” “can’t focus,” “acts out,” or “makes trouble,” the teacher may assume it’s “temperament.” But until you have ruled out medical causes, you can’t assume temperament, and you might not be able to change the behavior much until the medical cause is managed.

Many short term or mild, chronic medical issues can hide inside a child who doesn’t recognize the problems and can’t communicate effectively about them. Here’s the upside. When you find hidden causes of problem behavior in a child, whether they’re medical or not, you will soon know what to do! If the issues are medical, you may find relatively cheap lifestyle changes will work best. Your family’s life can improve dramatically when your child is healthier. That has been my personal experience.

doctor momParent Advocate for Health: My credentials for this topic are not medical, although I’ve been around medical issues for most of my professional life. I’m just a mother of a child with developmental and medical challenges, and worked hard to identify the medical and other causes for my child’s behaviors. What I and other parents of children with autism have learned already can guide parents of typical children experiencing typical, “minor” health issues – sleep, intestinal, skin, urinary, ear, or nasal – or other challenges, such as hyperactivity.

The author, with closed eyes, and cheering baby in cot

A parent is a child’s best health advocate. The doctor can’t take on this role for you. Professionals don’t have the single-mindedness and motivation that a parent does, and doctors are limited by their work environment. Parents are motivated but limited by  … other things …

Extreme Parenting: The story of Lorenzo Odone’s survival and partial recovery from a fatal Lorenzo's_Oildisease (Lorenzo’s Oil, 1992) inspired many parents. If you see changes in your child from day to day or minute to minute, you can collect the information (See “Observing Behavior Using A-B-C Data,” at and this blog’s archives.) You could find patterns that might take lengthy or painful procedures for a doctor to find, if there is even a test for it yet.

Minor medical problems can have major behavioral effects.

child with gastroenteritis

child with gastroenteritis

Medical Detective: What your child’s doctor or teacher may dismiss as behavior problems – spaciness, distractibility, lack of interest, poor compliance, being withdrawn, or irritability – may have medical causes. This photo is supposed to depict a serious medical condition, but I don’t think this young boy could even say “gastroenteritis.”

My experience has been that doctors often miss the point with children. Doctors know what they know, whether it’s their one imagesspecialty, or pediatricians, who are generalists and cannot know about every specialty. Each physician follows their own protocol on testing, prescribing, operating, dismissing, or referring patients out.

Misdiagnoses: Teachers and psychologists decided my son’s wetting problem was behavioral, when it appeared to me to be urinary, but it had in fact always been gastrointestinal. That’s what we learned after several behaviorists, several physicians, a neurologist, and three pediatric urologists, the last of whom got it right, when he was already age 16! A skin test showed an allergy that the allergist who performed the test said wasn’t possible – a corn allergy. Believe me, it was possible, and helping him through that allergy was life changing for us as a family, but worth it. (Allergies will be in a future blogpost.)

Lifestyle Changes: Many therapies for chronic health problems are free or low cost (such as, exercise, dietary changes, and air filters). The best advice my son ever got (at age 7) was from a pediatric gastroenterologist: Eat more vegetables and dietary fiber. He listened and took her advice to heart. Lifestyle advice is hard for doctors to give. Doctors themselves have a hard time living a healthy lifestyle, so they may put little faith in lifestyle changes, even when the evidence is clear. My son has received some drugs – including from one of those pediatric urologists – that made him worse. The miracle medicine that has mostly fixed his lifetime health issue costs $30 a month over the counter, and he doesn’t even need it all the time now. He changed his lifestyle!

Afraid to Cast a Stone: Prevention is often free, but some parents don’t know how to make changes. Maybe you don’t eat your greens because you don’t know appealing ways to prepare them. Someone could Fedex you warm fresh beetroot greens, but you can get the recipe for free online.

Advertising?: Make a note to yourself: “No one sells or advertises free solutions!

No one earns money, for example, when your child gets… more sleep. Mayslide_368090_4214462_freebe sleep is your child’s issue, but you’re not meeting the guidelines yourself (7-8 hours a day), so how’s your child going to (school age recommended minimum of 10 hours a day)? (See an upcoming blogpost dedicated to parents whose children have irregular sleep patterns.)

Dig for the Truth: If you follow through and root out seemingly minor medical problems for your child, and see benefits from it, please share. I love success stories. We all prefer sharing success stories to cautionary tales. However, I cannot in all conscience give you future posts on what to look for to help your child without warning you about fakes, delusional practitioners, and your bank account.

Caveat Emptor: Pseudo-science and pseudo-medicine have cost me and some friends money and taken years of our lives. Because I’m a single mother and widow, charlatans have at times swindled me in my determination to “fix” my child’s autism and apraxia. Friends have given lots of money to vitamin specialists, naturopaths, or physicians who’d devised a new “method”; or to licensed and unlicensed chemists, consultants, and therapists of all kinds. I773157202247829319 know the results and lack thereof that the children have had over the long term. Some of the fakers have real credentials but are motivated by greed; others delude themselves that their unique method is “saving children.” (Watch for future posts on warning signs of fakery.)

Be vigilant. However, don’t dismiss an approach immediately because it’s outside of the mainstream. Remember: “No one advertises free solutions.”  That means, too, that “No one does research into a method that is free or cheap!” If you consider something unorthodox, however, “Watch out for safety. Because a method is free or cheap, you might forget to check whether it may be dangerous. Health food stores have even less control than Toyota over safety of what they sell, so there’s no guarantee. We have heard that story lately.

End note: That’s not exactly true; some research gets conducted on methods that are free or cheap, or outside of the mainstream I”complementary and alternative medicine,” a term for whatever is not standard medicine).

The ideal in medical practice is Evidence-Based Practice (EBP). There are standards for judging the quality of medical research and presumed reliability of the results. The Cochrane Collaboration rates and compares levels of evidence on some Complementary and Alternative Medicine (as referenced in the Final Report of White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy (March 2002,

Few reports in “Cochrane Collection,” however, draw firm conclusions about low-cost or alternative medicines. One study compared low-cost treatments for sinusitis in children, and came to no conclusion. At least one group is asking the question! (See

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