Many parents question whether their children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. After all, wandering thoughts and excess energy are pretty common in childhood.

Complicating matters, ADHD can look like many other diagnoses, including oppositional defiant disorder, learning disorders, even grief or loss.

In reality, though, only about one child in every classroom actually has ADHD. Many more are simply “spirited children.”

According to author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka of Raising Your Spirited Child, the primary difference is not so much the amount of energy or activity but rather the focus of that action. A six-year-old who wiggles and jumps in a chair while completing a worksheet is a child naturally inclined toward physical activity. The child who pings around the room and never completes the worksheet is a child with ADHD.

Kurcinka notes that spirited children may be described as “more” — more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive. They can be challenging to parent, until you realize these characteristics can be strengths. Recognizing your child as lively, creative, keen, eager and energetic pulls your focus toward the positive.

If your child never completes the worksheet, however, schedule a full physical with his/her doctor to rule out any medical issues. Then a therapist can assess your child and refer to a psychiatrist or psychologist for a full evaluation.

Children who are diagnosed with ADHD aren’t necessarily treated with medication, though commonly used medications can be effective. Many cope successfully using therapy and working closely with teachers and schools.

For more information on parenting children with ADHD, read Taking Charge of ADHD by Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D.