HARVARD — As the mother of two sons who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Donna Shea has spent years looking for resources to help her children thrive in school as well as social situations.
Frustrated, she found herself continuing to look for support throughout their childhoods, and vowed that someday she would make it easier on other parents in similar situations.
When her children were adolescents, Shea enrolled at Lesley University. She graduated in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science.
During her last semester, she researched ADHD children for her thesis and was having trouble coming up with a title for the paper.
On advice from a professor, Shea read J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and she saw many similarities between the impulsivity and mischievousness of Pan and his Lost Boys, and the children she had seen with ADHD. Inspired by the literary work, her thesis, “Mothering Peter Pan,” came to life.
At the time, Shea was an office manager for a local therapy practice. She was familiar with many moms who volunteered to become part of a mothers’ focus and support group for the parents of children with ADHD.
“The program gave mothers a safe place to talk about the issues they faced and the ability to know that they were not alone,” said Shea.
During those meetings, she found that many mothers wanted to bring their children to a playgroup, but because of their children’s “behavior,” they didn’t feel welcome at typical playgroups.
Understanding the needs of the families she was working with, Shea started a playgroup that emphasized social skills to help the children acquire the tools needed to thrive in social settings. Due to a space crunch at the therapy practice, Shea started to search for a place of her own.
“When I stepped into a location in Groton, instantly I envisioned The Peter Pan Center,” she said. “In my mind, I saw a family resource center that could help families of children with challenges succeed.”
After a few years, Shea found that she was outgrowing the Groton location, so The Peter Pan Center moved to its current location on Ayer Road. In her new space, Shea is able to offer more to the network of families that she strives to assist.
An area of interest she finds more prevalent in her work is how anxiety manifests itself in children.
“Anxiety in kids looks like misbehaving,” said Shea. “Unfortunately, I am seeing a growing number of children who are anxious and who act that feeling out in different ways.”
Some children will start acting out and have difficulty transitioning into school, she said, and sometimes that can be because they’re worried about school — maybe they have a test or are experiencing difficulty with a playmate or they feel as though they are “in trouble” all the time.
“When children misbehave, we should first ask them if they are worried or if something is feeling scary to them,” said Shea. “It makes me sad to see children with ‘worrying brains’ (or attentional issues) being disciplined for behavior rather than addressing the anxiety or why the child is crying for attention.
“Sometimes it can be because of a divorce, or a parent is away on business, or they have a test coming up in school,” she said. “Behavior is the language of children, and we as caregivers have to be able to have the tools to decipher what that language means and what this particular child is trying to tell us.”
The Peter Pan Center, which began as support for families with ADHD children, now offers individual and family behavioral consultations, parent education and support programs, social skills playgroups, sibling support and workshops, anger management workshops for children, classroom observations, educational therapy, ADD and social skills coaching, and tutoring services. The center’s clientele includes children with attentional issues, autistic spectrum disorders, and children who don’t have a diagnosis, but need support.
In addition, Shea develops and delivers speeches and workshops, works on professional development programming, and is passionate about the great referral and resource service she provides.
“If parents call with questions, I am always ready to help or send them to someone who can provide appropriate services for them,” she said. “I want to be here for parents so they don’t have to go through what I did when my children were young.”
For information about the center, which is partially sponsored by www.glopad.com, call Donna Shea at (978) 772-1255 or visit www.peterpancenter.homestead.com.