Shifting and Sustaining Focus for Kids

Sustaining focus

Focus Isn't The Full Story

If you say, “ADHD” to most people, they'll immediately think “lack of focus.” This kid can't pay attention. His mind wanders; he's easily distracted. Lack of attention is a sign and symptom of ADHD, but it's only part of the story. Dr. Kathleen Nadeau, psychologist and author, says, “A better way to look at it is that people with ADD [now ADHD] have a deregulated attention span.” What does this mean for kids – and their parents? How can implementing systems and structures help regulate attention spans? And while we're asking questions, is there a way to make homework and bedtime easier?

What's happening with kids who have ADHD? Their brains are wired differently. It's not a matter of willpower or of needing to “just pay attention, for goodness sake!” The executive functions are a set of processes that involve self-regulation and organization, and when you have ADHD, they do not operate normally. These deficits often affect focus. How?

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Difficulty Shifting Focus

Have you ever wondered why your child can't do a quick one-page math worksheet but he can spend 3 hours playing Minecraft? There are a few reasons for this: one, Minecraft is way more fun! And two, it is difficult for ADHD kids to break their focus and shift it to another area.

Dr. Russell Barkley, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, explains, “If they're doing something they enjoy or find psychologically rewarding, they'll tend to persist in this behavior after others would normally move on to other things. The brains of people with ADHD are drawn to activities that give instant feedback.”* That old math worksheet ain't doin' it.

The challenge is: How do I get my kids to bed at night when they're so excited about this game? How do I get my child to stop playing so he can do his chores?

One structure that we can put in place is a transition tool. So, 10 minutes before bed, tell your child, “You have 10 minutes before bed. It's time to wrap up. Five minutes before bed, you reiterate that bedtimes a-coming. “You have five minutes before bed. Time to wrap up.” And again at one minute. “You have one minute left.” You are easing the transition, and you have a system in place to support them.

Often, parents feel, “My kid is old enough that I shouldn't have to remind her constantly that it's time for bed.” I distinctly recall calling up the stairs in the mornings, “It's 7:00.” Then 7:05, 7:10…. The reality is that our kids are 3-5 years behind their peers developmentally. They need for us to act as their executive functions until they can develop the skills and wherewithal to do it for themselves.

When your kid has ADHD, his executive function develops more slowly, and he is not able to recognize “simple” things, like how much time it will take to pick up or how much time has passed. He needs structures and systems to help orient himself and direct his focus.

Difficulty Sustaining Focus

Shifting our focus to sustaining focus. This is another area of challenge for ADHD kids and their parents. Say your child is working on a homework assignment, and it takes a long time. It becomes difficult to keep going. He gets distracted. His brain is bored – it isn't getting that instant feedback or stimulation – so it becomes easier to focus on something, anything, other than his homework. Suddenly, the pencil is fascinating and he taps it on the table. Or a bird outside is interesting, and he concocts a mental adventure. Homework is forgotten.

What type of structure can you put into place to help your child focus more on his work or chores and less on everything else? One example is an alarm on a phone or watch. Every 10 minutes, it vibrates. This triggers your kid to ask, “Am I still on task? Am I doing what I need to be doing?” The goal of the alarm is to increase consciousness of where your child is and whether he is focusing on what he should be.

Another easy system is to simply take a break every 15 minutes or so. He can run, do jumping jacks, or watch a quick video on YouTube before he hits the books again. This relieves boredom, and brain fatigue, and makes it easier to concentrate.

The good news for parents is that there are systems and structures that we can put into place to ensure our children maintain focus in appropriate, healthy, and effective ways. Whether it's homework or Minecraft, we can help make these areas of challenge more manageable.

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