He was a "dream baby," his mother says with pride. Little Jeff was happy, affectionate, well behaved, and easygoing. He loved to play games and learn new things. As he grew, however, his parents noticed that he had more difficulty paying attention than other children his age.
Jeff was not good at listening when spoken to, which made it necessary to repeat directions or requests numerous times. He had difficulty sustaining a conversation for more than a minute or two. When his parents talked or read to him, his mind would drift. He became bored with toys and activities quickly. As early as first grade, it was obvious that Jeff's attention difficulties were also causing problems for him at school. A psychological evaluation ruled out learning disabilities and emotional problems and led to a diagnosis of ADHD.
Jeff's parents educated themselves about ADHD and its impact on their son. They sought treatment from a child psychiatrist and a psychologist with expertise in ADHD, and worked diligently with Jeff's teachers at school. Armed with new knowledge and professional guidance, Jeff's parents developed a treatment program that helped manage his ADHD symptoms as well as improve his attention span at home and at school. These 10 strategies helped Jeff get on track, and they can help your child too.
1. Get the medication right.
The single most effective method for improving attention, concentration, and focusing ability in kids with ADHD is the right medication at the right dosage. Excessive distractibility has a biological cause. It's not lack of effort or responsibility, it's not a personality or character defect, and, for many people, it cannot be managed effectively through behavioral methods alone.
People with ADHD often have a deficiency of dopamine, a chemical that transmits signals between brain cells. Dopamine deficiencies make it difficult to get started on tasks, organize priorities, follow through on projects, and remember things long-term. Most ADHD medications work to increase dopamine levels.
2. Establish eye contact.
To help your child pay attention, hold his attention. Jeff's parents learned to stand directly in front of him, make eye contact, and maintain it throughout conversations with him. Like many children with ADHD, Jeff first shied away from eye contact, but with practice he grew more comfortable. To get your child's undivided attention, help his focus by having him stop any activities he's involved in and put away anything he's carrying, so that his hands are empty.
3. Practice skills step by step.
At first, Jeff practiced listening and paying attention by following directions for a one-step activity ("Turn off the TV"). When he became proficient at this, his parents gave him two-step activities ("Turn off the TV and go brush your teeth"), then three steps ("Put your toys away, brush your teeth, and get into your pajamas"). Reward your child for maintaining attention on his work for a five-minute period, then increase the goal to ten minutes, then fifteen minutes.
4. Play attention-boosting games.
All children learn best when an activity is interesting and fun. Jeff and his parents regularly play games where winning requires attention and good listening skills. Try some of their favorites:
- Simon Says: This classic is the original listen-and-pay-attention game. (Musical chairs accomplishes the same goal.)
- Champion Distractor: In this fun family game, one person focuses on completing a task, while the person playing Distractor does everything she can possibly think of to distract him and disrupt the task. To win, a player must be a good Distractor and also work hard at not being distracted by the other Distractors!
- Radar Focus: The person in the role of radar operator has to zoom in on the person who is talking and maintain radar focus until the person finishes talking. A good job by the radar operator is rewarded with praise and a prize.
- Zap!: When something distracts Jeff, like a humming fan or the video game console across the room, he points his finger at it like a gun, and says, "Zap!" His imagination blows the distraction away.
5. Fit the task to the child.
Short assignments and tasks best suit Jeff's attention span. Large tasks should be broken down into manageable chunks. Tasks needn't be completed in one sitting if it's possible to leave some work for another time. This allays everyone's frustration and frayed nerves.
One universal truth for individuals of all ages with ADHD is that attention is best sustained when tasks are interesting and meaningful. You may notice that your child struggles most when he thinks the task at hand is boring. Try to present the material or the chore in a way that relates to something he's interested in. For instance, if he likes to eat, present a math challenge using pieces of food as units.