How Boredom, Fatigue, and ADHD Hurt Our Kids’ Attention Spans
If your child is not paying attention in class (or at the supermarket, or in the car, or during dinner), use these strategies to refocus her mind.
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.
“My Son’s Not Paying Attention.”
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 focusing difficulties were also causing problems for him at school; he was always in trouble for not paying attention in class. 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.
How to Improve Concentration in Children with ADHD
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.
6. Make a suitable work space.
Children with ADHD work better in an environment that is structured and free of distractions. Jeff’s parents arrange a neat homework space for him, in a quiet area free of toys and other entertaining things. This technique works for everyday tasks, as well. For example, help your child focus on breakfast by turning off the TV and putting his homework away.
At school Jeff does best in small classes, where his classmates provide fewer distractions and he receives more individual attention. His teacher helps him stay focused by having him sit in the front of the classroom, and by giving him a silent cue (she might touch her forehead, for example) when he’s off-task.
7. Make learning active.
Jeff discovered that the more active he is while listening or studying, the easier it is for him to stay attentive and focused. When reading, he underlines or highlights important facts. He asks questions about anything that’s unclear or confusing, at home and in school. He participates in class discussions. When studying for a test, he reviews the information by talking to his parents.
8. Take frequent breaks.
The mortal enemies of attention and concentration are boredom and mental fatigue. Children with ADHD become bored easily and have to work harder on tasks that require sustained mental effort. To ease the pressure, set short breaks of five minutes or so on the half-hour, or as needed. Your child can get up and walk around, drink water, even go outside to the backyard for some fresh air. Avoid activities that he might get lost in, like watching TV or checking e-mail.
9. Use self-monitoring and positive self-talk.
With time and lots of practice, Jeff has become more aware of the things that might distract him. He recognizes what being distracted looks and feels like, and he knows when he’s off-task. When Jeff begins a task, he tells himself, “I will pay attention to my work” and “I will stay focused until I’m finished.” This positive self-talk is repeated as needed, particularly when he finds himself off-course. These statements remind him of his goals and encourage him to keep going.
10. Be clear about what you expect-and offer rewards.
Be clear about what you expect — and offer rewards. Jeff’s parents and teacher came up with a list of focusing rules. The rules were written up as a contract and signed by Jeff and the three adults. The rules include basic goals such as: Wait until directions are completed before starting a task, stay on task, work quietly, and remain in your seat.
When he’s working on academic assignments either at home or in school, Jeff’s mom, dad, and teacher give him an estimated amount of time to complete each assignment. Jeff competes against the set times and earns rewards for good performance. In fact, incentives or rewards for completing tasks can be effective motivators for most children with ADHD.
Peter Jaksa, Ph.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.