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Dear ADDitude: How Can I Explain My Son’s Variable Attention?

“My son’s teacher feels that, since he can focus on subjects he likes, it shows he can do it. She feels he chooses when to focus and pay attention.”

ADDitude Answers

The reason those with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) can focus on what they find interesting, and not other things, is that they have an interest-based nervous system. This article explains it: Secrets of the ADHD Brain.

Posted by Penny
community moderator, author on ADHD parenting, mom to teen boy with ADHD, LDs, and autism

ADDitude Answers

Kids with ADHD really need a teacher who gets it and can understand that this is just the way the child is wired. Then anger can come out of it, and the teacher can say, “Okay. This behavior is aggravating, but I can understand he is not doing it on purpose.” A teacher like this can draw students into lessons because when these kids get interested in something it they can super-, or hyper-focus. Attention deficit is a misnomer. These kids, when they’re into something, they can focus better than anyone. So it’s a matter of engaging them, inspiring them, and if teachers do that then they’ll have a Nobel Prize winner in their hands.

It’s best to have a conversation with parents, the child, the teacher, and some expert in the field who can explain ADHD to everybody and get out of the realm of punishment and lectures back into the realm of education. Ask kids, “What can we do differently to get a better result? Where do you study? Under what conditions do you study?” Then come up with interventions to help them tap into those conditions in class.

For example, there’s a wonderful website called and it has music specifically constructed to filter out the interesting parts. So kids can put on the headphones and the music engages that part of their brain that would otherwise be distracting them. I’ve had kids who couldn’t write papers, put on those earphones, the next thing you know they can focus better.

[Quiz: How Well Do You Know Special Ed Law?]

One thing you don’t want to do is hold kids in for recess as punishment because they really need that physical exercise to focus.

Posted by Dr. Edward M. Hallowell
Practicing psychiatrist and founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health

A Reader Answers

I would explain – very matter-of-factly – that being able to focus at some times while not at others is a classic ADHD symptom alongside hyperfocus. Then I would add something like, “As I’m sure you are aware.”

Somebody once put it this way to me. If a child goes Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday without having a seizure and then has a seizure on Thursday, would we assume that because he was able to “control them” Monday-Wednesday, and that he must have chosen to have a seizure on Thursday?

[Free Resource: 10 ADHD-Friendly Teaching Strategies]

Well, the answer is, of course not. I then explain that it is the same with ADHD. I would go on to explain that this is a disability problem, not a behavioral problem. Then ask, “What can we do to work together to keep my son on target and make sure he reaches his potential?”

Good luck. Give your son a big hug!

Posted by Peacfldove

A Reader Answers

I had the same struggle with my son’s teacher last year. He was only in 2nd grade and not yet diagnosed, but I knew something was going on with him. When I told the teacher we needed to look into the cause of his behavior and inattention, she said, “He just needs to decide to behave.” Sigh! Keep advocating for your son and teaching and re-teaching those who need it!

There are days my son can pull it together and get his work and homework all done, and days he can’t. I’m able to write a note to his teacher when it gets muddled and let her know we’re working on it and will catch up. In the meantime, I’m teaching him how to tackle assignments on his own at home. I pay him 25 cents/page of homework completed by the time I get home from work. He likes cash!

I taught my son a process I use in nursing to tackle classwork: Assess (What needs to be done? What is already done? What do you want to do? What will you need help with? etc); Plan (number the assignments so you know which you will do first, second etc); Execute (DO it!); Evaluate (How’d it go?). It took a while for him to get comfortable with this, but he likes being able to make decisions about his work.

Posted by katg

A Reader Answers

Order a used copy online of All About Attention Deficit Disorder by Thomas W. Phelan Ph.D. Give it to the teacher, or make photo copies of the pages about hyperfocus to help her better understand ADHD and its symptoms.

Posted by Bensonadvocates

A Reader Answers

I have been through many years of comments from teachers that obviously do not understand ADHD. I decided that as long as my husband and I get it, as well as my child, that is what matters. I caution against trying to educate an educator. I doubt your effort would be well received.

Perhaps focusing on going thru the process of setting up systems within the school. A homework club and developing a good relationship with his teacher are great places to start.

Then, ask if you can come up with a plan for success for your child together with the teacher and any other important people at school. It makes a world of difference when everyone is on the same side. I have learned to shake off negative statements from well-meaning people who just don’t get the condition. Hold on to words and ideas that are positive and beneficial for your child and let go of those that aren’t.

Posted by keeks

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Edward Hallowell, M.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.