Dear ADDitude

Dear ADDitude: How Can My Son Focus Better in Class?

“My 7 year old is highly distractible and struggles to complete in-class assignments without a teacher or aide sitting with him and guiding him. The incomplete work is piling up. What accommodations can help him learn to better focus on his own?”

ADDitude Answers

Many children with ADHD have executive function deficits – this includes planning, organization, and time management. Ask that your child be evaluated for these skills. If he has executive function deficits you can work with the school to create strategies to build these skills. One accommodation might be to reduce the amount of classwork, while making sure he still is practicing his skills each day.

Checklists are often helpful for children with ADHD. Your child’s teacher might laminate a paper on which she writes down in-class assignments. Your son can check off each one as he completes it. This should help him stay aware when he still has work to do. When all the work has been completed, the paper should be erased, ready to be used again the next day. You can also suggest a chart on which he receives a sticker for each day that all of his classwork is completed. At the end of the week, he gets a reward if he has received stickers each day.

Posted by Eileen Bailey
Freelance writer, author specializing in ADHD, anxiety, and autism

ADDitude Answers

This sounds more like executive functioning deficits, often seen in those with ADHD (my son has severe EF deficits). They impact the obvious skills of planning and organization, but it also impair task initiation, time management, working memory, and self-regulation. Check out this article about the condition: Executive Function Disorder Symptoms and Diagnosis.

If checklists are effective for your son, I’d create a checklist (with visuals) and have it laminated and taped to his desk. The teacher will need to support it until it becomes habit for him, but it could be very useful.

Additionally, at that age my son had a goal chart for school with rewards from his teacher. There were just two goals at a time. For your son, it might be completing work and turning in work. The chart has a row for every time period of the classroom schedule throughout the day (my son’s was 10 or 12). His teacher placed a sticker in each box where he met the goal throughout the day. This way he could see if he was doing well or if he needed to step up his game. If he got enough stickers at the end of each day she gave him a reward.

This worked very well when it was used. Once he was getting every sticker for a goal (or most) for several days in a row, that goal was replaced with a new one.

Here’s a resource center on school accommodations on How to Level the Playing Field. Read through possible accommodations and make a list of those you think might help with what he’s currently struggling with, then propose them to your IEP or 504 committee.

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

[Free Download: Solving Challenges in the Classroom]

A Reader Answers

If your son’s problems are affecting a life function — like succeeding in school — they can be qualify him for an IEP under the ‘other health impaired’ classification. It sounds like your son’s executive functions are impaired. He is not able to complete tasks due to his disability. He is not able to follow the lesson due to inattention. Is be able to make friends? Can he sit still? Does he lose finished assignments and lose credit for them? All of this can be addressed in an IEP with a specific plan and goals to be met. He does not need to be failing or even doing poorly to qualify for the IEP. He will benefit from being in a class with an experienced special education teacher.

He should have no obstruction between him and the point of instruction, and sit near the teacher. The teacher should be assessing that he is following the lesson and have a predetermined method to reel him back in if he is distracted or his mind has wandered.

He should have extended time on assignments. Homework can be modified to lighten the load, to only even problems and things like that. Often, teachers will allow kids to answer questions without complete sentences, and will not take points off for spelling. The teacher should prompt your son to hand in assignments or start work on them.

He should have a behavior plan with positive — not negative — behavior supports in place that let him work towards rewards. If he has too much energy to focus, your son should be sent on some sort of errand to give him a chance to move around, like taking and envelope to the office.

Another thing that helps is having a fidget toy at his desk that can help him focus. Experiment with different ones. Be sure teachers are giving your son a message of understanding not judgement. Ask for weekly or more frequent quick updates from the teacher so you can fuss over his successes as well. Never take away recess as punishment.

These are a few that come to mind for now. Good luck. And push on for the IEP. The school is a lot more pressure to be sure goals are met and even though IEP and 504 are both legal documents, teachers tend to take IEP’s more seriously. Also, a 504 does not give your son access to a special education teacher. He can be placed in an inclusion or in class support room but he would fall under the regular ed teacher in the room.

Posted by Peacfldove

[The Best Seat in the House for a Student with ADHD]

A Reader Answers

If his ADHD is impacting him in the classroom, he should have an IEP so he can receive direct services.

Would a behavior chart or a reminder chart taped to his desk work? Something that is visual might remind your son what he needs to do.

For now, I would ask the teacher to give your son a simplified task list for assignments — First, do X. Second, do X. That could help him stay on track until more formal measures are in place. Then arrange for a small reward when he’s done, like a sticker.

Posted by Sporty

A Reader Answers

Outside of all the good ideas mentioned above — the one thing that was not mentioned is the medication.

It sounds like your son could be under-medicated. Doctors often start off with a low dosage and wait for parent feedback to see if it needs to be increased. Unfortunately, they don’t always communicate this to parents or the parents don’t know what behaviors to look for, so many times the medication is not at the most appropriate dose.

Being distracted is a key symptom of ADHD. It is one of the things that medication can really help. Does this happen all day long or only after a few hours? All medications have an approximate duration. For example, Adderall XR should last 6 to 10 hours. If it does not, it is a pretty good indication the dose is too low. This is something that you need to discuss with your doctor. This link has some good information on that subject: The Meaning of ADHD.

Posted by Sandman2

A Reader Answers

Maybe your son’s medication is not addressing all of his symptoms. That could indicate that the dose or medication is wrong. Talk to your pediatric psychiatrist.

Talk to his teacher about the possibility that he might be bored, too. If he is not able to focus enough to sit still it could be that he is finishing quickly and looking for something to do, or he could just have a lot of energy that is not being expelled.

My daughter does infinitely better in school when she does outside activities regularly. She has dance class two days a week. If there is soccer or some sport nearby he can participate in after school that may help. There is a cumulative effect when hyper kids learn how to use all that energy towards something physical. At this age your son should be trying lots of things and the sooner you find that one thing he likes the better you can leverage it. I don’t just mean, “Do well in school so you can play soccer.” Rather, set up his practices and play on days when you know he’s been sitting a long time in class. Don’t worry about wearing them out, ADHD brains need to be worn out!

And don’t discount intellectual pursuits. Once your son finds a hobby or interest he likes to think about, some of his energy can go towards thinking which takes a lot of energy. My daughter practically didn’t read at all, and it was awful trying to get her to sit still to read anything, until we discovered she loves dogs. Now she’ll sit still to read any dog book we can find.

You’re in good shape starting this process now though!

Posted by YellaRyan

A Reader Answers

They say that maturity-wise kids with ADHD lag about 3 years behind their peers, so it’s not at all surprising that he’s struggling.

With kids with ADHD the bar has to be set a lot lower. Your son’s not going to be able to keep up and finish the same amount of work as the other children no matter how much he may want to. He doesn’t have control of those impulses so new strategies are good as are rewards for good days. Kids thrive on praise.

One of my friends was advised to get her son a squeezy ball and that helped him. He really liked it. He uses it during class to help stay calmer.

Sitting in front of the class and getting some direct attention from the teacher helps.

Some children just have to be excused from class at times. In one situation the principal allows the child to come and visit until she feels more capable of cooperating.

Having the school understand and work with you isn’t easy at times, unfortunately. You’ll have a few years yet where that’s necessary. You may find you’re in the position of not only educating yourself about the condition, but the school as well.

Hopefully you’ll be able to work out some accommodations based on his needs that will work for everyone. Keep up the communication and make sure to involve the school counselor as much as possible. Best of luck and hang in there!! It will get easier over times.

Posted by Havebeenthere

A Reader Answers

We struggled with this issue for years and finally realized his accommodations had to include:

  • Teachers posting assignments online
  • Electronic submission of homework (either via email or the teacher’s web site)

I also had to insist that what was posted online was the final word, and my son would not lose points if the teacher neglected to update his/her site. With the assignments online, both my son’s tutor and I could access them and, together with my son, we would come up with a plan to get his work done at home.

These accommodations did not solve everything, and were not always followed to the letter, but they did reduce the stress of not knowing what was due when.

My son also was allowed extended time. However, in hindsight, I believe a reduced homework-load is preferable — catching up on past assignments while staying on top of current ones can quickly become overwhelming if not impossible.

If your child’s teacher does not have a site, request he or she email the assignments to you. Any worksheet can be scanned and emailed. You could also request an additional copy of whatever source teachers use for worksheets. We did this for one of my son’s classes — we had a home copy of the workbook that never left the house. The teacher posted the exercise and page numbers that needed to be completed online. We’d tear out the worksheet, my son would complete it, and then we’d scan and email it to the teacher.

Posted by RosemaryONeill

A Reader Answers

There are lots of pharmaceutical tools to use in the treatment of ADHD. Here some of the behavioral measures we have taken to help my seven-year-old son be successful in school and in life.

He is in orchestra where he plays the cello. He also attends music and movement class once a week. He loves both. He takes karate lessons twice a week as well as horseback riding. In the summer, he takes a swimming lesson every day for six weeks. These activities build him up physically and improve coordination and help him learn focus.

To help him in school, we’ve enlisted the help of a private tutor to help him stay on task. My son also attends a private school with only 18 kids per class instead of the usual 35 in the public schools. His classes are highly structured and every child is on a behavior plan.

We have eliminated artificial colors from his diet and strictly limit his consumption of sugar. He is given Omega 3 fatty acid supplements (800 mg/day), twice as much DHA as ARA (recommended by his doc). He gets a supplement containing iron and zinc. At night he gets 1 mg of Melatonin to ensure a good night’s sleep.

We make sure he gets a minimum of 10 hours of sleep per night. The room is kept dark and quiet. He has a bedtime routine that helps him get ready for bed. On nights when he is restless, we use meditation music deep breathing and progressive muscular relaxation to help him settle down.

For homework, we use timers for task completion and set strict limits for the amount of TV and computer time.

If this sounds rather regimented, it is. But, if it helps my son, so be it. We also give him Ritalin and I think that’s ok. It is the final piece of his treatment puzzle. Without it, I don’t think he would do as well in school as he does. I want to encourage you to consider the use of this medication in the event that all of these other treatments by themselves do not yield the results you are seeking for your son.

Approach it with a skeptical, but open mind. Be sure you get a doc that is willing to prescribe short acting Ritalin so that you can tailor the dose to your son’s individual needs. I would also avoid the use of antidepressants as they produce a higher incidence of side effects such as irritability, insomnia, and mania.

I hope this information is helpful.

Posted by SueH

[How to Get a 504 Plan or IEP in 12 Steps]