For Teachers

Tuning Out Distractions, Focusing in on School

Children with ADHD experience a lower level of brain arousal, which means they are easily distracted by internal and external stimuli. Use these school and home strategies to improve focus and comprehension.

Girls with ADHD not paying attention in class and passing notes instead
Girls with ADHD not paying attention in class and passing notes instead

The problem: “My child doesn’t focus and listen.”

Not focused on learning? A student with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) might not seem to be listening or paying attention to class material. He may be daydreaming, looking out the window, or focused on irrelevant noises or other stimuli. As a result, he misses lessons, instructions, and directions.

The reason: ADHD is not just an inability to pay attention — it’s an inability to control attention. Children with ADHD have a lower level of brain arousal, which in turn decreases their ability to screen out distractions like noise in the hallway, movement outside, or even their own inner thoughts and feelings. Children with ADHD have an especially hard time tuning out distractions when an activity is not sufficiently stimulating. They lose focus easily.

The obstacles: Children with ADHD struggle to stay focused on lectures or any tasks that require sustained mental effort. Sometimes, this distractibility can appear intentional and annoying — which then works against students with ADHD in getting the help they need. Remarks such as “Earth to Amy!” or “Why don’t you ever listen?” will not correct this attention deficit. If children could pay better attention, they would.

Read on to discover classroom and home solutions to end distractibility and help your child focus on his schoolwork.

[Free Checklist: Common ADHD Challenges at School — and Their Solutions]

Focus Solutions in the Classroom

— Select seating wisely. Keeping kids with ADHD close to the teacher and away from doors or windows will help minimize potential distractions and provide the best stay-focused results.

— Allow all students to use distraction-blockers. In order to prevent singling out children with ADHD, let everyone try privacy dividers, earphones, or earplugs to block distractions during seat work or tests.

— Keep things interesting. Alternate between high- and low-interest activities and when possible, keep lesson periods short or vary the pacing from one lesson to the next.

— Accommodate different learning styles. Use a variety of strategies and teaching techniques to accommodate the multitude of learning styles in the room so all students have the opportunity to approach lessons the way they learn best.

— Include visual, auditory, and kinesthetic facets to all lessons. Also, give students opportunities to work cooperatively, individually, and with the group.

— Redirect rather than reprimand. Instead of scolding a student who becomes distracted, redirect him in a way that doesn’t cause embarrassment. Sometimes, asking a child with ADD a question you know he can answer, or giving nonverbal cues, such as standing close and patting him on the shoulder, can bring the child back into focus.

[Free Resource: The Secret Power of Fidgets]

Focus Solutions at Home

— Establish a daily homework routine. Some children need to take a break between school and homework or may need frequent breaks between assignments. Figure out what works best for your child in order to help her avoid distractions and procrastination.

— Help your kid with ADHD “set up” in a distraction-free environment. Sometimes the best learning environment can actually be the kitchen table with music playing in the background. Experiment until you find the ideal learning spot.

— Get her started. Sit down with your child and make sure he understands what is required for each assignment.

— Supervise as needed. Most children with ADHD need significant adult supervision to keep on task. As situations improve and the child matures, you can move away from constant supervision to frequent check-ins to make sure your child is on task.

— Allow short breaks between assignments. Have your child stretch or have a snack once one assignment is complete. This can help make his workload seem more manageable.

— Break down large assignments. Divide big assignments into “bites,” each one with a clear goal. If your child feels like a task is manageable, he’ll be less likely to become distracted.

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

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  1. Hi, I have always thought that from his birth, my son is brilliant. Yet he continues to struggle with his grades no matter what I try. He is a freshman in high school and I worry about his ability to succeed in college if he continues to struggle academically. He does have ADHD and is taking Adderrall ER to manage it but he still gets poor grades for not completing assignments and forgetting to turn them in. I know he does not get the support from his teachers at public school as he would if he were home-schooled. Yet, I want him to be with his friends every day and take advantage of extra-curricular classes and sports that home-schooling doesn’t offer. What should I do? I want to spend one-on-one tome with him in a distraction free environment as this is how he learns best. I could remind him to turn things in and I know he would learn more at home, but he wouldn’t qualify for as many scholarships if he is home-schooled. I’m torn and don’t know what to do. Does anyone have any advice?

    1. My son (10th grade) does part of the day at school and part of the day doing Virtual Public School online classes at home. It was necessary due to sensory and environmental issues — he just couldn’t be there all day without getting super agitated and frustrated and shutting down. My son has an A in the online class he’s taking right now because I sit with him and we do it together every day. In his 3 classes in person at school, he currently has a C and 2 D’s. Because he doesn’t get the support he needs at school, despite having an IEP and inclusion with a special ed teacher in two of those 3 classes. I know 4-year college isn’t the right path for my son, so I’m not worried about that, but he has a gifted IQ and is a kind, sweet kid who deserves to succeed.

      Penny
      ADDitude Community Moderator, Parenting ADHD Trainer & Author, Mom to teen w/ ADHD, LDs, and autism

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