Focus & Following Directions

When Focus Is Fleeting — and Painful

For many students with ADHD, maintaining sustained focus on schoolwork is a mentally draining challenge. There is no magic trick for increasing naturally low attention spans, but parents and teachers who use these strategies with struggling students report real, significant results.

A college-age student with a short attention span working on a laptop computer
Student with ADHD surrounded by books, on laptop, at university by windows

Short Attention Span

Children who have ADHD often jump from task to task without finishing any of them. They feel trapped by any task that takes longer than the time they’re able to maintain focus. Improving this skill usually requires breaking tasks into smaller segments while working to increase the child’s low attention span.

Sustained attention is the ability to maintain focus on a task or assignment a child considers uninteresting or difficult — in other words, schoolwork and homework. A young child can typically complete a five-minute chore with only occasional supervision. The average teenager can do a task, with short breaks, for one to two hours. But for children with ADHD, it’s completely different. Try these tricks for increasing focus and attention in your child with ADHD, both at school and at home.

How Can Children with ADHD Focus in the Classroom?

Teach students how to pay attention. At the beginning of the school year, ask students to demonstrate what attention and inattention look like. Say, “I’m going to start talking. I want this side of the room to act out what paying attention looks like, and I want the other side to act out what inattention looks like.” After you have done this exercise, talk about the differences you saw between the two sides of the room.

Take 10 minutes every day to practice paying attention. Set a kitchen timer for random intervals (one to three minutes), and ask students to place a check mark on their paper if they were paying attention when the alarm went off. This will help students become aware of how long it takes before they drift off. There are smartphone apps — Interval Minder is a good one — that allow you to program an iPhone to sound a tone, create a screen flash, or vibrate at random intervals as short as five to 10 seconds.

Adjust tasks for shorter time frames. Set a kitchen timer for 10-minute intervals. When the bell rings, have the student with ADHD show you his work. This gives him a chance to get up and move and allows you to monitor progress.

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Provide preferential seating — in front of the classroom, within cueing distance of you, and away from as many environmental distractions as possible, including doors, windows, and visual displays. If possible, make sure the child is seated among attentive, well-focused students.

Cut work pages in halves or smaller segments. Pass out one part at a time. This reduces a student’s frustration over seeing a lengthy worksheet.

Give the student some choices. Allow kids to decide which assignments to do or the order in which they want to do them. Choice increases motivation, and motivation increases sustained attention.

Have a student clear his desk of distractions. He should have only the essential items needed to do the task at hand.

Create opportunities for children to respond to the material as it is being presented. Lecture for no more than 10 minutes, then ask kids to comment on the material. Have everybody vote on something, ask kids to write the answer to a question on their individual whiteboards and hold them up, or ask, “How many of you…?”

Cover or remove visual distractions. Erase unnecessary information from the board and remove visual clutter.

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Ask kids to track how long it takes to complete an assignment. Have them write down start and stop times for classroom assignments. Then ask them to estimate how long an assignment will take, and to compare their estimates to the actual time.

Have a class discussion about fighting homework distractions. Talk about what the common distractions are, then break up the class into small groups to brainstorm ways to combat them.

How Can Parents Increase Attention Span for Studying at Home?

Break schoolwork assignments into small segments. For a child with ADHD, the general rule of thumb is that a task is most likely to get done when the child knows that “the end is in sight” at the beginning of the task. It’s easier for kids with ADHD to do six five-minute chores than to do one 30-minute chore.

Reward your child when he finishes a task. Some parents don’t allow kids to play video games on school nights. But video games can be an incentive to maintain attention if kids know they will be allowed to play for 30 minutes after they finish their homework. If you decide to make this offer, say it like this: “As soon as you finish your homework, you get to play video games for 30 minutes.” Saying, “You can’t play video games until you finish your homework” sets the scene for a power struggle. Giving your child something to look forward to will energize him.

Have your child rate how hard a task is for her (1 is easy and 10 is difficult). Ask her how she could turn an 8-9-10 task into a 2-3-4 task. Can she turn it into a game, make it fun by listening to her iPod while she does it, or break the task into small pieces and do one piece at a time, with built-in breaks?

Ask your child to estimate how long a task will take. Your child may think it will take an hour to do his math homework. If he finds it took him only 15 minutes, he will be pleasantly surprised — and much less likely to procrastinate the next time he has to tackle it.

Gradually increase attention. Measure how long your child can stick with homework or a chore before needing a break. Once you establish that, set a timer for two to three minutes longer than the baseline measurement, and challenge your child to keep working until the timer rings.

Be there. Children can sustain attention longer when someone is physically with them. Make homework time a family affair — everybody brings work to the dining room table at the same time every night. Parents work on their paperwork while kids do their homework.

Schedule movement breaks. Kids with ADHD work more efficiently when they have regular opportunities to get up and move around. Even on nights when they have a lot of homework, they will get it done faster if they have periodic breaks that include some physical activity.

Help him visualize time. Devices that show elapsed time will help him reset his focus when it drifts from the task. Time Timer makes a clock and a wristwatch, as well as software for the computer, that show a time-challenged child how much time he has left (or how much has passed) via a diminishing red disc.

Expand on your child’s partial answers by saying, “Tell me more. I would like to know how you arrived at that answer? It is interesting.” This will keep his attention on the task at hand.

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