Michele Borba, Ed.D.
REALITY CHECK Reports say that Attention Deficit Disorder (or ADD) affects up to nine[ii] percent of school-age children, but even then the medical field fears that only half of those have been properly diagnosed. Parents currently spend[i] over one billion three hundred million each year on buying one of the three leading drugs developed for kids with attention deficits. In some U.S. schools as much as 30 to 40 percent of a typical classroom of students may be taking prescribed stimulants to control their classroom behavior.
I spent years teaching special education. My masters is in learning disabilities. I had a private practice for at risk kids and I’ve worked with hundreds of teachers and parents dealing with attention deficits. But I like you didn’t need any of those experiences or degrees to recognize that some kids have a much harder time paying attention.That inability will probably make their lives a bit more challenging. After all, a big part of getting along as well as learning new information is by tuning into what they see and hear. Regardless of whether your child is a bit “more spirited” or truly does have an attention deficit, he will need to learn to focus and stay on task longer. The good news is there are simple techniques you can use to increase your child’s ability to concentrate, attend longer and even recall what he hears or sees. In fact, teaching these attention-stretching skills will enhance any child’s chances of success. Here are six solutions that are often overlooked that may help your child as he or she heads back to school this year. As in any solution, find the ones that work best for your child, use it consistently and pass it on to other caregivers (including your child’s teacher).
1. Set appropriate expectations. Make sure your child’s schoolwork matches his appropriate academic capabilities. For instance, if he tests at a 1.5 reading level, don’t expect him to read at a 4.2. Assignments should be geared only slightly higher than children’s ability otherwise they tune out and will have problems attending. Also, make sure that the task isn’t set at too low of a level so as to cause boredom which also causes inattentiveness. Your child’s teacher can provide you with that information.
2. Watch those labels! Avoid using any negative labels or derogatory nicknames about your child (like “Our Absent-Minded Professor,” “Little Daydreamer,” or “Space-Cadet”). They can become daily reminders of incompetence and turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. What’s more, they often stick and become difficult to erase. One good rule to use: “If the nickname does not show respect, it’s best not to use it.” And if you hear anyone using a less-than flattering term about your child, give it a positive spin. Instead of: “He’s so hyper.” Say: “Yes, he’s really energetic.” Or: “She’s really spacey.” Turn it: “She’s creative and gets her best ideas daydreaming.”
3. Keep to a schedule. Children who have trouble paying attention benefit from routines. Those repetitive schedules create predictability, which reduces stress and helps kids focus. The trick is to find the best time for your child’s homework, bed, dinner, etc, based on his attending ability. Warning: That time may be different from your other kids. Then post those times on the refrigerator or bulletin board as a reminder and stick to the same daily routine as best you can.
4. Change sleep patterns. The solution for your child’s attention problems just may be easier than you think. Sleep-deprived kids often have trouble paying attention as well as display symptoms of impulsivity and hyperactivity. So before jumping to conclusion that your kid is attention deficit, try changing his sleep habits to help him get a more restful night sleep (See Sleep). Research shows that a simple bedtime routine switch can have great results in stretching kid’s attention spans.
5. Turn off the TV when not used and reduce distractions. Kids with short attention spans are distracted easily by noises, smells and images. So tune a little closer to determine what things hinder your child’s concentration. (for instance, the flickering overhead lights, the cuckoo clock, a barking dog, the neighbor kids yelling) and reduce what you can. Also, turn off the television when it is not watched. A[i] University of Massachusetts-Amherst study found that the background sound or images on the television reduce children’s focusing ability even if the image is viewed in snippets.
6. Set up the ideal work place. Once you discover what helps your child attend best, set up that study spot based on his ideal working conditions. Usually it’s a smaller, more confining space with no windows, hallways or noise contributors. Pushing a desk against a blank wall can also reduce distractions. Some kids benefit earplugs, earphones or even listening to a certain type of music. Might these help your child? Involve him in that “discovery process” so he recognizes what helps him learn and then keep experimenting until you find the best options. Hint: One dad cut away the side of a refrigerator crate and put a small desk inside at his son’s suggestion. It did the trick.
7. Burn off extra energy. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that kids[iii] with attention deficits “were calmer, more focused, and more able to follow directions after a time outside, especially in settings like a part or backyard.” It seems a brief time in the great outdoors gives kids the chance to burn off excess energy before tackling homework and actually helps increase attention spans. Look for active outdoor outlets your kid might enjoy that might help him work off that “surplus oomph” and help him focus for longer stretches. Possibilities might include gymnastics, kwon do, karate, basketball, bike riding, swimming, skateboarding. Just choose what turns your kid on.
This article is excerpted from Michele Borba’s book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (Jossey-Bass) available for order now:
Follow Michele Borba on twitter @micheleborba or on her daily blog at https://micheleborba.com
Sleep deprived looks like attention deficit: Ivanhoe Broadcast Service, “What Parents Think May Be ADHD, May Not,” News 8 Austin Story, April 1, 2008. http://www.news8austin.com/shared/print/default.asp?ArlD=204661.
Study of 3000 children: “Nine Percent of US Children Age 8 to 15 Meet Criteria For Having ADHD, Study Suggests,” T.E. Froehlich, Arch Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 2007; 161(9) 857-864. Available online: ScienceDaily Sep. 4. 2007.www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070903204843.htm
Three year study found most kids treated for ADHD (medication, behavioral therapy or both) do improve over time published in August 2007, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry lead author Peter Jensen, director of the Center for the Advance of Children’s Mental Health at Columbia University: K. Painter, “Lofty Hopes for ADHD Kids,” USA Today, Sept 17, 2007, 6D.
Kids with ADHD playing outdoors in environment with trees experience significant decrease in symptoms: cited in Kim Painter, “Send Your Kids Outside—Now,” USA Today, March 20, 2006, p. 4D.
Study on TV distractions observed 50 children ages 1 to 3 for an hour at a time as they played alone with a variety of toys while a small TV broadcast aired a taped episode of Jeopardy: study by Daniel Anderson, psychologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, published in Child Development, July 15, 2008: G. Toppo, “Just Having TV On Can District Kids,” USA Today, July 15, 2008, 7D.