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Is your child having trouble focusing? Here’s what you can do about it



March 11, 2023

It’s rewarding to watch our kids be carefree and silly, but we all know how frustrating it can be when you just want them to settle in and focus on a necessary task, like homework. And when they continuously get distracted everywhere from the classroom to the dinner table, it can cause a lot of added stress and anxiety for your child and everyone around them.

Let’s get on the same page about one very important thing — there is nothing wrong with your child if they have difficulty focusing, and it does not necessarily mean that they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And if they do have ADHD, there is still nothing wrong with them! At Bend, we’re all about meeting your kiddo where they’re at and empowering you to support them in the ways that work best for them. 

Why some kids are easily distracted 

It’s completely common for kids to become distracted. It could be as simple as your child feeling bored with the task that they are doing. You probably get distracted too! We live in a world where we get more information than we ever have via our buzzing phones, social media, TV streaming… you get it. And because of the massive amount of data that we process, it’s difficult to set limitations to what our kids absorb and allow them to decompress from the constant influx . 

Studies show that distraction can come from external or internal sources. Your child may very well be distracted by their own emotional world. Whether it’s processing a conflict with someone around them, or worrying about how they’re being perceived by others, internal distractions can sometimes appear as a lack of focus.

Reasons (other than ADHD) that kids may have a tough time focusing: 

  • They’re navigating a transition, like their parents’ divorce or going to a new school.
  • They’re feeling excited about something, like a party or a new toy.
  • They’re going through a stressful situation, like a fight with a friend or a death in the family.
  • They are hungry or tired.
  • They may have something physically or medically going on.

What is ADHD? 

According to the CDC, ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. There is a difference between having an attention deficit and being distracted. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition in which a child’s brain has difficulty compartmentalizing, or separating, different tasks, thoughts or emotions from others. When people with ADHD feel overwhelmed, it can cause issues like a lack of focus, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and emotional dysregulation. 

Most kids can struggle with being disorganized, forgetful, have difficulty prioritizing tasks, avoid responsibility, or are prone to making mistakes. What separates living with ADHD from simply “being easily distracted” is when a child’s symptoms consistently impede their ability to be successful at school or maintain relationships. 

ADHD can show up in many ways and change over time. Kids with ADHD may have a hard time:

  • Knowing when to focus on small details and when to focus on the bigger picture
  • Holding a train of thought when they’re interrupted
  • Concentrating on one activity at a time
  • Following directions
  • Keeping up in conversation

Getting the support your family deserves 

If your child is overwhelmed regularly, even during their routine tasks, it could be symptomatic of ADHD. It can be a huge relief to find support from behavioral coaching and social skill management experts. 

A clinical support team can help your child learn the strategies needed to make positive choices when they feel overwhelmed, as well as help them foster healthy relationships with themselves and others. 

Oh and hey, as a parent, you deserve support too! Mental health practitioners can help you gain better insight into your child’s behavior, teach you how to positively guide them through neurodevelopmental challenges, and join you in advocating for their needs. It might also be a good idea to engage in family systems therapy so that you can learn how to better communicate as a unit and cope with any stress that comes your way. 

We also have a team of licensed practitioners  at Bend that can help you figure out the next steps, along with day-to-day tools to help make life easier for you and your child, so feel free to reach out for diagnostic information and support

Here are some Coaching strategies from Bend’s ADHD care program to help with focus 

There are several tools you can use to help your child begin to focus better. Here are some of our go-to strategies: 

  • Practice mindfulness. Help your child calm down and ground themselves by tapping into their senses. Ask them to take a few deep breaths and name one thing they smell, one thing they see, one thing they hear, one thing they taste, and one thing they are touching. 
  • Get creative. Have your child process their thoughts through writing, drawing, or creating. Try to ask open-ended questions and listen intentionally as they express themselves. 
  • Create lists. Building routines and structure to limit surprising or overwhelming situations can be a huge help. If your child has a tough time getting out the door for school in the morning, work together to write a step-by-step list of their routine. This can include getting out of bed, having breakfast, brushing their teeth, etc. Then, post it somewhere, like a bathroom mirror, where they can look at it daily. 
  • Implement screen boundaries. Limit the amount of time they spend watching television, or using a computer or a  phone. 

How to motivate your child

It can feel impossible to motivate your child to do something they would rather avoid, like math homework. Motivation is the driving force for all human behavior, and it revolves around what you want or need to do at any given moment. So with that in mind, teaching your child to want to work on their long division can be, well, nearly impossible. I mean, who wouldn’t rather watch a movie as opposed to diving into a homework packet?! But you can increase your child’s motivation by establishing boundaries, which can override their desire. Try these tips and see if they work for your family: 

  • Create a calm environment. Of course, it’s difficult to focus in a chaotic setting. That’s why it helps to make your home as peaceful and predictable as possible. Limit things that can be distracting, like phones and loud toys. Turn off the television and monitor computer access. Clear out the clutter, add a soothing scent like lavender, and even try playing relaxing jazz or classical music in the background. 
  • Provide clear communication. Give instructions that focus on one step at a time, both verbally and visually, clearly outline rules and expectations, and, if necessary, come up with a secret code so your child can signal to you that they need further clarification without feeling embarrassed. 
  • Think short-term. Another thing to consider is that for many children, motivation is transient — meaning in the moment — in their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Enticing them with long-term rewards, like a trip to the toy store at the end of the month, may not fully motivate them. So think short-term, like an ice cream break after the homework session. 

    This also means that tasks that are looooong in duration can be overwhelming, so break them up into smaller, more manageable steps and provide breaks when necessary. For example, if they need to read for 30 minutes, allow them to read for 10, take a 2-minute break, and repeat.
  • Mix things up. Kids can benefit from variations in activities and movement. Try giving them the option to work on homework for 20 minutes, taking a 20-minute movement break, and then resuming homework is a great strategy. 

Remember that motivation is different for all of us! What motivates you may not motivate your child. Do what you can not to bring a judgmental tone into conversations regarding their willingness to do homework. That does not mean being indifferent on boundaries. It simply means paying attention to how you respond to them and being empathetic to what they may be experiencing. 

Ask them questions about how they feel and be willing to agree that this is hard, while also encouraging them to explore creative or imaginative solutions to their motivation. And when they exhibit good behavior and positive choices, give them tremendous amounts of praise for a job well done!

Let’s talk about fidget toys

The popularity of fidget toys, like spinners or stress balls, has risen exponentially in the last few years. While it is understandable to think that giving your child a toy would cause them to get distracted at school and at home, neurological studies have shown that fidget toys are a great resource to actually help them stay focused! 

Especially in cases where a child has ADHD symptoms, having a fidget can actually allow them to self-regulate in a controlled and constructive way. This means that the fidget is less a toy but rather a tool. You can use these guidelines with the acronym F.I.D.G.E.T. to help you determine if it's a toy vs. tool. 

Fist: Fidget toys should not be bigger than your child’s fist, otherwise, they risk becoming a distraction. 

Inexpensive: These will get lost easily, so consider what you spend on the toy that will likely need to be replaced.

Distraction: Getting fidgets that light up or make noise is more likely to draw your child’s attention away from the task they need to be focused on and will cause others in the class to be distracted as well. Keep them invisible and inaudible if possible.

Get things done: If your fidget is preventing your child from staying focused, meeting expectations, or getting classwork done, it is likely that that particular toy is not right for them. That does not mean that fidget toys are not good for them, but maybe finding something different is the answer. 

Expectations: Make sure you communicate the expectations to your child of what their fidget toy is to be used for and what is not allowed. It’s good to go one step further and check with their teacher to ensure it is classroom-approved. Teachers love that!

Tactile: The squishier, bendier, or more rough — the better! Tactile fidgets can provide a sense of control or grounding, which can be helpful when a child is feeling overwhelmed or anxious. 

Encouraging your child to focus is no easy task, so remember to take care of yourself in these more overwhelming moments. If possible, step away when you feel overwhelmed, even if it’s just for a few minutes to take a couple of deep breaths or to text a friend, “OMG parenting is hard!” Our team at Bend will be here for you along the way.