Easily Distracted Children: 5 Ways to Help

ADHD is only one reason for a short attention span. Find the cause, then try these tips for helping kids build the skill of focus.

Prisma Staff
February 16, 2023

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ADHD is only one reason for a short attention span. Find the cause, then try these tips for helping your child focus.

Daydreaming, fidgeting, interrupting, not following directions... the signs of a distracted child are clear, but the reasons behind the behavior are not always.

With diagnoses on the rise, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is often among the first explanation for attention problems. And while you certainly should consult a trusted physician if your child is having a hard time focusing, there are other factors to consider.

First, keep in mind a child’s ability to focus varies, but generally increases as part of child development. Experts agree a good rule of thumb is 2-3 minutes per year of age, so an eight year-old should be able to focus 16-24 minutes at a stretch, on average.

Second, before considering neurodevelopmental issues, do a quick inventory of their physical needs, with the guidance of your family physician: Are they sleeping enough? Eating regular, healthy meals and snacks?  Getting enough physical activity? Having enough time for unstructured play? How much screentime and social media time do they have per day?

Take a similar look at their mental health: distraction, in the context of constant worry, lack of affect, moodiness and more, can be caused by issues such as anxiety and depression — and should be addressed by a medical professional.

Third, zoom in a little closer on your child’s ability to focus (and ask your child’s teacher to weigh in, too). Specifically when do they have a hard time focusing, versus times when they seem to have a longer attention span?

1. At a certain time of day?

2. When they are in certain environments (home, school, formal settings, social settings, near a television or electronic device)?

3. When they are doing specific tasks (reading, math, schoolwork in general, preparing for an exam)?

4. When they are required to do something (versus when they have their own choice)?

5. When they are learning in a certain mode (visual, auditory or kinethestic)?

Once you’ve ruled out physical and psychological issues and done some digging about the context of their trouble focusing, you can strategize next steps.


Strategies for Helping Kids Improve Their Focus

1. Give them flexibility

Most of us have a time of day when we are noticeably more focused and times when we’d rather be on a hammock. As you observe your child’s attention waxing and waning, you can adapt their schedule accordingly, building in more frequent breaks when they’re at their most inattentive and windows of deep work time when they’re at their sharpest.

At Prisma, we take advantage of the flexibility homeschooling allows; but even if your child attends traditional, in-person school, use this principle to help them organize their after school study time in the most advantageous way: Maybe they need to run around the block, take a shower or eat a snack before sitting down to do math.

Note: If you’re hoping to introduce more flexibility into your child’s traditional school experience, you’ll have most success if you get a formal diagnosis of a learning disability or neurodevelopmental disorder that enables them to get an individualized education plan [IEP] or a 504 plan — a path your family physician can help you go down.

2. Embrace their creative superpowers

If your child is popping up like a jack-in-the-box whenever they’re asked to do an assignment or read a book that someone else chose, they may be distracted because they aren’t engaged. While it’s no easy feat to develop an engaging curriculum, an easy first step could be to allow your child to pick their own books (graphic novels, comic books and recipe books count!). If you’re homeschooling, we recommend taking a project-based approach, where kids are given the opportunity to pursue their own interests, in a hands-on, interdisciplinary way.

3. Build it up slowly  

Focus is a muscle, and the only way to make it stronger is to build it up, bit by bit. Just like you wouldn’t expect to lift 300 pounds your first time at the gym, you can’t hope for an energetic eight-year-old to sit quietly and read for an hour on day one.

Whether or not they have any learning disabilities or learning difficulties, if your child’s attention seems in short supply around certain tasks — such as reading — encourage them to engage for a small amount of time. If they manage to read for five uninterrupted minutes,  try to reach that milestone every day for a week. Celebrate the win, and then the next week add on a few more minutes.  

4. Consider alternative education

Most schools are designed for kids to sit at a desk, wait to be told what to do, and follow instructions without much creativity. But so many successful entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, and creatives don't do best in that kind of environment! If your lifestyle allows it, consider switching to a form of schooling with more built-in flexibility.

Many kids find online learning less distracting because they aren't in the hectic social environment of in-person school or expected to work quietly when they’re being bombarded by random stimuli. A major benefit of an online school like Prisma is that families can engineer the ideal environment for their child; during the live workshops, kids can take breaks away from their computer when they feel their focus slipping or they start getting overwhelmed. And, rather than being constrained to socialize exactly when their in-person school permits, Prisma gives kids the power to opt into the school’s organized social experiences, at the time that’s right for them.

5. Give them ownership

Working to build attention is a collaborative, family effort, no question. But it’s also an area in which to practice letting your child take the reigns, strengthening their executive function skills as part of the process. If you have to police them to ensure they pay attention, they’ll never learn — and you’ll exhaust yourself.

At Prisma, we like to scaffold the ownership process for kids, and help them see how — as they mature and increase their self-control — they get more freedom over how they organize their time. When learners sit down at their desks every morning for school, they open up to a start page with their schedule, task lists, and reminders to eliminate distractions. Their coaches teach them how to manage their start page, setting expectations such as to check off tasks as they complete them. Then, as they show mastery and self-awareness, they’re given more choice about how to structure their day. That creates a feedback loop, where they can see the benefits of improving their ability to focus.

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