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Ways to Help Your Child Focus and Pay Attention

Your child is already paying attention. The question is what are they paying attention to? Children who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder often fail to pay attention to what they are supposed to be paying attention to -- the teacher in the classroom, your instructions to stop running in the house or the fact that they have a quiz next week in social studies class. They are often paying attention to things that are more interesting to them such as what the other kids are doing in the class, what the dog is doing while you’re nagging at them or how many home runs his favorite baseball player has hit.

Using this principle -- that your child is intensely interested in and paying attention to some things -- you can help your child focus in situations where she currently is falling short. The main strategy is to channel your child’s energy and interest to promote the development of persistence in other tasks.

1. Sometimes kids lack persistence because they doubt their own abilities. By not trying they can preserve their dignity by saying “I failed because I didn’t even try.” You can channel your child’s enthusiasm for a sports hero or a favorite movie or cartoon character by telling him to pretend like he is his favorite hero. If your child is mesmerized by Lance Armstrong, invite your child to walk and talk like Lance would. By pretending to have a lot of confidence, your child will get the feeling for what it is like to have confidence and have the foundation for acting from that place.

2. Sometimes kids lack persistence because they feel if they have a disorder why should they even try since there is already something wrong with them. Using a person whom your child is fascinated with -- his or her hero -- you can ask your child to tell you what would have happened if that person said “Why Try?” If your child is obsessed with Harry Potter ask her what would have happened if he had just given up and didn’t try to overcome the many obstacles he faced.

3. Use your child’s areas of intense interest to develop basic skills that will help him in learning things that are not so interesting. For example, if you child is obsessed with cars you can help him find books or manuals about cars. In this way he will begin to develop some skills with reading that will carry over to other areas.

4. Let your child play and exercise in nature. A recent study (Faber-Taylor et al., 2001) has shown that playing in “green settings” helps children to focus and pay attention. The findings suggest that letting your child have a little bit of play time outside in nature before sitting down to do her homework might help her to concentrate, complete tasks and follow directions.

5. Become an advocate for your child in school settings. Sometimes your child needs little adjustments to help him focus in school. As a parent, if you can advocate for small changes, you can make a profound difference in your child’s behavior at school. For example, one parent found that by asking the teacher to let her child get out of her seat occasionally without being punished, the child was able to pay attention more in class just by making this one change.

6. Develop an appreciation for what your child does pay attention to. For example, often a child is not paying attention to the course work in school, but he is paying attention to what all the other kids are doing. Tell your child that his interest in other students shows a lot of caring and concern for others and intelligence about how other people get along and interact. Ask him to share his insights with you and comment on his abilities to understand what other people are thinking and doing. Praise your child at any opportunity for what they are paying attention to and find a way to reframe it as a strength rather than a deficit.

7. Find out what your child is paying attention to and encourage her interest in that arena. For example, if your child is interested in sports, rather than being discouraged that his interest will not lead to academic success, find a way to show him that you honor his interest and find ways to channel that interest. When parents try to discourage interests in their children, the child will feel that the parent does not understand him and feel alone. As an example, you could use an interest in sports to an exploration of the human body and how to encourage optimal functioning. This could lead to increased interest in science classes.

In summary, the main principles of change are to maintain a positive perspective of your child and to stay connected to your child. By honoring his or her areas of intense interest you can transform your child’s problems into strengths.

About the Author: Dr. Lara Honos-Webb is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Walnut Creek, CA. She is author of The Gift of ADHD, the forthcoming Listening to Depression: How Understanding Your Pain Can Heal Your Life, and more than twenty-five scholarly articles. Her work has been featured in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and Publisher's Weekly as well as newspapers across the country and local and national radio and television. She specializes in the treatment of ADHD and depression and the psychology of pregnancy and motherhood; she speaks regularly on her areas of expertise. Honos-Webb completed a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship at University of California, San Francisco, and was, until recently, an assistant professor teaching graduate students. She offers telephone therapy
to residents anywhere in California. For more information, please visit her website at .

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