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The Right (And Wrong) Way to Help a Child Who Has Trouble Focusing

Here are some common mistakes parents make attempting to get kids back on task — and some better approaches to try.

So, your child isn’t focusing. Maybe they’re just wowed by the world around them. Maybe they’re completely zoning out during a Zoom lesson, staring into space instead of at their school assignment. It can be frustrating when a kid veers off task, but a well-meaning “Hey, listen up!” probably won’t do the trick. Parents have an important role in helping a child with a short attention span or who has difficulty focusing — and how you respond in that frustrating moment makes a big difference in what’s harmful and what’s helpful.

If your goal is to foster a longer attention span in your child, keep in mind that focus is a skill. With a bit of strategic help (and, of course, patience), your kids can develop and improve that skill over time. 

Looking to help a child who just won’t focus on what’s in front of them? Here’s what child development experts have to say about common mistakes parents make attempting to get kids back on task — and better approaches to try.

1. The Mistake: Forgetting your child’s focus issues are developmental or situational, not purposeful

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The Better approach: Notice and explore

Why: There is something triggering about having to remind your child for the millionth time to focus on their chore, start their classwork, or finish their latest homework assignment. “Parents can sometimes jump to shaming or expressing disappointment, anger, or annoyance without stopping to think about our child’s viewpoint,” says school psychologist Rebecca Bransetter

Keep in mind that because focus is a skill, younger kids don’t always have the brain power to hone in on a task. Bransetter points out that the part of the brain responsible for focus doesn’t develop fully until early adulthood. And in older kids, stressful situations (like, oh, distance learning in a global pandemic) can make it more difficult to pay attention.

So before you respond to a child who’s having trouble focusing, Bransetter suggests reminding yourself that your child is not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time. When you see your child unfocused, stop and remind yourself that there is likely a lagging developmental skill or a situational reason that your child is struggling.

Try “notice and explore” technique. First, observe your child’s struggle, then try asking questions like: “I notice you are having a hard time starting on your math. What’s going on for you? Are you okay? Can I help in any way? What thoughts are popping into your head right now about this math worksheet?”

2. The Mistake: Jumping into problem-solving mode too quickly

Better approach: Teach your kids to problem solve themselves

Why: When we see our kids unfocused, our instincts are usually to jump in with our great strategies. (Have you tried putting your phone on airplane mode? What about earplugs?) But Bransetter says jumping in too quickly to “fix”  is glossing over an opportunity to teach your children problem-solving techniques.

Instead, start by asking questions — what have you done in the past to ignore texts from your friends to finish your work? What ideas do you have for staying focused while your little brother is playing nearby?

Keep in mind that with older kids especially, the best strategy is the one they came up with on their own, because they’ll have more buy-in. Frame it up as an “experiment.” Then, you can look at the “data” to see if that strategy worked. “If listening to music drowns out their brother and they

get their homework done, then it works,” Bransetter says. “If not, then you can have a discussion about other strategies.”

3. The Mistake: Telling your child what to do 

The Better approach: Ask questions with empathy

Why? Seeing their kids toggle over to YouTube when they’re supposed to be working on an assignment or listening to their teacher on Zoom during distance learning, is frustrating for parents. You might be tempted to raise your voice in frustration, but Bransetter says stressed-out demands will likely trigger a stress response in your kids — a counter-productive approach if calm focus is your goal.

Instead, aim to calm yourself down (deep breaths) then ask questions.For example, “I notice you’re on YouTube. Is that what your teacher assigned to do right now?” or “I can’t see your teacher on Zoom. What do you think you can do to make sure you see her?” 

“Questions bring focus back to your child’s frontal lobe, which is where rational thought can occur,” says Bransetter. “Kids can’t problem-solve if they feel stressed or judged.”

4. The Mistake: Focusing too much on the work

The Better approach: Build in “brain breaks”

Why: After a summer of playing outside all day, you might expect your kids to seamlessly transition to work-mode. But, like any other human, your kids need breaks — especially now that they may have exchanged in-person school for distance learning in the living room. So let go of the mindset that your kids need to replicate an entire school day at home. 

Nermeen Dashoush Ph.D, an early childhood education professor at Boston University and Chief Curriculum Officer at MarcoPolo Learning, recommends leaving gaps in the day for your kids to discover boredom and play. “These gaps and breaks will help your kids focus better when they return to the curriculum,” Dashoush says.

For younger kids, encourage physical play (think gross motor skills) during brain breaks. Katie Rosanbalm, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, says physical activities help kids release pent-up stress, which will ultimately help them focus later on. 

“When we’re sitting still focusing on something stressful, all those stress hormones build up in our bodies,” she says. “The best way to process those hormones is to move, to get all that energy out.”

Keep in mind that if you host a kitchen dance party, you’ll need to help your kids settle back into work mode when the time comes. “Kids have to get their brains and bodies back into that lower-energy space,” Rosanbalm says. In such cases, try pretending you’re going down an elevator with your kids as you sink into your chair, getting quieter and slower as you count down from 10.

5. The Mistake: Providing too much support

The Better approach: Give instructions, then give space

Pediatric occupational therapist Marissa LaBuz says she commonly sees parents and even teachers provide too much support to kids struggling with focus. 

“Helping a child to focus and attend so they understand the instructions and task is great, but sitting on top of them and providing them with a ton of help and guidance can actually do more harm than good,” she says. Helicopter parenting will only make the child more dependent on your support, prompting, and reminders, so they may not be willing to do the work on their own.

Instead of hovering over your kid’s chair, give instructions and walk away. 

“Provide them with just enough support so they understand what’s being expected of them, but give them the tools to independently work on their own,” LaBuz suggests. “I like to ask the child questions to make sure they’re focused and listening, for example, what was the last thing that the teacher said? What page should you be turning to?” 

If the focusing issue comes during independent work, LaBuz recommends using a visual timer to keep your child on task. Whether it’s an egg timer, visual clock, or simply a stopwatch on your phone, a concrete reminder may help children to stay working independently for a short period of time. 

6. The Mistake: Forcing your child to focus on material they’re not interested in

The Better approach: Figure out if the task is too easy or hard

If you’ve tried everything and your kid consistently resists working on a task, you may need to do some sleuthing to figure out if the task is either too easy or too hard. Rosanbalm says kids quickly lose interest when material (or a chore!) isn’t correctly aligned with your child’s abilities. 

You may not have total control over your child’s second grade curriculum, but if you think the material isn’t challenging enough (or vice versa), it can’t hurt to talk to your kid’s teacher about other options. The goal is to find a “sweet spot” that will engage your kid’s brain fully for age-appropriate increments of time. 

As frustrating as it can be when your child struggles to pay attention, consider asking for help, whether from your child’s teacher, pediatrician, or a therapist. “There’s nothing developmentally normal about what’s happening in the world right now,” says Rosanbalm. “If you’re having a hard time coping with parenting, don’t hesitate to ask for support.”