20 essential things to help kids with ADHD build focus

So many parents are frustrated because their kids can’t focus. On anything! (Well, usually the things we want them to do.) Eating dinner. Doing classwork. Finishing homework. Doing chores. In our fast-paced, driven to distraction world, focusing for long can be hard for any child. But especially for kids with ADHD. Nonetheless, focus is a critical skill to learn and be successful. Fortunately, we can help. Here, I outline 20 essential things to do to help kids with ADHD build focus.

Warning: this articles does not outline the typical accommodations we give to help with focus, such as breaking tasks down. This article instead emphasizes ways to actually build the skill of focusing.

1. Teach kids: they CAN change their brain!

Kids need to learn they can be the boss of their brain. They can change their brain and how their brain works. Every time we experience something, practice something, or learn something, we are changing our brain. Our brain is like a muscle – we can train it to be stronger in so many different ways. And focus is one of those ways we can make it stronger. Kids just need to know they can!

Just as they need to learn they can strengthen the focus part of their brain, they need to learn what drains their brain power to focus.

We know we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, so have them watch out for those brain drainers. Checking every text message that come in when they are doing their work is a great example of brain drainers because every time they shift away from their work, they have to work harder to get back on task. To conserve brain energy and actually build focus, they need to focus on nothing else other than their work until it is done.

2. Practice focus

Like any skill, kids need to practice the skill to master the skill. If we want to work on improving focus, we need to practice focusing for longer periods of time. Attention is an endurance skill – it takes training and effort to sustain it. Like a muscle, attention needs to be built with daily practice and commitment.

Kids with ADHD brains tend to stay in default mode (i.e., mind wandering) more than other kids without ADHD. (On a side note, notice that I said DEFAULT mode – that is where our brain likes to be and does its best. So it is important that they have that mind-wandering time too). But, we can train the brain to work in the attention mode more effectively and for longer periods of time.

Focus on managing focus

Ok, you get the message: Practice is important. But, we need to make sure we are practicing the right way.

When we work on any skill, we need to always remember what our goal is when we practice. Writing is a great example. Do you want kids to write a story? Then focus on their ideas and plot development first. Don’t expect them to use proper capitalization and punctuation as they are trying to get their ideas down on their first draft. That comes later on; otherwise, they will forget their ideas. It is a step-by-step process.

The same goes for attention. If our goal is to increase attention, then we need to focus on attention and not worry about also completing the math sheet in front of them. That comes later.

3. Define what focus looks like

Before doing anything, adults and kids both need to know what focus actually looks like. When my eldest first started ringette, all the parents would yell, “Skate!” to their kids as I was always yelling, “Pay attention!” Every day I’d remind her to “pay attention.” Every day she’d respond, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” Until. One day she lost her cool and screamed at me, “I AM paying attention!!!!” The realization hit me – what exactly was it she was paying attention to? So then I clarified, “The ring. Pay attention to the ring. Always watch where it goes.” Aha. With that specificity, her game sense changed overnight.

Thus, it is important that everyone knows what focus looks like. This could mean highlighting the operations as they solve a math equation. Or repeating our questions back to us.

I love using role play or video modelling to show kids when they are on- and off-task. Looking around the room is off-task. Talking about something different is off-task. Even thinking about something different is off-task.

Once kids can completely understand what focus means, they can move on.

4. Get a baseline

First, get a baseline on how long your child can focus for. You may want to create a table of different things. They might be able to read for 10 minutes before getting off-task but only 2 minutes when asked to write a paragraph. My daughter can draw for hours on end but only focus on her math for about 7 minutes.

5. Establish expected time for focus

Once you have an idea of how long your child can focus on, start establishing specific amounts of time they are expected to attend for. The key is to help them be successful right away. If they can usually sit to do math for 5 minutes, then only expect them to focus for 2 minutes. For my daughter, I would only have her write for 1 minute max and math for 4.

6. Experiment with different strategies to help build focus

There are loads of strategies to help kids stay on task. But, every child is different and they need to learn for themselves what will or will not work. Remember – what might work for you might not for them, so don’t push your ideas as the right way. Experiment and see what works. Try the ideas listed here, but be sure to add other ones you or your kids come up with too! Keep brainstorming – there are always new ways that might help.

7. Mantras

We all need to learn how to cheerlead ourselves on. Have kids learn a mantra they can tell themselves.

“You can do anything for 2 minutes!”

“I am going to focus for 10 minutes. Nothing is getting in my way.”

“I can do it! 5 minutes is nothing – then I can have a whole half hour to play!”

8. Note interrupting thoughts

Whenever kids have an off-topic thought, have them write a tally mark on a separate piece of paper. Sometimes they get ideas of things they just have to do or remember something they just have to share. But, doing so will get them off-task (and it will take them twice as long to get back on track). This way they can keep track of things that pop up without losing focus. Once the time is up they can go back and see how many things came up. If it is important, they will remember. If not, then they can forget about it.

9. Have a physical time charm

Kids can benefit from having something they can wear to remind them what the expectation is. Perhaps it’s a lanyard with their job on it (e.g., attention master), a badge on their shirt, or a watch on their wrist. As long as they are wearing it, they need to “focus” (however you have defined what that means). These things can work wonders and can help with later generalization; that is, knowing that whenever they are wearing this, they need to focus.

10. Be active

And not necessarily physically. It is easier for kids to focus on something when they are actively engaged. For example, instead of passively reading a chapter in the text book, have them actively find the answers to the end-of-chapter questions. Read with purpose. Take notes in class with purpose. Write notes in the margins of their books. Talk about things they have just learned. Mind map everything they know on a topic.

Being an active participant = better focus.

11. Time it

I like having kids see the passage of time. Thus, I usually have an analog clock readily available they can watch time pass as they work and start to learn how long it takes them to do things.

12. Reward!

When kids can work until the time is up without interruptions, be sure to reward them. Put a checkmark on their paper or star chart to track their progress.

13. Expand trials with successes

Depending on the child’s age, it will be good to have several little practice trials. 3 minutes of work, then a short break. Add another set of 3 minutes of work, then a short break.

You will have to see what works well for your kids – some can do well with a couple minutes of break, though others might need longer. For young kids with short work intervals, they should be able to do 3 to 5 sets. For older kids, they should earn a longer break after every 4 to 5 sets for about 10 to 20 minutes.

Keep repeating these sets to help kids with ADHD build focus until the established goal is reached.

Go slowly though – we want them to keep experiencing success and not get discouraged. If they can consistently work for 5 minutes at least 80% of the time, you can increase the work interval to 7 minutes. The key is for them to:

a) know how long 7 minutes Or however long they are to focus) actually is,

b) know that they can do anything for 7 minutes, and

c) be motivated work that long.

14. Be purposeful with breaks

Create expectations about what breaks should look like. Perhaps it is a movement break. Get up and do 10 jumping jacks. Do 25 chair push-ups. If they know what they need to do, they can get an energizing break without getting too off-task.

Perhaps the break is getting ready for what they need to do next. Getting materials ready. Clearing their work space from the last activity to the new one. Perhaps making their environment better if they were distracted too much, such as finding a better place to sit if they were distracted. Or grabbing a pair of noise-reducing headphones. Or having some nuts and water close by.

15. Incorporate time awareness and management

Kids with ADHD have a hard time keeping track of time and knowing how long it takes them to do things. You can start building this skill at the same time you build attention by having them predict how many pages they can read or questions they can answer in each time interval they are to focus. This isn’t meant for them to rush through things but to start learning how long things take them (which is an important skill to have as an adult). Have them make a prediction and then have them write how much they actually accomplished. You can create a simple chart.

Over time, kids will learn how long it will take them to do things and how many sets they will need to complete them.

16. Clear expectations

Create clear time frames for work and then for play. At the beginning, the goal is to focus for an established period of time. Then, once that time period is done, they can go play.

Over time the focus will shift from time periods to tasks completed. But, there should be a clear cut off for work. If kids do not see an end in sight, they are more apt to give up and get off task.

17. Create a consistent routine

Just like a muscle, focus needs regular practice to grow stronger. To get motivated to go to the gym, many people create routines around going, such as packing their bag the night before and preparing a motivating playlist of songs.

Have kids create a routine to get ready for their focus practice. Perhaps gathering all the materials they need. Organizing the tasks they are going to do in the order they are going to do them. Making predictions about how long things will take/how many sets they need to do. Preparing their environment for success. Maybe even playing motivating music to get them pumped.

18. Reward the right thing

If they sit and are actively engaged in their work for the time frame expected of them, then sitting and engaging for that period of time is what is reinforced. NOT how many math equations they could solve. Remember: the focus is improving focus, not math fluency.

19. Have fun

When kids are having fun and engaged, focus is not even an issue. Therefore, help build interest. And get them learning creative ways to help build interest into their learning as well. For example, if learning about gravity, have them watch skateboarding blooper videos. Use Harry Potter characters to talk about character development. Develop areas of expertise within a subject they can focus on and be proud of.

20. Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness is really practicing focus. And researchers have shown that, when adapted to fit the needs of kids (e.g., using visual supports or including moving meditations), mindfulness practice can improve not only focus, but also reduce hyperactive behaviours.

Practice sitting quietly and focus on breathing in and out. Establish specific times of day or whenever, for example, you are sitting at a red light (either on the bus or car) to practice taking a moment to focus.

Additional Resources

Here are some great resources you may want to check out, especially if you want to use more mindfulness based practices to help kids with ADHD build focus:

UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre (includes free guided meditations)

Growing Up Mindful: Essential Practices to Help Children, Teens, and Families Find Balance, Calm, and Resilience

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