ADHD and the Trouble with Focus

There are three key ways that kids with ADHD have trouble with focus.

1. Sustaining their attention to tasks or play activities. Kids with ADHD have trouble staying focusing on one thing, they are easily bored, they are easily distracted, and they have trouble with persistence. Doing anything for too long – even things they might be interested in initially – can become repetitive and boring. Kids will then become distracted by ANYTHING that is more exciting. Even their own thoughts will become a distraction, such as obsessing over what they would rather be doing.

When distracted, kids with ADHD also have a hard time to shift back to what they were doing. Even within just a few seconds of distraction, kids might even forget what they were doing in the first place and need help to get started again.

When they have trouble sustaining their attention, kids have a hard time following through with instructions and finishing things. Chores are left undone. Half-eaten meals are forgotten. Lights are left on. Kids are only half dressed. Kids with ADHD often bounce from one activity to the next. A child may get excited to build a new Lego set but ends up leaving it half built to move on to start a painting.

Class discussions or conversations can be like broken radio signals where kids get part of the information, but not all. It is usually more obvious when younger kids stop listening because their whole bodies tend to disengage from interactions and they need constant reminders to stop and listen.Other kids may stare into space, daydream, and seem blank, completely missing what is going on around them. Even when you are talking directly to them and they seem like they are listening (and may even respond!), their mind wanders with the million thoughts racing through their mind and they miss what you tell them.

Similarly, their overactive brain makes it hard for them to make sense of and remember what they read, needing to reread and reread passages to get the information.

2. Knowing (and choosing)what they need to pay attention to. The ADHD brain cannot effectively filter out irrelevant information and tends to focus on the most interesting thing. Unfortunately, the most important information is not usually the most interesting or memorable information. Kids with ADHD can easily become focused on the wrong information, such as what Johnny is doing in the corner rather than what the teacher is saying.

When they are doing their work, kids have a hard time knowing when they need to pay attention to small details or what details they do need to focus on and end up making careless mistakes. In both cases, learning becomes difficult. And its not just math homework or spelling that kids make careless mistakes. Kids with ADHD make more mistakes than peers in most things – even video games (yes, kids with ADHD make more mistakes and die more often in video games than kids without ADHD).

3. Shifting attention. When their brain is stimulated, kids with ADHD have a hard time shifting their attention away from the thing that they are engaged in, like video games.

Kids can become hyperfocused, which can be confusing (and frustrating!) for parents when their kids are easily distracted when doing some things but then they can focus on other things for hours at a time. Thus, it can seem like kids with ADHD are lazy and lack motivation when it comes to things like homework. So, when you’re calling your kids for the umpteenth time with no response, it is not that they are willfully trying to ignore you; the ADHD brain is so engrossed that your kids really can’t shift their focus away on their own.

What to do

The dopamine in the ADHD brain releases at low rates, which makes it hard for kids to focus on things that are not inherently interesting for them. But, when interested and engaged, their brain works just as well as others without ADHD. Therefore, the first and foremost thing to do is to get kids buy-in! Get them interested. Here are a few other quick tips.

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