Kids with ADHD hear this every day – often many times a day. But have you ever stopped to think about what we are really asking them to do? Or why they have so much trouble doing it? Paying attention actually requires kids to do 3 things – 1) Know what they are supposed to pay attention to, 2) NOT pay attention to anything else, and 3) Keep paying attention. Kids with ADHD have trouble in all 3 areas:
1) Knowing what to pay attention to requires an ability to distinguish between important and unimportant details (like reading the instructions instead of just looking at the questions). Kids with ADHD have a lot of trouble with this because it requires working memory – the ability to hold multiple types of information in your head at one time. Kids with ADHD often have delayed development of working memory.
2) Kids with ADHD also have attentional impulsivity – essentially, they are impulsive in where their attention goes. Our attention is naturally drawn to strong stimuli – like loud noises, bright lights, and other people. We have to actively try to ignore these things. But kids with ADHD have much more trouble ignoring these things because they have less control of their attention. This is part of why they are so distracted by other kids and things like video games. In fact, kids with ADHD have a hard time drawing their attention AWAY from video games. This is why many kids with ADHD have trouble paying attention to most things, but ‘hyperfocus’ on video games. Its because they cant stop paying attention to video games.
3) Finally, kids with ADHD have a hard time keeping their attention on things. It takes a lot of energy to ignore distraction and keep focusing on something else. Kids with ADHD have to work much harder to do this. Think of the attention system as a muscle. If a typical kid is lifting 25 lbs to pay attention, a kids with ADHD is lifting 100 lbs. So their attention system burns out much quicker, and they lose the ability to keep paying attention.
So what can you do? a) Make sure to direct their attention to the important parts of a task, don’t assume they will be able to figure it out. b) Use a cue to bring their attention back – like tapping them on the shoulder or tapping their desk. Use something that draws their attention to you, and then direct it back to where it needs to be. c) Give them shorter assignments and more frequent breaks. Instead of asking them to do 30 problems, have them do 3 sets of 10 problems with a break in between. That way they don’t have to pay attention for as long.
These are just a few simple suggestions, there are many more strategies that can help kids with ADHD do their best to concentrate and stay on task. Hopefully, knowing a little more about why this is a problem can help you come up with some of your own tricks and strategies!