Short attention span

We've got tips for helping your school-ager get focused

I found it almost impossible to read books to Elizabeth because she just wouldn’t sit still,” says Laura Lyons.* “She would pretty much do somersaults while I was trying to read her a story, and it drove me crazy.”

“Being fidgety” is what Lyons calls it. Six-year-old Elizabeth has a short attention span and struggles to stick with a project or task for very long.

Range in attention spans
As with so many things in children’s development, there’s a range in attention spans — some children can pay attention for considerably longer than others. For Elizabeth and kids like her, their maximum focused time is somewhat less than the average.

Aaron Senitt, who teaches a grade- two/three split class in Guelph, Ont., says that when the bell rings in his classroom, some of the kids will have been “done” for several minutes, while others will groan because they want to continue cutting and pasting and working on their assignment.

While this difference seems to be innate to a certain extent, Senitt says that teachers and parents can do a lot to help the kids who find staying on track more difficult. “It’s often the context,” he explains. “Sitting down at a desk is unnatural for a lot of children. For others, it’s not so much that they can’t pay attention, but that they are paying attention to other things that interest them more, like the cool eraser the student in the next row is using.”

*Name changed by request.
Getting focused on homework
Natural or not, sitting down at a desk is where most children spend much of their days. And for parents, the challenge often starts after school when the homework assignments come out.
Here’s what it’s like at the Lyons house: Mom reminds Elizabeth to get out her work, comes back to check 10 minutes later and finds Elizabeth playing catch with her brother in the hallway. Mom opens up the notebook and reminds Elizabeth to do the math problems she hadn’t finished in school that day, but when she checks again, only one math question has been answered and Elizabeth is now under the bed and teasing the cat with a piece of string.

If that sounds like your child, Senitt offers these suggestions:

Stay close. See if you can sit or stand near your child while he works. But don’t do this in an intimidating way, says Senitt: “You want to be supportive, giving your child some attention while he’s working.” It also might work better to have him doing homework at the kitchen table if that’s where you’re going to be, rather than in his room where he’s all alone.
Show interest in what your child is working on. Ask him to tell you about the math questions as he works through them.
Play music. “Music can help some kids focus,” Senitt says. “I like to have quiet classical music playing in the background in my classroom.”
• If your child has a reading assignment, Senitt suggests that you first encourage her to look at the cover of the book and flip through the pages to look at the pictures. “Ask her to make some predictions about what the book is going to be about and how the story might go, based on the things she looked at,” he suggests. “As she reads, ask her what she thinks might happen next and talk about why she thinks that. Getting her to think more deeply about the story will help her stay focused.”
While a range in attention spans is normal in this age group, if you’re concerned that your child’s having real difficulties, speak to the teacher and perhaps your doctor.

That’s what Lyons and her husband did, with success. “We’ve seen an occupational therapist and a child development specialist for Elizabeth, and the school has been very, very willing to work with us,” adds Lyons.

For Elizabeth, the occupational therapist’s recommendation that she get more physical activity has been a huge help. Bouncing on her mini-trampoline for half an hour before she even looks at her homework burns off some of the energy that has built up during school, for example. Lyons’ understanding attitude helps too. “Elizabeth is a lot like me. When I worked in an office, I was constantly up and down to the bathroom because I couldn’t stand sitting at a desk all day,” she says. “So I know how she feels, and I try to be supportive rather than critical.”

When is it ADHD?
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder needs to be diagnosed by a physician, but the Centre for ADD/ADHD Advocacy Canada (CADDAC) lists “red flag” symptoms. Here are a few (for a complete list and more information, visit caddac.ca):
• distracted easily from the task at hand by noises or things going on around them 

• difficulty staying focused on one activity 

• looking around frequently

• not focusing on speaker when spoken to 

• daydreaming 

• unable to remember verbal instructions

• losing things 

• difficulty starting things 

• misinterpreting instructions

• not completing work without being reminded

• difficulty organizing belongings and work 

• forgetting normal routines

• unable to pay attention to details

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