Focus, Focus, Focus!
March 13, 2008 8:47 AM   Subscribe

What can we do to help our son focus in school?

My first grader has a hard time focusing on the task at hand when he's in the classroom. His mind goes 90 miles an hour. He then looses his thought when he sees a movement. Rinse and repeat. As a result, he's unable to finish his class assignment. Typically, the class is given 30 minutes to do a sheet and then they switch activities. He's given at least three 30 minute blocks through the morning to get the one sheet done.

He can write. He can read. He's smart and has a lot to say. He wants to do the work. He wants to make people happy. Get him one-on-one and the work is done in a matter of minutes. It is not reasonable nor preferable for us to home school him or pay for a private tutor. He needs to learn how to do his work when he's sitting in a class with 15 other students.

None of us believe he doesn't do his work deliberately. None of us believe he has ADHD. He only has three of the inattention symptoms. He's not hyperactive nor impulsive. Additionally, he can sit and focus on a task for an extended period of time when he's either interested in it or there are no distractions. His math sheets are always done. Give him a new set of Legos and he'll build it, following the instructions, for hours.

Given all this, what can we do to help our son focus in school?
posted by onhazier to Education (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I would have an OT evaluate him for Sensory Integration Disorder.
posted by caddis at 8:55 AM on March 13, 2008

Is he hopped up on sugar? Shove some slow energy releasing foods into his system instead and see if he moves at a more.. reliable pace.

Also, are you sure he's not having difficulty with the class-work? Every parent thinks their kid is smart, but maybe he's having more trouble with it then you imagine. That would lead to the disinterest you mention.

That, or blinkers.
posted by Static Vagabond at 8:57 AM on March 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have you considered ADD (without the hyperactive tendencies)?

I would ensure that he has preferential seating. Make sure he's at the front of the class where he can't see the other students. Right in front of the teacher. Can he work with music on? I've never tried this with kids that young, but some of my Grade 8 students work much better with earphones on as it drowns out other 'kid' noises.

Best of luck to you. And good on you for not jumping to medication as an immediate solution.
posted by ms.v. at 9:01 AM on March 13, 2008

A lot of really bright kids have this problem. Usually it's because the pace at which things are taught is really slow for them so they become bored to tears. The thing that worked best for me was to think of school as a competition. If I was given something really dull to do I would try to see how fast I could do it compared to my classmates. It also helps to take an active part in the class. If the teacher asks a question and he knows the answer, encourage him to raise his hand to answer.

He'll have to try out different things to find out what works best for him. A lot of these kids are labeled ADD/ADHD or slow learners when in reality they are smarter than everyone else in their class. I have a feeling this is exactly what your son is dealing with. He is probably exceptionally bright and being forced to learn at the pace of average kids. I would not be surprised if he finds the work to be totally pointless, stupid, and a waste of his time. Try the competition angle and see if that works for him.
posted by GlowWyrm at 9:13 AM on March 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

My oldest boy has a relatively mild case of Sensory Processing disorder, and this site has been a lot of help understanding what's going on with him and strategies for managing it. In my boy's case, karate class has been very very good (control of his body, knowing where he is in 3d space, self discipline) as is wrestling with him(!). The silver lining with SPD or SID is that a lot of the therapies for it fall squarely into the Fun For The Whole Family Category. A trampoline might be worth looking into.
posted by Scoo at 9:29 AM on March 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, I read this and thought "did I write this AskMe and forget I'd written it?" This was our first grade son for pretty much the first half of the school year. Wouldn't do the work, even though we knew he could. Got sent to the principal's office repeatedly for goofing off in class. Easily, easily, easily distracted. The school counselor and the school psychologist got involved at one point.

What happens now: his teacher keeps a little checklist of how he does during the day, in the different subjects. Getting a "2" means he was able to do his work quickly and with no need for reminders. A "1" means that he had to get reminded once or twice, and a "0" means that he just didn't get things done. The numbers are added up, and each day he comes home with a number score.

That number score affects what he can do at home. The higher his daily score, the more fun things he can do when he gets home - video games, TV, Legos, etc. If he gets a low score, or gets a 0 in any subject - sorry, kiddo, no TV or video games. Go read a book or do your homework. We drew up a "behavior contract" spelling out what he would get or wouldn't get, based on his number score, and had him sign it.

It's been a life-saver. He knows that if he wants to do fun stuff after school, he has to pay attention in class and get the work done. He has his bad days every once in a while, but it's nowhere near as bad as it was at the start of the school year.

Hope this helps.
posted by Lucinda at 9:35 AM on March 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

He's a boy?

That describes my first grade behavior to a tee, but because I was such a voracious reader (and the medicalization of boyhood wasn't in full swing yet), I was able to get good grades anyway.
posted by Oktober at 10:21 AM on March 13, 2008

30 minutes is a long time to concentrate for some kids. Is it possible to divide the work sheet into smaller chunks?

By the way -- hyperfocus can go along with ADD / ADHD. I'm not saying he has it, but just that it doesn't rule it out.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:23 AM on March 13, 2008

It may be just that he's a right-brained thinker and the school system is structured in a very linear manner, which makes it boring from someone who has their own internal map of how things are connected.

If you Google "teaching right brain" you might find some answers.
posted by hulahulagirl at 10:45 AM on March 13, 2008

Sounds like my son. ADHD is not an all-or-nothing disorder - if he has a few sytmptoms look for some treatments that address those specific issues. I agree that it could be sensory integration issues - is the classroom loud? Are their distractions or background noise? You might want to try noise-blocking headphones at school, like these ones.
posted by GuyZero at 11:00 AM on March 13, 2008

I, as a teacher, encourage students like your son to work with others. If he's engaged and interacting with others then he will probably finish more quickly, have a richer classroom experience, and improve his interpersonal skills. Ask the teacher about putting him in a cooperative learning group. You can also try an incentive program at home. Ask him if he finished his work in a timely manner at school (or ask the teacher) and if the answer is yes, put a star on a piece of poster board. When he gets x number of stars, he gets to go to Chuck E Cheese or something.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:31 AM on March 13, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you all for your responses and keep them coming.

I'll check out ADD to see if it applies. I doubt it because he does not demonstrate this lack of focus/inability to complete a task for other items. As I mentioned in my original question, you can give him a 1,000+ Lego set and he'll sit and work on it for hours, paying close attention to the instructions. If you give him a sheet of math problems, he can and does do the work. I'll also look into Sensory Integration. Thank you for the suggestions.

His class doesn't have a "front" currently. The kids are not placed into rows. They are grouped with 4 facing each other. At the start of the year, the arrangement was different and he was at the front of the class. At that time, the teacher would have him scoot forward out of the line to work. It seemed to help some for a while.

He has admitted that he finds the writing assignments boring. I've tried encouraging him to see if he can be the first to complete the task because appealing to his competitive nature frequently works. However, he also has a hard time focusing on the teacher when the kids are seated together on the rug.

When I say my son is smart, it is more than just the proud and biased Mom speaking. It has been stated by all his teachers to date. At two, he correctly explained to Grandma how an air compressor works. When he gets to watch tv on the weekends, he asks for science programming as much as he asks for cartoons. (Mike Rowe, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman are his heroes. Science,bugs, dirt and explosions rock his world.)

Other than this focus thing, the work is not too hard for him. His handwriting sucks but I swear he comes by that genetically and he is only 6, after all. Spelling is improving as he learns how to spell more words.

I don't think he is hopped up on sugar. Breakfast is usually a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and a glass of milk. He gets a mid-morning snack at school of pretzels, granola or the like. At lunch, he frequently picks a salad from the choices the school offers. While we don't let him go nuts with sugar, he is allowed sweets on a regular basis.

I see no reason to medicate this kid. He's not out of control. He has this one issue which we are working on very closely with the teacher. He's a good kid. We're just looking for resources and strategies to help him get beyond this so that his future years in school are productive for him.
posted by onhazier at 11:41 AM on March 13, 2008

I see no reason to medicate this kid.

There are lots of ADHD treatments that are not medication. Just so you don't think that every book on ADHD ends with "use Ritalin".

Having said that he does sound like a smart kid and an average boy, where the stereotypical boy doesn't enjoy sitting in class all day filling out sheets. I mean, crap, that would kill me too. Set up a reward system to motivate him. That will probably be the most effective thing.
posted by GuyZero at 11:49 AM on March 13, 2008

I'll second the sensory integration issues as a possible issue.

My son fits that description to a T and was diagnosed with sensory integration issues. He's a smart kid, does very well one-on-one, but left to his own devices, he was blowing off work at school.

He was in a Montessori program that was disastrous for him (too many activities going on at once made for too much stimuli along with some crap teaching), but now that he's in a school with a small class and a teacher that understands, he's doing much much better. Not perfect, but much better. He went from remedial reading help (which was GREAT for him) to testing into 2nd grade reading.

We got very involved at home in supporting what was happening at school. If he didn't finish work at school, the work came home and cut into his play time. We also did things to make learning more fun... counting by 3's and 5's - Schoolhouse Rock to the rescue.

They also send home a report daily of how the day went. At first, he was having bad days every day (not finishing his work), and he didn't care. So, we started rewarding him daily when he got his work done. That helped him get some full weeks of good days, which allowed him to choose something from the "prize box" at school. I stopped rewarding daily, and all of a sudden having a good day became a big deal to him. If he had a less than perfect day, he'd get annoyed by it, mostly because he was seeing how one bad day could affect his weekly prize box loot. Starting out with small immediate rewards, then working up to a bigger longer term reward.

Above all, have patience with him. You're teaching him work habits at this point that are more important than what he knows at this point. That takes time, but it will be well worth it in the long run.
posted by kat at 11:49 AM on March 13, 2008

The DSM-IV only lists "ADHD". So far as it's concerned, "ADD" doesn't exist. But ADHD encompasses ADD -- one can be diagnosed with ADHD while showing no hyperactivity symptoms.

Your son sounds a lot like descriptions of ADHD children I've read. Hyperfocus, while not mentioned by the DSM-IV, is very, very frequently mentioned in accounts of ADD/ADHD (google 'hyperfocus' and see how references to ADD/ADHD dominate the results.) Far from contraindicating it, hyperfocus might possibly better be considered symptomatic of ADHD.

I see you've already said you'll consider the possibility; I just wanted to emphasize all this. And I'll echo GuyZero that an ADHD diagnosis shouldn't be taken to automatically mean medication.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:28 PM on March 13, 2008

It probably won't hurt to peruse this Scientific American article. I've read here and elsewhere that instead of focusing on rewards, achievement, or inherent intelligence, you should focus on effort and process.

And isn't the whole "sugar rush" thing with kids more or less a myth, assuming they're in fine physical health?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:12 PM on March 13, 2008

Check into the Waldorf schools (private or public "charter") in your area. The parts that are most relevant to your situation (that are found in Waldorf schools) are:
1) Lots of exercise, including a focus on balance, gross vs. fine motor skills
2) Class days are organized based on rhythm (periods of intense focus are balanced with other activities).
3) Nutrition. Cut out the sugar and highly processed foods.
4) Media - By removing TV & video games, kids ultimately find other ways to have "better" fun.

Good luck!
posted by watson415 at 1:26 PM on March 13, 2008

I was this kid and second what lucinda said. My mother met with my teacher, they made a scoring system for me that I would bring home everyday. My teacher even had secret signals for me during class to indicate I had earned a point for listening or other.

The main point was not parental knowledge of what I had done that day, it was the constant positive re-inforcement. When I completed one of those 30 minute tasks early, my teacher had made special independent projects for me that I would work on (that I was interested in). That was motivation to focus and finish the task so I could work on what I wanted.

I did (and still have) ADD and was on rytalin at the time. Not that I'm suggesting drugs, but he sounds exactly like me (I can focus like crazy when I want to) and I was diagnosed with ADD.
posted by dripdripdrop at 1:33 PM on March 13, 2008

I don't know if this article is what TheSecretDecoderRing was referencing, but I thought of this post when I saw it.
Boys need regular doses of action to focus on study
posted by hulahulagirl at 3:07 PM on March 13, 2008

I work in education and I can think of several things that it might be. However, without actually knowing your kid it would all be conjecture. Have you gotten anyone from school involved? The school psychologist should be able to help you out. Don't get scared at the thought of contacting yours...they don't just deal with kids with low IQs or emotional problems. They're experts in all kinds of behavior! That would serve your son much better than letting us take random stabs at diagnosis.

Best of luck!
posted by christinetheslp at 3:27 PM on March 13, 2008

While its always worth considering ADHD, etc....he might simply be a typical first grade boy. I used to teach first grade and what you describe was VERY common, especially among bright kids who love a challenge.

Is there something he can do when he finishes his work? Like, maybe read a book of his choice (sounds like he might like science books especially), a tricky puzzle (more on the mental or physical side, not necessarily the flat picture ones)? Then, he might be more motivated to get done with the simple/boring stuff and on to the more interesting.

Another thought is physical activity...maybe a short period of some movement exercise before school. But, at this age, they are back to being squirmy pretty quickly. You and the teacher could also work on a behavior plan where he's in charge of keeping track of how he's doing (even recording how long it took him, how he spent his time). It could be a fun, colorful graph that he fills in, or draws something in a little box each time he finishes a task. Even a little timer of his own. Getting him involved might really help him be aware of his own patterns too.

At home, you could do some simple attention/mindfulness exercises. Try some things like a "body scan"...he lies down and you guide him with "put all of your attention on your feet...etc, until his head." Or, get a bell, ring the bell and have him notice if he's breathing in or out (or in between) when he hears the bell. Or, a game of counting how many breaths until the bell stops (if its a bell with a long noise).
posted by hazel at 3:31 PM on March 13, 2008

It probably is ADD, but I tossed out sensory integration as many times ADD and SI are present together. Neither is super quantifiable like artery blockage or other medical disorders. In any event, the treatments for SI frequently help ADD kids, and this kid is a bit young for the drugs if you can help it. Some times something as simple as a rubber ball to squish or an inflated seat pillow can help these kids. You have a tremendous amount of research to do. I would not confine myself to the web, but would hit the library and bookstores hard, get educated, and find some good medical professionals. Definitely read some of Mel Levine's books. He's well ahead of the pack on these issues. In the end it may just be a bright kid bored with dull teaching, but be prepared for whatever might be the issue. Even the bright kids in the dumb classroom have big needs, and they often go unaddressed as everyone assumes that the bright kids will just figure it out. They won't. They are still just kids and when they are different from the other kids it is even harder to figure out, even though they are really bright. These things are very specific to the individual so you really need to know as much as the doctors and therapists if you really want to help your kid. That is a daunting task but if your kid is bright, you probably are too and you are up to it. Be his expert and his advocate. You are going to have issues with the school too most likely so get up to speed on that aspect of things as well. OK, sorry for the rant, I think it comes out of my own personal frustrations in this area.
posted by caddis at 7:50 PM on March 13, 2008

This was me in first through third grades. It wasn't that I was incapable of doing the work, but I'd just rather dawdle than do a worksheet that held no interest for me. One day, my mom just sat me down and explained to me that a lot of times in life, you're faced with a shitty, boring, unnecessary task. You have to do it anyway, because that's the way the world works. She made it clear that I didn't need to tie my sense of self-worth to an ability to complete drudgery, but that it was far from the last time I'd be faced with mindless tasks that require completion. After that, I pretty much just cranked out the busy work as fast as I could so that I could read books of my own choosing until the next task came up.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:44 AM on March 14, 2008

Whoops, kinda late, but here's the correct link for the Scientific American article I meant to link.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:48 AM on March 16, 2008

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