Focusing on Lack of Focus

October 19, 2022

Focusing on Lack of Focus

By: Cari Newman, Parent Coach

It’s Parent-Teacher Conference season again, and you are not alone if your child’s teacher told you some version of “[Your child] walks around the room while everyone else is on the rug.” Or, “[Your child] isn’t finishing classwork in school, so we’d like to send some home for homework.” I’ve been that parent and that teacher, and I know how hard it is to say and hear those words on both sides of the table.

The most challenging part is figuring out what to do when the immediate upset, sadness, or defensiveness wears off after a hard conversation. What does this mean? What can we do? How bad is it? Do we need to see a doctor? My goal is to help you cut through some of the noise, as I’ve done with countless families over my nearly 30-year career.

Is it ADHD?

The real questions are, “What is ‘normal’? How can I tell what’s going on with my child? And is there anything I can do?” Like everything else in life, ADHD is a spectrum. Some kids exhibit no signs, and to you, I say, “Go in good health.” Other kids are clearly off the charts, and treatment is a near-necessity. But most of the children we’re talking about fall somewhere in the great grey middle. It’s hard to know whether to wait and see or jump right into problem-solving mode before things go off the rails.

Here are some things to consider as you’re starting down this path:

Most of us—even adults who are largely choosing what to do with our time-- fade in and out of attention. It isn’t realistic to think that our children will be able to focus on what a grown-up is telling them to do for 6 or 7 hours while also remembering to walk in a line and stay reasonably quiet. It’s honestly no wonder our kids fade in and out of focus. (Think of what you would do if you were stuck at a professional conference 180 days a year—yikes.)

What if we agree not to pathologize something really normal? Instead of hyper-focusing on focus, we can teach kids how to get back on track when they zone out and then try to re-engage. If a child can learn to pick up context cues from the group - what are the other kids doing?- or look for directions written on the board, they are much more likely to be able to re-enter whatever’s going on in the classroom with minimal distraction. Let’s teach kids these skills.

Most schools (even the best schools) are not set up to meet the needs of individuals. Schools are set up to meet the needs of the group, and we all hope that the needs of each individual fall within the range of group needs so the individuals’ needs can get met, too. This means that when a child needs movement, a play break, or a snack, it’s unlikely that they will be able to have one at that time.

What if a child who’s wandering around the room just needs some way to stretch and move their growing body? What if we encourage them to take a lap around the building, do some wall push-ups, or get a drink of cold water? With some time and intention, we can teach children how to be more aware of their needs, take a quick reset break, and re-join the group.

Children are not designed to sit and follow directions all day. Children learn by doing, by moving, and by playing. Many schools have had to minimize doing, moving, and playing because there’s not enough personnel or funds to ensure those things can be done safely. So, where I had three 30-minute recess times a day with access to slides and swings and woodsy places to make forts (and arguably minimal supervision), kids today have one 15 or 30-minute “recess” on blacktops with basketball hoops and (if they are lucky) a field with soccer goals.

What if we could help kids focus better in school by building in some physical exercise before school? I KNOW mornings are already rushed; I’m not talking about anything big or fancy. Even small changes can make a big difference, like waking up 5 minutes early and doing some yoga poses together, walking the dog, or getting to school a few minutes early to take a lap around the track. (I had a parent years ago who brought her child to school 15 minutes early and ran a mile with him every day before he came inside. He arrived in the classroom a little sweaty but could get his morning work done and join class meeting—a real win!)

Teachers are doing their best in tricky situations. Every teacher I know wants to help each child succeed. Especially given the last many years of Covid Teaching, however, teachers have been repeatedly asked to do the impossible. There is a way to dig a little deeper into what’s happening at school and do some problem-solving WHILE helping the teacher feel supported and appreciated.

What if we let teachers know that we want what they want—a happy, well-adjusted child who is as successful as they can be at school? If we turn our requests into queries, we set up a problem-solving relationship instead of an adversarial one.

In addition to dropping breadcrumbs about things to try, you’re also gathering valuable information that you will need if you decide to see a doctor about what’s going on with your child.

Here are some questions to get you started:

Does the need for movement happen mostly when the group is on the rug listening, or when the child is working individually?

If mostly during listening or quiet times, does sitting in a chair or standing at the back of the group help?

Does having a job like writing things down or on-topic drawing help?
Does sensory input help? (I am NOT a fan of “fidgets,” as they are mostly distracting toys, but I’m a big fan of sensory input like having a strip of scratchy Velcro under the chair or having a small binder clip to hold. Explore what truly helps your child focus and doesn’t become a toy.)

If mostly during individual work times, does the child understand what to do?
Are they paralyzed by the enormity of the task and need it broken down into smaller steps (even folding a worksheet in half so they can only see part of the page can cut down on visual distractions and overwhelm)?
Does a small stickie note on the child’s desk with reminders of what to do next help?

Does the child get lost during transitions? If so, what happens if the teacher writes directions on the board for the child to reference? Or what happens if they ask the child to repeat the directions for the teacher before they leave the rug?

Does the lack of attention or need for movement happen at a particular time of day?
If so, can the teacher let them have a quick high-protein, low sugar snack around that time? (High protein breakfasts or mid-day protein bars can help!)

It’s heartbreaking to know that your child is struggling with attention and focus at school. Even if you’ve seen the signs for a while, it’s challenging to know what to do next. Please remember that we are asking extraordinary things of young people. While those expectations aren’t going away any time soon, we can take simple, concrete actions to help our children meet those expectations with greater ease. When we ask the right questions and partner with the right professionals, we can smooth the challenging path for ourselves and our children.

Remember that parenting has no one-size-fits-all approach, and the target is constantly in motion. No matter how confused, exhausted, or disheartened you feel, there is hope and support for your family.

If you would like to discuss this or any other parenting issue, please reach out to me at

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