If you are the parent of a distractible child, you understand how agonizingly difficult it can be to get your child to complete a task. Add in the pressure of homeschooling or homework that your child isn’t interested in, and you have a recipe for disaster. Reminders are given, tempers flare, bribes are attempted, consequences are threatened… These scenes can occur regularly when teaching a distractible child, leading to frustration and discouragement for all involved. While there is no one-size-fits-all cure for distractibility, here are some helpful tips I have learned along the way to help ease the tension and keep my distractible child on the road to learning.
- Consider Attention Span – While all children are different, I have found that 20 minutes is a good guideline for how long the average elementary-aged child can concentrate before needing a break or change of activity. Experiment to find your child’s sweet spot, and don’t be afraid to adjust as needed depending on your child’s mood or energy level, or the difficulty of the task at hand.
- Start Off Right – Take care of physical distractions by making sure your child is reasonably rested, has recently eaten, and has a water bottle nearby. Also ensure that your child has all of the necessary school supplies for the work ahead, so that getting up to retrieve supplies doesn’t become an opportunity for going off-task.
- Minimize Distractions – Keeping the work area clear of visual clutter is very important for distractible learners. Also, it is important to minimize unnecessary noise, such as the telephone, the television, loud music, or siblings playing nearby. A big distraction for my child is the sound of my cell phone receiving a message, or seeing me check social media while he is working. If you must use your cell phone, keep it set to silent. Better yet, keep it entirely away from where you are working with your distractible child.
- Make a Schedule – Distractible kids can struggle to understand the bigger picture of time and task priority. Help them create a simple list of tasks they need to accomplish, and let them cross off each one as it is finished. Seeing a shrinking list is satisfying for them and gives visual reinforcement of how much work they have yet to complete.
- Work in Breaks – Schedule breaks at regular intervals (i.e. after 20 to 30 minutes of sustained effort). Breaks do not have to be long in order to be effective. I have found that body breaks (such as jumping jacks, hopping in place, stretching) help re-energize my child by releasing muscle tension and getting oxygen flowing to the brain. If you notice your child’s attention span is waning or his frustration is mounting, be proactive and take a short break. This goes a long way toward avoiding a meltdown!
- Incorporate Movement – Young children, especially boys, need to move when learning. Paper-based tasks like math worksheets can be done while standing at the table, or while mounted with painter’s tape on the dining room wall. It is also effective to toss a foam ball or stuffed animal back and forth while reciting math facts or spelling words. Be careful to keep structure in place and not to overdo movement, or it can become an opportunity for your distractible child to get further distracted.
- Make it Fun – When practical, turn learning into a game. Fun dispels boredom and helps learning to stick! When my son was learning sight words, I laid out word cards on the living room floor. I called out a word for him to find, and he would run to locate it and bring it back to me as quickly as possible. To keep things fresh, we would reverse roles, with him calling out the words and me being the runner. We counted the syllables in words by stepping them out on pillows scattered on the floor. My son’s all-time favorite was when I would assume a funny voice when teaching him his hardest subject. You don’t have to be this elaborate, but employing a little creativity will go a long way in keeping your distractible child engaged.
- Use Rewards – While we want to teach our kids that finishing work is its own reward, it doesn’t hurt to provide incentives once in a while. (Don’t we do this for ourselves?) Rewards should be small and serve to reinforce the behavior of completing work. Simple things like stickers for finished worksheets or extra iPad time for work done without complaining go a long way. One of my favorite rewards is to play a short game of my child’s choice once his work is complete. If his attention starts to drift during work time, I encourage him, “Hey, let’s get back on track so we can get that game in!”
- Use a Timer – For my child, working against the clock is a fun challenge and powerful motivator. However, I have learned how important it is to put enough time on the timer for him to complete his work. I have had an utterly discouraged child after giving his all and still coming up short on time, so bear this in mind when using this tool. Also, I advise not to use the timer in a punitive way. It is better for a child to see how much they can get done in the time given, rather than be given consequences for work left when the timer goes off. Lastly, know that working against a timer can backfire for some children, causing them to get stressed, resentful or to do sloppy work. Use a timer with care to make sure it is encouraging, not interfering with, your child’s learning.
- See Things from a Child’s Point of View – As adults, we can forget how hard it is to struggle when learning, or to learn things for the first time. We often do not realize how hard our children are working on the assignments given to them. If our child has learning challenges or is highly distractible, they work even harder. By setting aside our adult perspective and keeping a compassionate attitude, we will help keep tensions down and encouragement high. That is a great learning environment for any child!
Your turn: What is your favorite way to keep your child on task?