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Building a Focused Person From Childhood to Adult (Part 1)

Planting focusing seeds in preschoolers and grade schoolers.

When patients with ADHD come to our offices, either as older children or adults, and first learn about behavioral strategies to improve their focus, they often say: "If only I'd learned about this stuff sooner!" We always emphasize letting go of the past and moving forward, but we do agree that ideally, seeds for focusing are best planted early.

If we could, what would we tell ADHDers before they come to see us? We're going to break the answer down into three parts. Today we'll cover strategies to improve focus during the preschool and early-grade-school years. In later installments we'll cover middle and high school.

Preschool: Little children learn and retain new information at rates we can only dream of as adults. A parent can use this to their advantage when "planting seeds" for better focus that can carry their child through the rest of their life. Conversely, "behavioral weeds" planted at this time can quickly take root and turn into perennial problems. So, it's important to plant carefully: The behavioral seeds we recommend for preschoolers involve implanting a love for learning.

Among the important concepts that young children learn during this period are "cause and effect" and "why things are like that." The worst answer you can give to a young child asking such questions is "Because." Instead, encourage them to think and reason for themselves, including frequent use of phrases like, "Well, how can we figure that out?"

The natural world is full of wonders, and kids are great at noticing—use their observations as conversation starters rather than as questions needing a simple doctrinaire answer. Ask for their opinions. Talk respectfully to them, as part of teaching them respect and that their own thoughts are valuable. That way, they will become more likely to think valuable thoughts. How does this lead to better focus? You want them to grow into a person who is inclined to think about what they are doing—not to just react impulsively.

As an adult, you focus better on any task once you accept you must accomplish it. Preschoolers like to be busy and are often testing to see if they can accomplish things. Use this to your advantage: Give them little jobs with simple, achievable outcomes, and they will learn that doing jobs with outcomes is expected. Show them how to sweep, dust, or put things back. Make it fun by adding music or dancing or whatever turns them on. That way, it becomes part of an activity they enjoy, not just "extra cleaning that 'they' are making me do."

It goes without saying that much of your job as the parent of a preschooler (especially the hyperactive variety) is to keep them safe—stopping them from running into streets, flying off the top of the monkey bars, getting electrocuted, or drowning. Safety is always first, but by using the script above when possible, you can channel their natural curiosity and creativity while teaching them to get tasks done too.

Elementary school: Elementary school lasts from kindergarten through about fifth grade. During this period, academic learning (e.g., "reading, writing and arithmetic" or their modern equivalents) is introduced and gradually assumes a larger role in school. One important lesson that kids should ideally internalize by fifth grade is: "Getting work done feels good." Instead, kids often learn early to discriminate between "work" vs. "play." Work becomes "bad" because it is not play, which is "good."

As a parent, it is important to draw children's attention to the good feeling they get when they get work done. Focused adults tend to view work not as something "extra" they must do, but as something contributing to their internal sense of meaning and accomplishment. Speaking very concretely, you want your children to learn during their early school years that avoiding work is less rewarding and a lot more trouble in the end than getting it done on time.

Self-esteem comes from a sense of accomplishment, so as parents you want to make sure you notice your kids' accomplishments. That doesn't necessarily mean giving them something in return—it shouldn't always be about material reward. But even if it is what they are supposed to do, you still want to notice: "Wow, you are getting your homework done so responsibly!"

Try to refrain from being too involved in your child's homework. You want your child to know it's their homework and their responsibility. As a parent, it's your job to provide them with an area to work and the materials they need. You can remind them (once) to do their homework. You can answer their questions if they don't understand something. But it's not your job to get your kids' homework done perfectly. Connect with your child about something other than their academic accomplishments. That connection will be super important to your ADHD child.

We recommend that parents ask their kids: How are you going to get this done? (Rather than telling them to get it done or exactly when to do it.) Some kids may benefit from a visual schema (i.e., a written schedule) representing hours in the afternoon and showing all the non-flexible items: "OK, you have dance class from 4-5, we have dinner at 7, and you go to bed at 8. What time are you going to get your homework done?" This helps your child develop planning and time management skills, both of which tend to be problematic for adults with ADHD.

It also gives your kids a personal stake in how things get done. If they feel they have some "ownership" over their schedule, they are more likely to comply and focus when they must. And if they don't leave enough time? That's OK—don't let them stay up late to do their homework; they need to learn that some stuff (like getting enough sleep) is non-moveable. Instead say, "Whoops. Next time we'd better schedule a little more time for your homework." For some kids, it may help to encourage them to write down what happened in a journal.

Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock
Seeds of Focus are Best Planted Early
Source: Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

If your child refuses to do their homework, of course you can give them consequences and encourage their teacher to give consequences too—but stay away from emotional craziness. Too many times we hear that homework time is a "nightmare," "screaming time," etc. That's counterproductive and certainly not worth it: The most important lessons to be learned from grade school homework are how to work on your own, meet deadlines, and derive satisfaction from a job well done.

If you need to drag your child to the table, force them to pick up pen and paper, threaten them, and that's how the work gets done - then your child is learning that work is torture and the most important thing is figuring out how to avoid it. If it's too late and you're already there, how do you go from dragging your child to the table to having them do their work on their own? The only way is incremental. Try the following steps (which require understanding from their teacher that homework may not be completed for a while).

Step 1: "Compromise." He doesn't have to do the actual work. He just has to walk to the table.

Step 2: He just has to walk to the table and put his name on the paper.

Step 3: He has to walk to the table, put his name on the paper, and look at the first problem (read it out loud).

Step 4: He has to walk to the table, put his name on the paper, read the first problem, and answer it.

This schema can go as slow or fast as needed. The longer you have had the "nightmare" homework ritual, the longer it will take to de-escalate with this approach.

The most important trait associated with success is persistence. Unfortunately, persistence is a particular challenge for many ADHD adults. When the going gets tough, they are more likely to give up or move on for a variety of reasons, including how they learned to cope with ADHD as a child.

How do you build persistence in a grade school child with ADHD? You will—guaranteed—hear your child say, "I don't want to do it. It's too hard." You can let them know, "It's school. It's supposed to be hard." This gives them the message that hard things are not to be avoided—they are part of life. "In our family, we do hard things" is another way to phrase, "We expect you to do hard things; that's normal."

But starting is often the hardest part! How does one start a complicated, difficult task? There are behavioral strategies to manage this. One is to break difficult, complex tasks down into small, achievable steps, celebrate accomplishment of each step, and build up slowly, as in the incremental homework schema above. It's important to praise your child when they start and to praise them again when they accomplish each step along the way. (For more on this and related strategies, see Chapter 3 in our book, ADHD and the Focused Mind—Setting S.M.A.R.T. Goals).

Another useful strategy is by comparison to other aspects of their own lives: Involve your child in activities that require dedication and practice (team sports, ballet, piano, karate, etc.), but that they enjoy and feel rewarded for doing well. Then when they are struggling with their school work, remind them of how they have pushed to overcome hardships in their chosen activities (i.e., their sport) and how doing so ultimately led to greater success and a higher sense of accomplishment.

This section would not be complete without mentioning the importance of managing electronic distractions. This is an essential part of focus as an adult in our society, and good habits start in grade school. We are not fans of absolute restriction nor of complete freedom in this matter—"compromise" and "balance" are watchwords we emphasize. One option is to allow your child to spend as many minutes doing screen-based activities each day as they spend in non-screen based activities, such as reading a book, playing a musical instrument or a board game, etc.

Hopefully, this is helpful to get started. There is more in our book, ADHD and the Focused Mind. In our next installments, we'll discuss planting focus seeds in middle and high schoolers.

More from Benjamin Cheyette, M.D., and Sarah Cheyette M.D.
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