ADHD: Helping Students Regulate Attention

Is it an Attention Deficit?

One of the greatest misconceptions about ADHD is that it renders a person unable to pay attention. In fact, many educators contact me and say, “He can’t have ADHD! He can spend hours on the activities he wants to!”  What science has taught us is that because of the below-normal activity in the neurotransmission of dopamine and norepinephrine, some people struggle regulating their attention, leading some professionals to suggest that we rename ADHD “deficits in attention regulation disorder.” People with ADHD can pay attention, but not always when they need to, for as long as they need to, or on what they need to—especially when they are not interested or internally motivated. Sometimes, when a person is very interested in what he or she is focused on (such as playing a video game or building with blocks), the individual is actually “hyperfocused.” This means that the person is deeply and intensely focused to the point that he or she has shut out other thoughts or stimuli. This is why very often people with ADHD have a hard time transitioning from one task to another.

At other times, when people with ADHD are bored or uninterested, they struggle to stay tuned in to the current topic and resist more stimulating thoughts.  Many people with ADHD are actually often multi-focused, paying attention to many things at the same time at the expense of directed attention to one thought.  They may even feel that they have a “bombardment” of thoughts, making it difficult to focus on any one task. This raises the importance of understanding the science of ADHD. When the brain does not produce enough dopamine, the brain actually struggles to make the connections and stay alert. If a child is having trouble paying attention to the task at hand, sitting still may actually increase the difficulty he or she is experiencing. Movement can help stimulate the networks of the brain that control attention. I once observed a child who was continuously roaming the classroom (with permission of the well-informed teacher) while his teacher lectured. When the teacher asked this child a question directly related to her presentation, the child was spot on with the answer.

Since movement is not always practical or desirable, many people succeed in focusing by holding and manipulating an object. This is commonly referred to as “fidgeting.” Allow your student to hold an item (a “fidget”) that he or she can quietly, discretely manipulate. This item can be anything from a piece of felt to a rubber toy or a ring. Have a variety of objects available at school. It is important to help your student distinguish between “fidgeting” and “playing.” This is actually a great discussion to have with the entire class so that students can become more tolerant of one another’s differences and needs. To “fidget” means to passively manipulate the object in the background, secondary to the task at hand. To “play” means to focus primarily on the object and interact with it. Also, teach your student that he or she must not distract others with his or her fidgeting. Sometimes a little investigating, open-mindedness, creativity, and patience can go a long way in helping kids learn how they function best.

Other Tips:

  • Allow your students to move around within reason.  Sitting on an exercise ball chair or even a rolled-up sweatshirt can provide the right stimulation to help your student stay engaged in his or her work.
  • Allow your student the freedom to stand up while working, just as an adult often does. Just as with fidgeting, you may want to have a classwide discussion and provide guidelines for behavior.
  • Music is another great form of stimulation. If appropriate within the classroom setting, some students might enjoy the opportunity to listen to music as it may drown out other distracting noises.  They can experiment with different genres—it need not be classical to effective. It may be helpful to prepare (in advance) a playlist of songs your student finds are effective without creating too much distraction.
  • Interactive games for learning facts can be stimulating and fun at the same time. The next time your students need to memorize vocabulary words, for example, allow them to form pairs and play a game of catch. One student can toss the ball as they say a word and the other student can toss it back as he or she responds. Or play a game of concentration: Make two sets of flashcards—one with the word, a second with the definition. Lay them all out facedown and find the matching pair.

The greatest value you can offer your students is to help them become aware of what situations and environments help and hinder their ability to pay attention where needed.  Encourage them to experiment and share what they learn about themselves so that they can become effective advocates for themselves and responsible for their own attention regulation.

Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., ADHD-CCSP, a certified ADHD coach and mental health counselor, lives in Boulder, Colorado, and works with parents, teachers, and professionals nationwide to support children with ADHD and executive function deficits.

This post is an excerpt from Cindy Goldrich’s book, 8 Keys to Parenting Children with ADHD (W. W. Norton).

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