Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW
Feeling overwhelmed from having too much work to do, being too tired, and having too many distractions creates real hindrances to completing assignments and chores in a timely, efficient, stress-free manner. Fortunately, some teachers and parents are already aware of strategies to help students with ADHD stay on task, and have been educating the scattered student who doesn’t meet the official diagnostic criteria. Even so, kids don’t always listen. This information will provide a different angle on how to help students stay focused, while remaining calm under pressure and staying organized.
1) HELP RAISE AWARENESS
Encourage your children or students to be aware of their bodies in order to recognize the early warning signs of getting off track. It takes effort to slow down in today’s fast-paced society and really listen to their bodies in order to do something about distressing feelings, such as hunger, fatigue and boredom. Raising awareness helps youth recognize the triggers that derail them. Periodically, encourage a ‘body scan’ that consists of taking a couple slow, relaxing deep breaths, then scanning from head to toes to clarify what their bodies are telling them. Encourage healthy, regular meals, snacks, and water intake to help keep blood sugars even.
2) STOP THE DISTRACTIONS
Encourage working in a quiet, clutter-free spot when possible, even if it means having the student clear their desk first. Earplugs (wax or foam) can provide a quiet filter if they can’t tune out the noise around them. Open the dialogue and encourage them to identify what prevents them from staying focused. Allow kids to listen to soft, familiar music on earphones when possible. Encourage the use of fidgets (small objects that can be held in their hand), which provide tactile stimulation so that they stay engaged and anchored. When possible, encourage motor breaks–short bursts of physical activity that are under a minute. These can include knee-lifts, wall push-ups or jumping jacks.
3) STAY ORGANIZED
Adults and kids both struggle with staying organized at times. Staying organized is important because it prevents the stress and panic of looking frantically for misplaced items. Encourage students to take five minutes a week to clean out their backpack, desk or study area when possible instead of waiting for the next break. In addition, encourage students of be proactive with replenishing school supplies to avoid the frantic, late-night trip to the drug store. Continue to encourage the use of post-its and highlighters to help with remembering VIP dates, details, etc.
4) GET IT DONE
Hopefully, students and teachers by now are implementing some form of chunking, the act of breaking large tasks into small ones. Encourage the overly stressed student or one who procrastinates to take it a step further by creating mini deadlines. Setting deadlines can help prevent getting overwhelmed with difficult projects or tasks that require sustained attention. Encourage students to explore various phone apps (when age appropriate) to help set deadlines and stay on track for projects. Structured breaks with specific starting and ending times also help. The 20/10 rule consists of working for 20 minutes then taking a 10-minute break (without screens!) Times are modified according to age, situation and need.
5) STAY CALM UNDER PRESSURE
Talk about mindfulness and the importance of focusing on the present. Encourage slow, deep breathing before tests. Remind your children or students of the importance of giving their minds a break by turning off the screens. (Kids don’t understand that screens of any kind can be over-stimulating.)
Everyone gets distracted at times for various reasons, such as stress and loss. Generally, these symptoms dissipate and students return to their prior level of functioning within a week or so. Students with ADHD have more struggles than others and can benefit from individualized tools and strategies to help them stay focused, follow through and regulate their emotions. It’s important to note, though, that when a student suddenly starts being easily distracted or notably more scattered, it could indicate a sign of something more serious. Problems with concentration, increased irritability and motivation can be symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma, loss, or drug or alcohol abuse. Don’t hesitate to ask the question, “I notice you’ve been (insert disconcerting behavior). Is everything OK?” Showing that you notice and care can make all the difference to a struggling child or adolescent.
Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with 24 years of experience in the mental health field. She has worked in both the public and private counseling settings, helping kids & adults of all ages, families, and couples attain peace within themselves and their relationships.