Teaching tips for kids with attention problems

Tangle Jr., one of many fidgets.

by Kathy Kuhl – After launching this series on attention problems (it began with “What is ADD? ADHD? What Parents need to know”), many of you asked for teaching tips. Today’s post is my gift to you–a few highlights from one of my workshops. Links are below. Happy Holidays!

18 Tips to Help a Student with attention problems

  1. Provide opportunities to explore the world. Give them tools. Let them experience many good things. Life is more than math facts and history dates. Education is more than books, though I love books! Field trips can bring education to life.You don’t need to spend money. Visit a forest or field with a field guide from the library. Visit a museum—most have a free admission day at least once a month. If not, ask if they have special rates for schools and homeschools.Look for work experiences, too. My son worked as an apprentice re-enactor at a colonial-era farm, and learned valuable lessons about speaking to visitors, 18th century farm life, and what to do when foreign visitors try to picnic in the field where the bull is pastured!
  2. Focus on developing their talents and strengths. When your child’s mind wanders, when your teen cannot sit still, when they won’t stop talking, or it’s hard for them to focus, it’s also hard for you to focus on their talents. But look for opportunities to build on strengths.
  3. When you are teaching your inattentive child, keep the work sessions short. Let’s say you’re going to try to help your child with spelling or math facts. If your child can only focus for 10 minutes on spelling, teach it for 8 minutes, then take a break. Need more study time? Have two short sessions, and break in between them.
  4. Give short breaks where you stand, stretch, sing, tell jokes for a moment. Chris Dendy says that laughter stimulates blood circulation, helping attention.
  5. Use exercise during those breaks: push-ups, run laps around the house, jumping jacks, and so on. Calisthenics have the advantage of not being so much fun that the child will want to prolong the break.
  6. Incorporate movement in lessons. My son reviewed math facts while bouncing on a mini-trampoline. When reviewing memory work, we did one push-up for every word wrong. He loved it when I had to do push-ups.

Adapt the place where you homeschool

First, adapt their seating:

  1. The chair should be short enough for the child’s legs to reach the floor. You can strap a small bungee cord across the front legs of the chair so the child can push his calves against it.If a child tends to wiggle, you can let them:
  2. Stand at a tall table.
  3. Sit on exercise balls, aka yoga balls. Children (and adults) will need to work their core muscles more to keep their balance, and that will burn off excess movement and help them focus. There are special seats made that have legs or rollers to keep the ball from going across the room.
  4. Sit on a one-legged stool. (See links below.) If those are too expensive, try making a T-stool, a one-legged stool shaped like a capital T. Like an exercise ball, it forces the sitter to move their legs and core muscles to shift weight and stay balanced. In her book, The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, Carol Kranowitz tells how to make a T-stool out of two-by-four.
  5. Remember as homeschoolers, you don’t have to make your child sit for everything. My son did fifth grade math under the dining room table. While homeschooled, a naval aviator I know studied one year of middle school math standing at the kitchen table, bouncing occasionally—unconsciously preparing for landings on rolling ships.

Work with your child to see what distracts them most
Help them fight it

  1. Minimize visual distractions with study carrels. You can make one out of a tri-fold board (the kind people use for science fair projects) or for the more bouncy students, use a large appliance box, which is more stable. Or you can buy a study carrel. Resist the urge to decorate the inside of the carrel too much. Keep it simple.
    If you have a have one room in your home where you do most of your homeschooling, make sure it is not visually distracting. Don’t paper the walls with educational posters and images.
  2. If the view outside is distracting, sheer curtains or blinds can keep your child from staring out the window every minute.Or try moving their seats so they can’t see out window. Our first year homeschooling, I was glad we had just moved off a busy street into the woods. We started homeschooling at the kitchen table, looking out into the back yard. I looked out the window and saw a peaceful forest. My son looked out the same window and started watching squirrels and birds.
  1. If the child is often distracted by sounds, minimize auditory distractions by giving the child earplugs. You may need to try several brands to find something comfortable.
    Other kids and teens actually concentrate better when they can listen to certain kinds of music. Because I’ve very attuned to words, music with lyrics distracts me completely—even instrumental music if I know the lyrics. But everyone is different. Try different kinds of music to see what helps your child focus.Headphones help keep that music from distracting you and the child’s siblings.
  2. If smells are very distracting, remove scented objects like potpourri and scented candles. Consider also what cleaning products you are using, which may have distracting fragrances. I recommend you visit SaferChemicals, Healthy Families (in the links below) for suggestions on eliminating toxins and allergens from your home.

When it’s all in their heads

  1. If your child’s main sources of distraction are in his or her head, earplugs and study carrels won’t help. There are many ideas to help in Garber’s book (see below under Resources.)
    In Richard Lavoie’s book The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned Out Child, on pages 298-299, he suggests this behavior modification idea. Make a recording where the only sounds are either a beep at random intervals of 30 seconds to 4 minutes. (You can use a chime or clicker instead, but choose one sound for the whole recording.) Make the recording 30-60 minutes long—longer than your child’s independent work sessions are. Then when it’s time for your child to work, give the child a spare piece of paper and tell them to start work. Every time she hears the chime or beep, she should stop work for a second and mark an X on the paper if she’s been working or an O if she’s been distracted. Lavoie says this has been very effective for his students in helping them learn to improve their focus. I just read this; let me know if it helps you. (I’ll be reviewing this book soon.)

    Keeping their hands busy

  2. Let your child use fidgets. A fidget is something to keep your hands busy so you can concentrate better. You could use a squeeze ball, a chain of paper clips, an artist’s eraser, a piece of putty, a piece of string, or many of the products made for this purpose.
    Train your children to monitor which fidgets work for them, and which are merely distracting. A fidget is working when it improves the student’s performance. If it distracts them, you, or others around them, it’s not working.What works for one child may not work for another. One mother I interviewed for Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner reported that her son could concentrate better on the history book she was reading aloud to him if she let him play with Legos. They probably would have distracted many other kids.
  3. Incorporate attention training with your homeschooling. I like the suggestions in Is Your Child Hyperactive? Inattentive? Impulsive? Distractible? by Steven and Marianne Garber and Robyn Spizman. See links below.

Got more ideas?

I’d love to hear them. Please sure in the comments section below.


These are some of the ideas I share in “Helping Distractible Students Succeed,” one of my workshops at many homeschool conventions. The handout for that talk is here.

Some of the unusual seating and fidgets I recommend can be found here in my Amazon store. 

Concerned about fragrances and chemicals in your home? The coalition Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has helpful information.

Chris Dendy is an expert on teaching teens with ADHD. This author, teacher, counselor, and speaker grew her own teens with ADHD and is the author of several books. She and her son Alex wrote A Bird’s Eye View of Life with ADD and ADHD: Advice from Young Survivors, which I reviewed here. 

My review of Is Your Child Hyperactive? Inattentive? Impulsive? Distractible? by Steven and Marianne Garber and Robyn Spizman is here.

Richard Lavoie’s book,  The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned Out Child. 

More about fidgets in the book, Fidget to Focus: Outwit Your Boredom: Sensory Strategies for Living with ADHD by Roland Rotz and Sarah D. Wright. 




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