Addressing Attention Issues Without Drugs

In many previous articles on this blog, I’ve characterized my oldest son Marco (8) as a great player, and I’ve praised his independence. However, just like any kid, he’s not all-great – he’s a complex mix of great and not-so-great.

So, in this article, I’ll talk about the not-so-great: Marco has an attention problem. Every day, my wife and I struggle mightily to get him to do the simplest things – put on his socks, eat his food at mealtime, hang his coat up, get ready for bed, etc. At school, despite the fact that he scores very well on standardized tests, when he and his fellow students are given time to complete multiple tasks, Marco will get less done than most kids.

Instead of getting these things done, he spends tens of minutes staring into space, smacking something on his hand, twirling a pair of scissors around on his finger, horsing around with kids around him, etc. In other words, he doesn’t pursue some alternative objective, and doesn’t develop some new skill.

He just wastes gobs of time. That kills me.

I know that acronym that’s probably running through your head right now. It starts with A-D, right?

Well, actually, I think he’s pretty N-O-R-M-A-L. I don’t mean that the majority of kids have attention issues like his, but I do mean that most kids who do end up becoming very competent adults.

So, I’m not interested in giving him drugs so he can focus better at school or at home. The idea that we should change a child’s behavior by medicating him is fraught with danger, in my opinion. Some kids have much worse attention issues than Marco does, so drugs might be warranted for them.

Outside of drugs, though, my wife and I do have some ideas on how we can nudge Marco’s mind toward focusing on tasks and away from wasting time. Here’s what we do:

      • Let him play on his own: He’s at his best, in terms of engagement/attention, when he’s playing on his own. Really. It’s quite likely that he’s learning how to focus better every time he has a focused, intense play session.
      • Let him bike to and from school on his own: As I’ve described in numerous articles (see this one), Marco rides his bike 1-1/2 miles to and from school every day. This gives him a great deal of responsibility. Besides remembering to simply get to his destination, he also needs to manage his accessories (back pack, gloves, helmet, lock, etc.). In addition, he often goes to other places, like a friend’s house, on his way home, and then he has to remember to get home before dinner. He’s never arrived home late for dinner.
      • Shun homework: My wife and I are very adamant that homework should not be assigned to elementary school students because we believe the numerous studies that indicate no academic benefit. In addition, though, we also know that homework would be particularly disastrous for a second grader like Marco. The few times that we’ve tried to get him to do a homework assignment have been absolute torture for our entire family, but especially for him. Thus, we have two strong reasons to shun homework: it’s not been proven to benefit elementary school kids in general, and the costs on Marco of doing it would be very high.
      • Limit activities: We have a lot of very enticing activities available to us where we live, but my wife and I have found that Marco gets no benefit from most of these. So, we should only schedule him for activities that he particularly likes – in other words, we don’t merely fill his schedule for fear that he has nothing to do on certain days. Conversely, we make sure that he has a lot of free time.
      • Teach him how to be organized: We try to make a point of teaching him to organize his things, and when he loses something, we don’t replace it quickly, so he suffers consequences. He still loses things, but he has come to manage certain personal items – his bike accessories, for example – very well.
      • Entice him to be more responsible with a big reward: Marco wants a cell phone. I think it’s a good idea for young kids, even young tweens, to get smart phones if they can manage them because cell phones can facilitate their independence. On the one hand, Marco, at eight years old, is so independent that having a cell phone would be a great benefit to him and to us parents. On the other hand, he’s just too irresponsible in many ways to manage one. So, I’ve told him that he can get a cell phone when he becomes responsible enough to get one. “Responsibility” for this reward covers things like maintaining (not losing or breaking) his personal items, not being late, eating well at meals, being kind to his brothers, etc. He really cares about this reward, so he often asks me how close he is to getting it.
      • Teach the value of time and time management: I often talk to Marco about how he can spend more time doing things he enjoys. For instance, when he expresses his disappointment in the evening when I tell him he has to get ready for bed, I explain that he could start getting ready later if he didn’t waste so much time getting ready for bed. Some nights, he’ll get to bed up to two hours after I first tell him to get ready. He has a clock in his room, and I encourage him to look at it and see how long things are taking him. I’m thinking of getting him a watch, too. A few nights ago, he glanced at the clock in his room and said to me, unprompted, “Wow, we came up here an hour ago. I’ve wasted so much time!” Yup. Good. He’s thinking this problem through for himself.

While I do think these tactics are helping, we still have a long way to go with Marco. I wonder if he’ll get worse in the coming years, when school becomes more demanding and he starts to get homework every night. I’m encouraged by some of the signs I describe above to think his attention is getting better, but school will put much higher demands on his ability to focus in the coming years.

Boy, I hope so. My wife and I have no delusions, though. We expect to be battling Marco’s attention issues throughout his childhood.

How about you? How do you deal with your kids’ attention issues, if he or she has them?

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