“Focus! Concentrate!” – Why can my kid focus on their video game for hours, but can’t focus on their school work for five minutes?

Have you ever wondered why your kiddo seems to be able to focus on his video game or her television show but can’t seem to pay attention to you or focus on their school work?

It doesn’t seem to be just those diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) that have a difficult time paying attention or staying on task. To be diagnosed with ADD, one of several criteria that must be met is that the inattentiveness must be negatively affecting the individual, usually socially and/or academically. With that said, there are many individuals that struggle with attentiveness but fall short of the criteria necessary for a diagnosis of ADD.

Before we discuss focusing issues in general, let’s look at ADD. First of all, “Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)” is a misnomer. These kiddos don’t have an issue with paying attention. They have an issue paying attention to what WE WANT them to pay attention to. If you are the parent of a child with ADD, or have ADD yourself (remember, the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree) you know this to be true. Contrary to common belief, individuals with ADD actually have the ability to hyper-focus when they are engaged and interested. This ability to fixate, and hyper-focus, is one of the many strengths that accompany this style of thinking. The problem is that when it comes time to ‘pay attention’ to something that is not of interest to them, we see their eyes glaze over as they venture off into their own, self-created, world of thought and imagination.

As parents, we have come to recognize this look often in our children, ADD or not. (Actually, sometimes we are guilty of this ourselves).

So, the first question is; what is focus?

Let’s start this conversation by defining the word focus. The Oxford Dictionary defines focus as; an act of concentrating interest or activity on something. The act of focusing therefore allows us to shift our attention onto a subject or activity without being distracted by our environment or our thoughts. This is an important skill to have. When we focus, our brain actually sees what our eyes are seeing and hears what our ears are hearing. When we are not focused, our brain sees what we THINK our eyes are seeing and hears what we THINK our ears are hearing. (That was a really important sentence, so if you didn’t get it, read it again). When we bring information in while in a non-focused state, we misperceive what we are seeing or hearing.

How often has this happened to you when speaking to your child;

You: “Go upstairs and get your shoes, we are leaving in ten minutes”.

Ten minutes later you find them watching television.

You: “What are you doing, I said we have to leave.”

Your child: “You didn’t say that, you said I could finish my show.”

We think they are being disobedient, but often they actually heard what they THOUGHT they heard, not what was actually said. This is misperception and it is what happens when we take information in while in a non-focused state.  Their perception of reality is just as true to them in that instance as yours is to you. So, you are now having a conflict from two separate realities. There is no winner in this case.

The next question is; can we teach someone to focus if they can’t do it naturally?

As parents, we find ourselves constantly telling our children to focus, concentrate, pay attention, stop fidgeting, and listen. But, we don’t teach them HOW.

How do you focus? Maybe you are focused on what you are reading here or maybe you drifted off and starting thinking about what to cook for dinner. If you wondered in your thoughts, come on back because this is important. How do YOU focus? Can you explain how you do it or what it feels like? You might be able to explain the feeling of being focused but you probably can’t explain HOW you do it. You just do it.

When our kiddos start a new sport or a new subject, we don’t expect them to know how to do it without giving them some instruction. But, when it comes to focusing, we expect them to just somehow know how to do it on command. The majority of kids will figure this out on their own, but many won’t. If your child is super imaginative and creative…they may need some extra tools to help them consciously focus at will. And, if they don’t acquire some tools they may start to struggle with some aspects of their life that can end up looking like dyslexia, AD(H)D, processing disorders and so on.

In my practice, I specialize in working with gifted and talented individuals that struggle with the ability to bring their state focus under their conscious control. There are several, simple, tangible methods that we use in the office to empower children (as young as five years old) and adults with the ability to focus consciously in any given moment. With some guidance, most individuals can learn these techniques within an hour. As with any new tool, they must then practice using their new tool until it simply becomes part of their identity – just like riding a bike.

Short of coming to the office, here are some suggestions you can implement today:

  • Read the book, The Gift of Learning, by Ronald Davis. There are wonderful tools in the book that you can give your child to help them focus. These are the same tools I use in my office.
  • If you are looking for some ideas you can use as soon as you are done with this article, here you go:
    • The Zone. Ask your child, “You know how you sometimes get in ‘the zone’ when you are [playing your video game, reading your book…]? You know how that feels?” Wait for the “yes” response. Then ask, “Can you get that feeling right now?” When they can do that, praise them and tell them, “That is focus. When people say focus, that is the feeling they are talking about.”
    • “Get your focus”. When you need to tell your kiddo something, start by saying, “(name), I need to tell you something important, can you get your focus?” Then give them the information and have them repeat it back to you. Saying their name first, and then having them get their focus will build a neural pathway that connects hearing their name with getting focused.
    • Take breaks. When doing school work, let them take frequent breaks. Every twenty to thirty minutes is great.
    • Let them stand up, walk on a treadmill, bounce on a yoga ball, chew gum, tap on the table, pace back and forth, or whatever works for them to aid in focusing.  Just as stimulants seem to calm the ADD brain (the opposite effect of their original intent) allowing for focus, movement seems to do the same thing. The individual with ADD can feel more calm and focused when they are allowed to move.
    • Don’t have your kiddo look you in the eye. The human face is extremely distracting because of the movements, expressions and sound when speaking. When you need to talk to them, get their initial attention by meeting their eyes, and then let them look away so they can process the information you are giving them.

These are just a few suggestions.

Remember, Albert Einstein’s mother was told by his teacher that, He is forever adrift within his dreams.” Albert learned to control his inattentiveness and changed the world with what he termed ‘thought experiments’.

The worlds of thought and imagination are where all great things are created. Don’t stifle your child’s creativity and imagination. Support their strengths and empower them with tools to overcome their obstacles.

1 Comment

  1. Therese Garnes on September 7, 2020 at 11:20 pm

    Very enlightening never thought about explaining what it means to focus…as a child I couldn’t spell and my mom would say look the word up in the dictionary. I couldn’t even sound it out school was very hard and 32 years ago they did not have these wonderful resources. I am eternally grateful.
    Thank you

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