I was commiserating with a group of mom-friends about the struggle to keep our kids focused and on task with their daily responsibilities. It seems as if it’s especially challenging for those of us who are parenting easily distracted kids. So, how do you keep your easily distracted kid on task?
There are a lot of pressures on kids in today’s culture. They are expected to keep pace with the increased rigor of the curriculum. They are in school for the majority of the day and held to a tight schedule with only a little physical outlet. After school activities sustain that pace well past dinner time for many families. Dinner is in the car and homework is done on the run between dance and Scouts.
How do YOU feel when you’ve got a lot of “life stuff” coming at you at once? Does it short-circuit your brain? Does stuff start to fall through the cracks? (Please, tell me that it’s not just me?) Our kids are no different, except they rely on us to teach them skills to focus and attend to the tasks of life.
Here are some tips for keeping easily distracted kids on task that come from my own experiences and on-going conversations with my mom-friends.
1. Slow Your Roll
Take a step back. See what you can do to slow your whole family’s life pace. This might be stepping on some toes but ask yourself some hard questions:
- Are all these activities necessary, both for the individuals and the family unit?
- Is everything on our calendar helping us attain the family culture that we prize?
- Do these activities keep us running in different directions far too many nights a week?
- How can we practice healthy communication when we feel pressured by our calendar?
- Am I teaching my child the skill of prioritizing and focusing on what is most valuable to us?
There’s no easy answer to these hard questions but as the “adult in the room” it’s up to you to lead the way in asking them and finding the solutions that will support you all.
2. Get Predictable
Craft a plan for your days that is predictable and ordered. It might feel utterly dull for you, especially if you are one of those spontaneous fun moms. (Lord, help my kids. The label “fun mom” is not one any of them slap on this momma!) The investment in teaching your easily-distracted child to follow a routine – even if the effort feels as if it’s taking over your life – is worth it both in the short-term and the long game.
Some of the valuable lessons that she can gain from a structured, predictable routine include:
- Trust in your care and leadership
- Responsibility for self and others
- Planning and prioritizing skills
3. Talk It Up
If your child is easily distracted, you might find it helpful to both model your routine in an exaggerated way and narrate your way through the steps. I do it like this:
Hmmm. I need to get to the store. I need my cash envelope. I need my coupons. I need my grocery list. Okay. Got it. See you all in an hour.
Try talking through his day with him, as well. “When you are done putting on your socks and shoes, what do you think you should do next?” Prompting him with a couple of simple choices if he struggles to know what comes next can be an empowering step toward understanding the tasks ahead of him.
4. Break it down
Observe the moments in which your child is most easily distracted. What are the contributing factors? What are the times of day that seem to be most difficult? What is he already doing really well? I found it helpful to journal the goings-on to help me identify areas of need and ideas to address it.
Once you identify a trigger or two, create a plan of easy tasks. Focus on one issue at a time, with measurable steps with achievable goals. If your child is old enough, talk about your observations. Get his input for a plan to address it. Include your views of his strengths in these conversations as well. These tools aren’t just to remediate difficulties, they are also great for building upon our kids’ strengths.
Breaking the plan down to manageable tasks might include even the most obvious things like “Eat a healthy snack” before “Do Math Homework.” You can tell him you’ve noticed that when he works hungry, math is more of a struggle for him. Talking to him about how he is wired and how he can manage his tasks to honor his individual wiring will ease the implementation of new plans for you both.
5. Show and Tell
Most kids, especially easily distracted kids, need visual cues to help them focus. Checklists are one way to support that. There are many different kinds of tools that work well for teaching kids to follow a plan. Depending upon your child’s age, you can find a lot of resources through mobile device apps, online retailers, teacher-resource sites and even in templates on software like Word.
It might take trial and error to find what works, but the process itself provides an excellent example to your kids for trying different methods of organizing and focusing on tasks. Put aside the notion that you have to get it right and focus more on getting to what works. Be willing, as well, to utilize different tools for different kids. Tapping into the individual child’s unique style of learning will set him up for success.
One of my kids needs to see a macro-view of our routine, so we also have a big chalkboard calendar that shows the whole week of activities for everyone. She finds great comfort in seeing what all of us will be doing and where her personal routine fits into that. Her increased sense of felt-safety and trust is an added benefit that I hadn’t anticipated when I started the habits.
If your easily distracted kid is a non-reader, come up with a picture list that gives cues to tasks. It doesn’t have to be terribly artistic or complex. In fact, if using a checklist is a new skill to you all, the simpler, the better to get started.
6. Repeat. Rewind. Repeat.
Fair warning: The process for teaching the skills of focus and attention to tasks will feel incredibly repetitive and maybe even pointless. It IS a lot of re-directing to start, particularly if you’ve not laid the foundations from the previous tips before this point.
Take heart, the external prompting you provide is like those bumpers that they lay in the gutters at a bowling alley. Your kid is rolling that bowling ball down the lane, and your structures are giving her an opportunity to get a strike! Celebrate each pin she knocks down in the game, no matter how small. And get ready to do it all again tomorrow.
Once your child has become accustomed to using her checklist or other tools, let her try it out for herself. When you see her getting off task, don’t immediately question her about the individual parts of her routine. Instead, refer generally to how she’s utilizing her tools. This is a means of holding her accountable for what she’s learning. Help her transfer her skills from an external force to internal motivation.
7. Get Ready to Get Ready
Many kids struggle with transition times. Our easily distracted kids – often those who have come from difficult beginnings – often struggle with them even more than a typical child. To support your child through these inevitable transitions of the day, give plenty of verbal warning that the shift is coming. Try using a clock to reinforce your verbal warning. Some kids do well with a timer count down. But others prefer tracking it themselves so you can say “when the big hand is on the five, it’s time to go.”
Make your expectations of the transition time clear and predictable in advance. Prep work that looks like a pep talk can make a huge difference in how you communicate those expectations. Don’t forget to make your transitions themselves predictable as well.
Of course, there are many other things parents can do to keep their easily distracted kids on task. What has worked for your family? We’d love to hear your experiences and examples in the comments!
Other Creating a Family Resources You Might Find Helpful:
- The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder
- Calming the What If’s: Parenting Kids Who Don’t Fit the Mold
- Common Sense Internet Rules for Kids (Adopted or Otherwise)
Image Credit: Luke; Katie Laird; Daddy-David