Q: I have a 6-year-old boy in first grade. He does pretty good on school work but it's very hard for him to stay focused? Do you have any recommendations?

A: Let me begin by saying that the average 6-year-old doesn't exactly possess laser-like focus (especially boys).  There are those kids who are naturally dialed-in to school tasks, but most kids his age tend to have relatively short attention spans.  If your son seems to understand and retain the content of what he is learning and is also able to reproduce the things he learns at home, these are good signs.  A couple questions to ask yourself:  Does he seem to have difficulty following directions (especially those with multiple steps)?  Does it seem to take him significantly longer to complete tasks than other kids his age (homework in particular)?  Does he often lose or forget things needed for important tasks?  If you answered “yes” to these questions, it is possible that he is showing signs of ADHD and may need to be evaluated by a professional.  If not, or if you are unsure, it is okay to wait.  He is still young and may grow into his focus with time.  However, if these symptoms do not subside or increase in severity over time, then I recommend seeing a professional.

In the meantime, start by making sure the TV is turned off and that homework is done in an environment that is as free of extraneous stimuli as possible (like toys, video games, other people doing things in the background, etc.).  If he can’t see or hear the things that are more interesting to him, you reduce the likelihood of distraction.  Next try breaking down tasks into small steps so that he can learn to complete one thing before beginning to think about another.  In addition to this, he may need frequent breaks in order to maintain his focus when working on schoolwork in particular.  For some kids, this may mean working for periods as short as five minutes before taking a quick 2 or 3 minutes to get up and stretch, play a quick (but low on the stimulation scale) game with you and then get back to work.  For a boy his age, I suggest beginning with working for 10 minutes and breaking for 5 minutes and then adjusting from there.  It may be helpful to use a timer at the table while doing this so he can see how much longer he needs to stay focused before getting his break.  Finally, it is okay to offer small, incremental rewards to kids for doing their homework within a reasonable time-frame that you determine.  For example, if he stays focused for ten minutes, he gets a sticker on his calendar – when he gets ten stickers, he gets… (you choose!).

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Answered by Jeff Palitz, MFT