For children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, staying on task and maintaining focus is often challenging. It can be frustrating for parents and equally frustrating for kids living with it.

We know our children are smart and capable, but it can be mind-boggling when they just can’t seem to stay focused long enough to complete what we deem to be a simple chore or assignment. And just telling them to stay focused and do it can make a child who is struggling even more frustrated, as they are likely trying their best. 

Children with ADHD tend to have an even harder time maintaining sustained attention when working on something they find boring or difficult. As parents, it’s important to keep in mind that no matter how easily or quickly a child seems to become distracted and drift from the task, they are indeed putting forth a great deal of effort. 

Understanding ADHD and how the ADHD brain works helps parents better understand what their kids are experiencing and what they need. This, in turn, equips parents with the knowledge they need to foster an environment optimal for their growth and success. It's important for them to realize that ADHD is not simply the inability to pay attention, rather it's the inability to control attention. Those with ADHD have a lower level of brain arousal, which makes it difficult for them to screen out distractions or even their own inner thoughts and feelings.

Below are some things you can do to support and help them be their most productive selves.

Remove distractions

Make it easier for your child to concentrate and maintain their focus by removing as many outside distractions as possible. If they are working on a homework assignment, allow that to be the only thing on the table in front of them. Set them up with their own designated workspace in a quiet, low-traffic area of the home facing away from windows.

Remember distractions may come in the form of a variety of sensory stimuli, including noises, bright lighting, strong smells, or even an itchy tag or rough fabric on their clothing. Bear this in mind and eliminate stimuli that may be causing your child to become distracted.

Allow breaks when needed

Children with ADHD require frequent breaks. Just as removing outside stimuli can be beneficial, providing kids with opportunities to release internal stimuli can too. Allow your child movement breaks when needed during which they can run, jump, swing and exercise. During cold weather, jumping jacks and dancing are good indoor options. Many parents and schools also set up sensory rooms, equipped with trampolines, jump ropes, indoor swings, and hop balls, for children who have ADHD.

Children with ADHD can also benefit from having a calm space where they can go to mellow out during times when they are feeling overstimulated. This area can consist of a private and comfortable spot for them to lounge in, such as a tent, pillows, or a bean bag chair, along with items and activities your child finds soothing. These might include a stuffed animal, books, or materials for drawing or coloring. The calm space could also include soft lighting, relaxing sounds like soft music or nature sounds, or it could simply be kept quiet. Tailor the space to your child’s unique needs.

Break tasks up into segments

When kids have a large task before them, like cleaning up a messy bedroom, it can be particularly daunting. Allowing them to tackle it piece by piece can make it more manageable. You could have them begin by putting their books away on the bookshelf or making their bed. Then, once they have accomplished one part of a task, allow them to take a break before moving on to the next part.

Use schedules and lists

Routine is a crucial part of daily life for children with ADHD. Utilizing a schedule helps them know what to expect and anticipate what’s coming next. 

“A predictable schedule offers structure that helps kids feel safe and secure,” says Peter Jaksa, Ph.D., President and Clinical Director of ADHD Centers. “Routines make daily activities manageable, allowing your child to focus on one thing at a time.”

Likewise, lists provide kids with visual guides they can refer to when they need a reminder of their priorities for the day or things they need to do.

Set personalized goals

When setting goals with children who have ADHD, the ADD Resource Center recommends setting “SMART goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.” According to the organization, parents should maintain reasonable expectations and prioritize goals based upon their importance, but also aim to begin with one that is easily attainable.

“This quick success can help feed the cycle of success. Try not to tackle the toughest goal first. Instead, ‘practice’ first on some of the easier goals to help build self-confidence.”

Reward progress

Celebrate every small success by rewarding kids for their hard work and accomplishments. A reward can be anything, from a special treat to extra play time before bed, as long it is something meaningful to them. Celebrating their wins helps motivate and encourage them. 

“The anticipation of a reward creates dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters not playing nice in our kids’ brains,” says Merriam R. Sarcia, LMFT. “By coaxing the creation of dopamine, we’re helping to gas up the prefrontal cortex so that it can go the distance we’re asking it to go.”