Improve Your Child’s Attention and Focus Now (yes, even during boredom)

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Hey tribe,

You’re not going crazy. Staying at home is a big change for so many of us. We haven’t seen friends or family in weeks. We can’t go to the gym or get our hair cut. Even going to the grocery store feels like a visit to different land. Your brain has had years of practice to adjust to the normalcies of your day. Good times or bad, your brain has strategies to adapt. Your brain is experiencing both the stress of uncertainty and the dull ache of boredom.

Having the same day over and over again can do a number on our brains; when we lack new and novel things, our brains are just not as stimulated, not producing as much “focus juice” as we are used to. This decrease in neuro-chemicals can make us feel less motivated and even sad at times. If you or your child has a neuro difference like ADHD, you’re likely experiencing this drop off in energy and enthusiasm tenfold. ADHD brains already require more stimulation to feel regulated, so being at home, living a repeat day, can really drag you down.

Focus and attention are part of executive function. And just like with all of the challenges we face, this is a struggle for which we can strategize!  I’m hoping today’s podcast helps you address some of the boredom blues and get your brain into a happier, productive space.

When I teach, I like to walk around a lot. Part of it is my way of checking in with kids, and part of it is I know a secret about the brain’s attention: change gets attention. Just by walking to another part of my classroom, I’m able to help my students’ brains give a little boost to their focus.

Evolutionarily, paying attention to change keeps us alive. It makes sense that our brains would produce the right cocktail of chemicals to help us focus when there’s a change, something new, exciting, or even threatening, in our environments. We had to be able to use our brains to decide quickly how to react to something new. Knowing this can explain why we feel so alive—alert, excited, full of energy—when we’re doing or thinking about something new. It also explains why you feel so awake and even over-stimulated after being scared or yelled at.

The flipside of change alerting our brains to pay attention is that our brains can be overly sensitive to environmental changes and have a hard time focusing in certain settings. Classroom interruptions can steal a kid’s attention from a lesson, possibly making a teacher upset. Phones are another brain-stealing culprit with which we all battle, all the time. (Speaking of, app and platform developers are well aware of our brains’ thirst for novelty and design electronic experiences to be ever-changing and exciting, resulting in our spending lots more time on them.) Our brains are doing the double duty of ignoring change when we need to focus and purposely manufacturing change when we need to feel more alert. Pretty tricky, right?

So, how does this come into play when we’re in shelter in place?

Well, you may find that when it comes time to focus, your child is actually quicker at getting work done and can attend for longer because there are fewer distractions at home. Fewer changes in environment allows your child to stay focused on work. Or, you may find that the dullness of repeating days makes your child less energetic and it takes much more effort to get him moving at all. Your child’s mood may seem more apathetic or low-energy because their brains aren’t producing the same amount of “focus juice.” Or, you may find that you go through both of these scenarios, sometimes on the same day!

There are two things you can do during these strange, strange times to help improve your and your child’s attention. First, pay attention to the brain and its responses. When you notice your child seems lethargic or just not motivated, take some time to reflect on the level of activity in the house. Has your child had anything new or exciting in the past few days? If not, it might be time to consider switching up the pace of life to bring those neurochemicals back into action! You know how being around someone who is really excited or is really productive can be contagious? Maybe your household could benefit from some fresh air (possibly literally but definitely figuratively).

When you notice your child is “on” and is getting lots of schoolwork done or seems content and focused, reflect on the situation there too. What’s going right to support this positive situation? Did she leave her phone in the other room so it wouldn’t steal her brain? Did he just exercise and now he seems refreshed? It’s a great opportunity right now to see which variables really impact your child’s focus! Take some notes about what works and what to avoid—you can share them with school when we go back (yes, we will go back at some point). And don’t forget to also involve your child in owning what he or she notices too! Ask your kid what is going right? How does their attention level feel when certain things happen? What does he notice when he tries to work with the tv on vs off? You don’t need to preach or even get into any of the “should-ing” modes. Just ask. Then listen. Your kid owns that brain. It’s important she is able to learn about her own brain, how and why it pays attention, and what helps her do her best!

The second thing you can do to help improve your attention and focus during shelter in place is to plan stimulating things. Boredom is kryptonite for the ADHD brain, and this many Groundhog Days will leave even neurotypical brains feeling low. Keep this in mind. Recognize when you’re getting the blahs and sit with the feeling for a while. It’s part of life to feel down a bit. Then, plan some fun or silliness to break up the monotony. I’m going to totally out myself right now because I planned something very dorky: a sweet 16 zoom party for our cat. Truth be told, I was planning to throw an actual party for her, with actual people coming over, as an actual fundraiser for a local animal charity. But, we have to postpone the in-person fun. Instead, I roped both my and my husband’s families into joining a zoom call to sing happy birthday to our sweet calico. She didn’t care because she’s a cat. But, our nieces got to sing and dress up and share some of their favorite toys on the call. Adam got to make margaritas for us. And we all had something fun to look forward to for a few days. We broke up the routine, and it felt really good. You certainly don’t have to dork out like we do, but start thinking of at-home things you can do to break up the blahs. And, if you can hold off a little, plan them for a few days—the act of planning, anticipating fun is also a way to get some dopamine flowing and get your brain and body feeling better! Your child might need a little push to get out of the rut, so schedule some social calls with friends and family for her. Make breakfast for dinner or have dessert for lunch. It’s ok to go rouge a bit right now—it’s good for your brain! And, the more you can schedule a little chaos, the better you will be able to focus in the fun and serious times.

I promise I won’t tell your kid about the dessert for lunch thing. It’s time for this week’s pep talk:

Hey kid!

Do you feel like you lost track of what day it is? I’ve been feeling that way too. But then also, like, does it really matter what day it is? They all feel like the same over and over. I get it. Your family and friends get it too. We’re all thankful to be healthy but getting very restless and bored.

Today your grown up learned some ways to help feel more alive and focused during these boring days. One way is to reflect on when your brain feels up and down. You know how some days you just can’t get going? That’s your brain’s way of telling you you might need more excitement or change in your days. Or, you know when you have really good focus days? Think about what’s going on during those times so you can do the same awesome stuff next time you need to focus. You may actually discover some hacks that work so well for your brain that you’ll be able to use them when you go to college or trade school or work! Now is a kind of cool time to try out ways you might learn and focus best. You have a little time right now to get to know your own brain.

Your grown up also learned that excitement matters. Having the same day again and again can make anyone feel down. Brains with ADHD especially need some new and exciting things. Your grown up is going to work with you to think of ways to shake up your daily—sigh—boring routines. Maybe you eat dinner as a picnic in the yard? Or you talk with British accents for a whole day? Even little, silly changes can help shake the blues and get your brain to make more focus juice for you!

Please stay healthy. Stay safe. And keep that brain going! All my love to you!