How to Talk to Your Child About Being Distracted and Unfocused

By The Understood Team
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At a Glance

  • Kids with learning and thinking differences can have trouble focusing on assignments and starting projects.

  • Try to find out what’s especially distracting for your child so you can help him avoid those distractions.

  • You and your child’s teacher can put together a checklist for your child to make sure he brings home the materials he needs.

Kids with certain learning or thinking differences can have trouble staying focused on schoolwork or might get easily distracted. It can be hard to know how to approach the topic with your child in a positive and productive way. To help, explore the common challenges and suggested conversation starters below.

Trouble Staying Focused

What you can say: “I know you try hard to pay attention in class but you get distracted. What helps you stay focused?” Tip: It might help your child to stay focused if the teacher comes over and touches his shoulder when she wants him to pay attention.

What you can say: “What helps you stay focused when you’re doing homework?” Tip: Your child may do well with a quiet, orderly space to do his homework. Or listening to music might help him concentrate.

What you can say: “What things (noises, people) distract you the most?” Tip: It might be better for your child to be seated away from loud or distracting classmates in school. Talk to your child’s teacher about this possibility.

Trouble Starting Projects and Shifting Between Activities

What you can say: “Remember that big science project you did last year? You started late and had to give up some fun activities so you could finish it. What do you think would help you start projects sooner?” Tip: To avoid procrastination, you might want to start going over project instructions with your child as soon as a project is assigned. Talk about where he anticipates he might need help from you or clarification from the teacher.

What you can say: “The pirate ship you’re building looks awesome—you’re following those instructions really well. But you sure get upset when I tell you it’s time to stop playing and do your homework. Let’s figure out how to make the switch from play to work go better.” Tip: Help your child find “pause points” in a game or project to save his work and set it aside for later. You can also try making eye contact with him each time you issue a warning to switch gears.

Trouble With Complicated Directions

Your child might say: “Mom, when you give me so many directions in a row I can’t remember them all!” Tip: You might want to ask your child to do no more than two things in a row, and make eye contact when you ask. You can also write clear to-do lists for home and school.

Trouble Keeping Track of Assignments and Staying Organized

What you can say: “I know you have a lot to remember when you’re doing your homework and assignments. And we both get upset when you leave work to the last minute or you forget your book or instructions. Let’s try to come up with a system that works for you.” Tip: There are several things that might help:

  • Help your child clean out his backpack every afternoon so he has only the materials he needs for his assignments.

  • Mark upcoming due dates on the family wall calendar and review it every few days.

  • Ask your child’s teacher to help you put together a simple checklist to tape to the top of your child’s desk. This can help to make sure he brings home the materials he needs.

Sometimes it’s hard to know how it’s going for your child at school. To get a better idea, explore these questions to ask your child. If your child has ADHD, take a look at expert tips on how to help him with behavior issues.

Key Takeaways

  • Asking your child questions can help you figure out what’s distracting him.

  • If your child has trouble following directions, try giving him only a few directions at a time.

  • Talking to your child can help you come up with a system to organize his homework assignments.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Bob Cunningham, EdM 

serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.

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