Q: My daughter was recently diagnosed with ADHD. What are some non-mediciation ways we can help improve her attention span?
A: Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are common topics that arise when children come in for their annual physicals. A parent may mention the child is having trouble at school or that a teacher has noticed something. Children (and adults – we can have it too) go through a screening process to determine if is indeed a problem. While medication can treat some of the symptoms associated with ADHD – calming hyperactivity or improving focus – it doesn’t treat the underlying cause of the disorder. In addition, some parents worry about a medication’s possible side effects. For parents looking at non-medication options, there are some exercises to help children improve how long they are able to focus on an activity. Just like you would do an exercise to improve your physical fitness, you can do exercises to improve your brain fitness.
To help improve a child’s sustained attention span – or how long she can focus on a single activity -- use a stopwatch while your child does a small task or homework assignment. Pay attention to when she starts looking around and note the time. Then, give the child a goal, such as increasing the time she can sustain the activity from 1 minute to 90 seconds. The goal is to get up to 5 minutes without losing focus.
You can also help your child improve her attention span when there are distractions. Do the same activity as above, but now add a small distraction while your child tries to stay on task. As your child improves, increase the distractions.
Divided attention – or being able to multitask -- is the most important skill to master. Purchase a game like Simon, Bop-it or Perfection where the game has a timing and attention component to it. When your child starts the game, ask for other information while he is playing (e.g. name an animal and have the child make the sound or give two numbers and have him give the sum). This may seem overwhelming, but by setting small goals (e.g. two correct answers) and then increasing the goal, a child can strengthen their ability to multi-task.
During these activities, make sure the child is rewarded for her efforts. For example, create a chart where she can mark off an X and work toward a small prize. If you do these activities several times a week, you should begin to notice some improvements in your child’s attention ability.
Stay in close contact with your child’s medical provider and teachers and keep them updated on how your child is doing. If these activities are not working, it may then be time to discuss adding medication to your child’s treatment plan.
By Eileen Jekot, MD, pediatrician, ThedaCare Physicians-Pediatrics in Neenah.