Parenting a Distracted Child

It’s a reality in life that can be frustrating for both parents and their children- helping your child stay focused. Dr. Keri Herrmann a child & adolescent psychiatrist teaches how parents can be the biggest advocate in helping children learn to focus.

Scenario #1. You know that your child is very active and almost started running once he could walk. He was into everything and seemed to shift from one activity to another without really finishing. Then you get a note from his teacher letting you know that he is falling behind in school because he doesn’t complete assignments, is always talking, often blurting out answers and not raising his hand, and doesn’t turn in his homework. What do you do as a parent? Where do you start?

Dr. Herrmann: First thing after talking to the teacher and getting more input with details you talk to your child. Get their point of view of what is happening and how they feel about it. Do they always feel like they are in trouble, are they unaware of any problems, do they feel liked by friends, is it hard to get their work done?

First, important to know that varying levels of distractibility and inattentiveness are controlled in the brain’s frontal lobe or “executive functioning” area and influenced by neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. This behavior is not learned nor is it volitional—they can’t help it, often there is a genetic component–but there are things both you and they can do to help.

In the school setting you can work with teachers to have

–preferential seating—front of class so teacher can touch shoulder or not near window/door where it’s easy to be distracted.

–Seat with positive role models

–have assignments be written, help break down large projects into smaller parts

–give extra time on tests and do portion of problems, processing speed issues, fluency

–not limit recess; give opportunity to run errands for teacher

–play with small object like soft squeeze ball at desk—studies show that some kids learn and retain much better when they can move–goal is not to stay still or child will put all their effort into restricting movement and not learning

–have a check-in and check-out system where they check with the teacher before they leave for the day that they have homework assignments written down and then in morning before school starts they turn in assignments done the night before.

–many more need to tailor to age, and specific concerns

Scenario #2. Your child seems to take forever to get her homework or chores done. She starts out then gets distracted by the TV or her brothers, or the stuff on her bedroom floor. She often forgets what you’ve asked her to do and starts doing something else entirely. You feel like you have to be right on top of her. Her room is always a mess and she looses her stuff all the time. How do you help your child be able to do what she needs to and you not be frustrated or feel the strain?

Dr. Herrmann: This is very typical for kids with attention/distractibility problems and along with these come organization and planning problems—all part of “executive functioning.” Once again, kids would do it if they could

—they are not trying to be difficult, forget or loose things. In the home setting it is very helpful to:

–have a regular schedule, place and time to do homework free of distractions

–use homework notebooks and organizers

–use game formats and countdowns

–organize essential items—environmental simplification—limit and label

–provide structure and lists of chores, etc.

–when you give instructions limit the number to 3—”go upstairs, get your book, and grab your coat.” Slow it down and pause between phrases.

–PRAISE—child needs to hear 8 praise statements to one “corrective teaching” to feel that it is equal. Always try to keep ratio of 8 positive to 1 negative.

Scenario #3. You notice that your child doesn’t seem to have friends. He is impatient and easily frustrated. On the playground or at a Cub Scout activity he can’t wait his turn in games, interrupts others, is in people’s space. He has a hard time following rules and doing what adults ask of him.

Dr. Herrmann: For a child like this I would first recommend identifying the child’s strengths and build on them. I would also recommend some social skills training. We usually don’t even think about how we react in social situations because for most it comes so easily and we don’t often think about it. These kids need training on how to play and work with other children—like taking turns, waiting in line, waiting for a break in conversation before speaking, learning about personal space, etc. You can also set up a behavioral program using charts and stars or point systems for rewards to increase or decrease specific behaviors.


As parents we love our children and want the very best for them.

1. Important to identify what the issues really are—with trouble in school would want to rule out any learning disabilities or health problems.

2. Help them be successful through accommodations and having them develop and learn skills.

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