How to help a child or teen with trouble concentrating

ethan 23 asks: Our son is ambidextrous, with possible dyslexia, and has real trouble concentrating, I am looking for methods to help him build up his concentration levels at school and in sports.

Hi ethan 23 –

I’m not sure what you’re saying about your son being ambidextrous – that just means he can use both hands equally well, and that’s a great thing (especially to someone like me, who doesn’t have any hands at all!).

But the trouble concentrating is, of course, a real problem.  Now I also have lots of trouble concentrating.  But that’s kind of normal for a dog (Have you seen the movie “Up”?  That dog in that movie is a great depiction of the unfocusedness that all dogs have, at least while they’re still young.).  And so, when I went to Training Class, the teacher did a great job of working with the lack of concentration in all of us.  He had our humans do two things.  Firstly, to carry a can with some rocks or coins in it, so when the dog isn’t focused on you, you can shake it.  It’s far kinder than hitting or scolding the dog, and focuses us just great.  Then secondly, they’d carry a bag of meaty treats in their pockets.  You wouldn’t believe what that does for a puppy’s focus!

And with your son, I’d really suggest trying to do the same thing.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with some scattered concentration; it’s often a sign of intelligence!  Do you think Einstein, Shakespeare, and DaVinci always concentrated fully on whatever boring thing was being told to them?  No, what we really want is for your son to be able to concentrate when he wants or needs to.  So the trick would be to find him an equivalent to that can, and an equivalent to that bag of treats.  Could you set up a timer that he could use when he studies, that would go off every few minutes, to remind him to get back to his studying (as long as it didn’t actually interrupt the studying he is doing!)?  And could he get a reward for staying focused for certain small amounts of time?  Concentration is often like a muscle, and if you can build it up slowly, it gets way better.  So if you can find some things that work, it’ll help a lot.

Now, of course, there’s the other side to this, which is that your son could actually have the physiological condition of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder).  There are lots of medications for this, and I have nothing against them as long as you have a good psychiatrist prescribing them.  Often, medical doctors who really don’t fully assess kids prescribe meds that are “usually” okay.  But you want better than that.

But even before you see a doctor, you can try a very safe experiment with your son, that might tell you whether medicine is a good idea.  Most medication for ADHD is stimulants.  In other words (though it sounds strange), concentration is actually improved by the kid getting stimulated.  So if you’re up to it, you might try seeing what happens if you give your son a cup of tea or even a little coffee before he goes to school, and see if it helps his concentration.  If it fixes the problem completely, of course that’s great and there’s no need to do anything other than that.  But if it seems to help a little, that’s a good sign that stimulant medication might be really helpful for him.

And either way, it is a really good idea to find a good child therapist for your son.  Even if he finds the right medication, he still has to learn to live with his condition, and a helpful expert could be just what he needs.

But more than anything else, I want to remind you, and for you to remind him, that this is a condition, and not a mental illness.  It’s just something he’ll learn to live with, just as if he was a giant or had super-powers.  And what would be wrong with that?!





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