HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Ask the Experts

How do I help my child focus?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist


I have a kindergartner who has become less focused. The teacher and I have been talking frequently, and I talk with him. But his behavior is actually getting worse. He is just being silly and frequently he gets way off track. Even when he is at home, I give him three things to focus on and do, and he can barely do it.

I don't believe he knows what he is doing wrong because when we talk or I yell, he just changes the subject as if he didn't hear or his eyes just fill up with tears. We have tried taking away toys, but he just continues. I thought about doing a reward chart, but I don't think it will help at this point. What can I do to help him? Could it be something we are doing at home that is causing this?


You are probably correct in assuming your son doesn't know specifically what he's doing wrong and how to correct it. When adults get frustrated they tend to yell, lecture or give rapid instructions. Your son is showing you that he is confused and overwhelmed by changing the subject or getting teary, which is an age-appropriate response. Acting silly can also be an indication that he doesn't understand or is unable to perform the task at hand.

If there have been no major stressful changes in your household recently, you may want to ask the teacher if she thinks he was ready for kindergarten. He might not have the academic skills and emotional maturity to be successful. Explore with the teacher whether your child might benefit from an extra year of kindergarten or extra help with academics.

You might want to reconsider the reward chart. Children learn better when positive rather than negative feelings are evoked. The teacher may have some good methods, because most classroom management uses some variation of reward incentives.

I'm not sure if the three things you are having him focus on are behaviors you want him to change, tasks you want him to complete, or new academic skills he needs to practice. Frustrated parents can sound like this: "Johnny stop being silly. Go do your homework. Wait! Pick up your back pack! Don't drop things on the floor. How many times have I told you ..." If you are doing some version of this, try keeping the instructions separate and as emotionally neutral as possible.

Break things down one task and one step at a time before moving on. This will reduce your anxiety and his. Although it will be tedious in the beginning, it allows him to begin mastering following instructions.

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"my son is 4yrs old. his teacher always complains to me that he has completely loss focus in class he does do his work early and on time, because of that he doesn't go for break because he doesn't finish on time. I don't know what to do for him. when am teaching him at home, he does the same thing, at times when i leave him alone to do his work either he does it and when he finishes instead giving it to me he start tearing the edges of his book or he doesn't do it at all i don't know what to do. well for know he likes watching t.v (Disney Junior) please i need your help. "
"My five year old son is very smart.He however has had a rough time with Jr. Kindergarten this year. He gets bored and would rather crawil around or make the other chidren laugh than sit and listen to a 1/2 hour story. The teacher is so frisrtated she sends him to the principral's office of one on one with the secretary where he does great and complets his school work. Is there a special school for kds like this or do I have to home school him? help is ADD a factor? He does great at home. me "
"i have an 8 year old and she is having problems at school with focusing what has happen is she was at at french amegin school and was having problems then the school transfered her to her home school and she got stabbed with a pencil and the kids were mean to her she never would hit back i tought her not to hit the kids in her class would get up and walk out of the class and then the teacher would chase the child so i got fed up and changed schools but she had problems thinking kids would do the same i thought maybe moving out of the neighbour hood would help by her meeting new kids and a different inviroment but she is having a hard time still i am a singe mom i work a lot maybe thats whats wrong i get up set and take things away or raise my voice but it dosent work please help me with my daughter i love her so much i want the best for her education in really important to me "
"Our son, now 7, had issues in kindergarten with being able to stay focussed and being able to deal with changes and transitions. We came to understand that he has issues with sensory processing (previously called sensory integration). Basically in his case it appeared that it was ADHD because he would fidget in his chair, need to get out of his seat and jump around, and appear to not pay attention in class. We now understand that the hyperactivity was a symptom of his need to jump start his senses, to process information that he was taking in. I'm not suggesting that is the case for all kids who can't seem to focus in class, just a heads up to those parents to ask more questions of your pediatrician, and don't be afraid to get an outside expert to look at your child. "
"my son is in 5th grade and is just not wanting to do school work he is getting bad grades I know that he can do it I think he is just lazy and chooses not to do he is work when I work with him and make him do it he dose it and dose very well but I have to make him at school he dose some things and not others"
"Check for Neurotherapy, my son was ADD and now is cured."
"AAHHHHH! my 8 year old daughter dosnt have adhd but today i recieved my daughters progress report and she got A's except for not paying attention and recieved an F in social studies because she was not ansswering questions because she was not paying attention to what the questions were asking Please HELP!!! "
"My 2nd grade son is very playful that this has spilled over into the classroom and is causing a problem with his work. I was told today that the teacher holds up flash cards for math as well as ask him to read and he cannot answer because he doesn't know the information but when he gets home and we go over the information he is fine. I have taken the television, games and toys from him and nothing is working. I don't want him to fail but I need a solution so that I can help him stay focused. Please help me with a solution?"
"i have a son going on to 5th gd. and he has a hard time focusing and staying on task in class. what advice do u hav for a child his age at 11 yrs. old? and his teacher from last year recommended to have him tested to see if he has a problem learning. but im afraid that they are going to want to put him on drugs to help him. and i don't want him to depend on drugs to do good in school.he doesn't cause trouble at school or home he behaves like a normal you have some advice for me?please help."
"Please parents be aware of the medications that are given to kids sometimes are a quick solution. If you have a kid with ADD/ADHD it takes a lot of understanding and dedication but you can help your child. Please dont give in. You could also educate your self more on this topic. I recomend : Wild Child by Don Mordasini MA,MFT which shows his struggle with his daughters ADD/HD and his own. If you have a chance please read this book you can rent it from your local library it has help me a lot with my own son. "
"WHAT WORKED FOR ME: My 2nd grade boy had these same ADHD/ADD struggles. I am opposed to using drugs and sought out a homeopathic solution. I found a homeopath who has been dealing with ADHD boys specifically for the last 20 years. He met with my son, gave us some homeopathic drops to take 3 times a day, and took him of dairy and dyes, specifically RED dyes. (after a short test) My son was a NEW BOY in a matter of 3 months. My husband was a little bit skeptical, until he saw how our son reacted when he was given a '3 day pass' from drops and diet changes on Halloween. With all that back in his system, all the old issues came back; trouble focusing, not being able to follow directions, couldn't sit still without moving, etc. I have a few friends who have since visited this doctor with their boys, with nothing short of miraculous results. It took a good few months and we were able to creep some of the dairy and dyes back into his life, but sparingly. When we feel he's getting a little out of contr! ol, we just simply go off dairy and dyes for a bit, and it does the trick! He is back in public school, and doing well. "
"Hi, my son is 5 years old his DOB is 11-14-80 so he is the youngest in his kindergarten class. This is his second year in school he went to pre-k. I'm concerned because he can not stay still or focus on his work and most times brings it home with a note that say please help finish. However at parent teacher conference, they said he is the smartest kid in the class room and his vocabulary is off the charts. But that his social interaction is none, and he rather be by him self. not to mention that he wont stay in his seat, and that he always has a story to tell, which interrupts the class. they said while story time he sit quiet but as far as all else he is really having trouble saying still and focusing unless you are right on top of him, which the teacher can not do with 20 other students. they afraid with 1st grade coming and much more independent work he will fall behind. what can I do to help him stay still and focus. medicine is not an option for us. we have tried charts! , time outs, taking things away and rewards. nothing seems to work? any input?"
"If this does not sound like our situation! "
"Some kids are too young to know how to focus yet. Think about the kids who are in preschool and three or four years old. They have most likely gone from playing most of the day, to being expected to follow rules and directions. Learning how to focus is like most other things in life, it takes practice. Parents or other adults can model good listening skills by giving their child undivided attention when they are telling a story or sharing something. This may not always be possible since many of us have busy schedules, but try to take a few moments every day to sit and just listen to your child. Also, let the child know when you are too busy to listen to a story. Tell them that you need to make a call or finish typing an email, but let them know that you will talk to them when you are through. Another way to prepare your child for focusing in school is to start when they are young before preschool or kindergarten. Start your child in a routine. Give them set times for play but also incorporate times when they need to sit with you while you read a book or times to sit and color. This will help them when they are expected to follow a routine at school. Younger kids also need to know about consequences. What happens when they don't follow the rules? Make sure that you follow through with the consequences that you lay out. Also make sure that you let your kids know what to expect when a rule or direction is not followed. This will prepare them for school since in many classrooms there are set rules and expectations in place. Academic Success Examiner For full article go here: "
"i have a kindergarten boy that is very bright, he knows his work but is lazy when it comes to doing it. while at home i have to be right next to him while doing it or his work will not be done correctly. i have absolutly NO problem sitting with him but he does know how to do it when explained to him like i always do. as soon as i sit with him it is done right away. at shcool he is being lazy. he will not participate in class when the class is told to come to the circle, he will lay on the bench or under his chair. his teacher is wonderful and is working with me. she would always have to give him a speacial invitation to come and join which she should not have to do. when it comes to work in school he gets it done asap and you cannot read it. we have taken away tv, video games and toys and it does not seem to bother him. now the teacher is at the point where it is disrtuptive to the class which i totally understan. the other students are seeing him do this and wond! ering why can 'he' do that and we can't. it is not acceptable and i don't know what to do anymore. finally the teacher and i decided that if he continues to act like this then he will not have free time or get to go outside in school on that day. he will have to then sit inside and do extra work. i asked if i could then have extra work for him to do at home for that day. this is on a day to day basis. today it happened. he knows all of this and fully understands it. he was good for one day. he was proud of himself too. however the next day it happened. no free time extra work at shcool and extra work for home per my request. i feel he needs to know this behavior is not okay. he was on a playdate after school and i called to see how it was going and the mom told me he had extra work sent home with him. i told her i will be there in 10 mins. i took away his playdate. i don't know what else to do. he understands what is going on he just doesn't care. he is no! t a mean kid or disrespectful by any means. the teacher even ! says he's great minus his 'laziness'. any suggestions?"
"i have a fifth grader that gazes off forgets what hes doing loses papers to and from school and does not do his homework or school work weve done tests on him @ the Dr's offices and had EEG's done what else can we do?"
"Just had meeting with my 5th graders teacher. He spends his time laughing at EVERYTHING, and is much more interested in everything going on around rather than learning. He forgets to turn in his homework. When he does his work it is most often incomplete - largely because he will read the first line or two of the instructions and not the complete. We are at wits end as to how to help him. Any direction will be greatly appreciated."
"My son is in 4th grade and having alot of problems staying on task. He has adhd. I had him on medication at on point and he was over medicated. He ended up getting hit by a truck while riding his bike. So I really don't want to go that way. I would just like a little advice on what I can do to help him. "
"I have an issue also with my daughter who's now in kindergarten. She is very good at home, and she can even read and do his brother's lessons who is now on in 1st grade. I got a note from the teacher today saying that she's observed a pattern on my daughter's behavior. She would say she has a tummy ache or headache right at the same time everyday- before a lesson starts. She would be okay before and after the lessons. I'm wondering if she gets bored because she's a bit advanced or she just couldn't focus yet. Please advise. "
"I have an 8th grader who still finds it hard to focus. He can study and tell u what it is, but when he puts it on paper for quizes and test he blows it. He doesn't have ADD, but he doesn't focus very well. What can I do to help him better."
"I have a 3rd grader that is having a hard time in school. When he started school his teachers were amazed at how much he know. Sometimes I think I put him in to early (4yrs preschool)but like the teachers I thought he was ready.I have tryed reward charts at school and at home and it seems to work for a little while but then something happens and he gets side tracked somewhere I just don't know where.Foucing seems to be the problem. I'm running out of ideas. "
"This is a great response. We have tried this approach with both our kids and taking the one focal point at a time has helped greatly. Patience is a virtue and as parents we have to remember that."
"I have a 3rd grader who can not focus on school assignments. She has no behavioral problems; her mind just seems to drift. Could she be ADD? I have met with her teachers several times and they agree that she has trouble focusing but can not offer a solution. She has already been retained once. We can not afford to retain her again or she will be 19 or 20 by the time she graduates! Any help would be greatly appreciated."
"I have a 3rd grader who can't stay focused in school. A three minute assignment takes her 20 minutes. She knows how to do the work but her mind wonders. I am ready to pull my hair out. I can't yell anymore, it doesn't do any good. Rewards for good behavior don't work. Help!"
"I have a 4th grader who can not seem to focus. You can talk to her one on one and she seems to drift off somewhere else and will miss everything you are saying. I am trying to find exercises or something to help her learn to focus better. Any advice would be great. "
"Thanks I really enjoy reading the info I to have a step son in Kindergarten ,and he completely acts out in class as far as being sent home notes on a weekly number and spit on a nother child ,Hes not slow by NO means actually very smart but he has manipulated his father and natural Mother so much they tend to look at it as ecept him the way he is.I too have a kindergartner and they are in the same class and my son comes home daily to tell me how bad his step brother had been for the day.I dont know how to intervin ,there for I m looked apon as a nosy stepparent to the ex wife,But I have a 21 year old and now a 5 and 6 year old which all seem to thrive in school."
"This article really made sense to me. I do get a little bossy and tend to forget he is 3 and needs things step by step. 'Jacob please put your shoes away and on the way take your papers to the table, put your cup in the sink and push your chair in!!' "
"My kindergartener also has a hard time focusing on certain tasks and chores. When she is given a job to do and cannot focus on it I set a timer. Depending on the job, I'll put 5, 10, or 15 minutes on a kitchen timer and tell her she is being timed. She is rewarded for finishing early or on time and punished appropriatly for not. This method has worked wonders and saves my sanity daily!"