How to Help A Child Focus in the Classroom


I often hear from concerned parents that their child’s teacher has shared something with them, and it sounds something like…

  • My child is difficult for the teacher to manage.
  • They take too long to do the task at hand from the teacher.
  • She doesn’t follow directions in school.
  • My child has trouble focusing in the classroom.

This puts you in a really tough position as a parent because you can’t exactly control what’s happening in the classroom. The teacher is also in a tough position, needing to manage the competing demands of a large classroom of children.

It’s hard no matter how you look at it.

Here’s where you and the teacher hold common ground: You both want the child to not only be successful in school, but in life! And of course, you want to work together in cooperation.  Which begs the question…

How to Help a Child Focus in the Classroom?

As a mom, I can wholeheartedly attest to struggles in getting my kids to focus. There was a time when I could barely get them to sit at the dinner table for five minutes – literally. Waiting in line at the post office with kids was a joke. And grocery shopping involved a lot of bribery.

We’ve come a long way since then.

Most articles you read on helping kids with lack of focus in school will recommend things like seat kids away from distractions, make learning fun, vary teaching methods, set up routines, etc.

5 fresh ideas to improve focus in kids.

All those are great strategies to use in the classroom, but what they don’t address is how you can start to help your child build focus, self-control and attention span at home.

You can’t control what happens in the classroom. You can, however, work with your child at home using five core strategies.

  1. Play board games for concentration.

Board games are one of the best ways to help your child build executive function, which is the cognitive or “mind” part of self-regulation. When kids need help focusing, what you’re actually wanting to help your child do is build better self-regulation skills.

 The Center for the Developing Child defines executive functions and self-regulation skills as: the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

The more you can help your child practice attention skills at home, the sooner they will be able to apply those skills and concentrate in school.

Here are some of my favorite board games to play with kids:

For more board games to help build executive functioning in kids check out these best board games for 5 to 7 year olds and best games for self-regulation in 3 to 5 year olds.

You can also help your child learn to concentrate by using other self-control games like these:

  1. Practice waiting – A LOT – to improve attention span.

Practice waiting with your kids as many times as you can fit into the day. In the doctor’s office, at the grocery store, at the dinner table and during play at home are all places that are great for practicing self-regulation.

Instead of reaching for your phone or electronic device to distract your child, practice playing games with your child while waiting. These are creative hand games or mind games to play with your child to improve focus and attention. They only require your body sitting in a chair and nothing else.

Here are some examples:

  • While waiting in the doctor’s office we may play “the thinking game” where my son will describe something and I have to guess what it is.
  • While at the grocery store, play “I spy” where you describe something you see and your child has to guess it.
  • Have your child place his hands out palms facing up. Place your hands hovering over his, except with your palms facing down. The goal is for your child to try and slap the top of your hands. Then switch roles.

In addition to waiting in different scenarios out and about, practice waiting at home for a toy that a sibling has, a special treat like a cookie, or a toy they want to buy at the store.  If waiting is met with tears, sadness or a temper tantrumbe sure to acknowledge thoughts and feelings and validate how hard this must be for your child. Building self-control takes a lot of work – especially for kids! Knowing that you are on their side and that you understand their point of view will make a huge difference in your child’s mental health!

Finally, have your child practice sitting at the dinner table until everyone is finished. Getting them used to sitting for about 30 minutes can help kids stay focused once they transition into the classroom.

  1. Focus immensely on vestibular and proprioceptive input.

In order for kids to listenfocus and learn to sit still for a period of time, they must develop both proprioception and vestibular sense. The most critical time to develop a child’s proprioception and vestibular sense is before age six.

Proprioception is what tells you where your body parts are without having to look at them. This is the sense that helps you make sense of gravity. It’s the reason you can switch from the gas pedal to the brake without looking at your feet, or bring popcorn to your mouth without taking your eyes off the movie screen. Without properly developed proprioception, kids can push too hard during tag, fall out their seat at the dinner table or trip while walking up stairs.

Vestibular sense provides information about where the body is in relation to its surroundings. This is the sense that helps you understand balance, and it connects with all the other senses. Without a strong vestibular sense, kids will have no choice but to fidget, get frustrated, experience more falls and aggression, get too close to people when talking, and struggle with focusing and listening. Because they literally cannot help it.

You can read more about a series of activities you can do with your child to support vestibular and proprioceptive development in my post here:

The Most Overlooked Reason Why Kids Won’t Listen, Focus or Sit Still

There’s a free printable worksheet at the bottom of that post with the exercises too.

  1. Cut back on screens – WAY back.

Study after study shows that kids who have more screen-time (or video games) have lower attention spans and lose focus. Without realizing it, screen-time can really add up fast.

While some past studies recommend kids use a screen device less than two hours a day, new research is recommending that children only have zero to 30 minutes per day.

Some experts even recommend a “screen fast” where electronics are completely removed for several weeks to allow your child’s neurological system to reset. If done correctly, this intervention can produce deeper sleep, a brighter and more even mood, better focus and organization, and an increase in physical activity. The ability to tolerate stress improves, so meltdowns diminish in both frequency and severity. The child begins to enjoy the things they used to, is more drawn to nature, and imaginary or creative play returns.

  1. Encourage role-play at home.

According to the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, “It takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain – unless it is done with play – in which case, it takes between 10-20 repetitions.

Talking to your kids about what they could say or do instead when they are fidgety or bored in the classroom is always an option. However, the most efficient way to help your child problem-solve solutions, and actually have them remember in the moment, is to have them role-play with you at home. Practice with your child using role-play in a variety of ways. One that I love is, of course, role-reversal games.

In the example of helping your child focus, your child would play the teacher (that’s them reversing into the teacher role) and you would play the fumbling child who always gets distracted, dawdles and can’t concentrate in school. The more exaggerated you get with your inability to focus, the more fun it will be for your child. This creates a deep connection and a safe space for you and your child to work through this challenge.

Once your child asks to play the role of the student again, you’ll know he or she is opening up to your guidance and solutions will start showing up in play. Play out potential strategies your child could use to pay attention in class and focus. The funnier they are, the more memorable they will be when the moment strikes in real life.

Recommended reads on using play in parenting:

Here’s to getting kids to sit at the dinner table for 30 minutes, wait in line at the post office without a fuss, seamless grocery store trips and working with your child’s teacher in collaboration to build focus, concentration and attention span.

Mother’s Day w/ Adopted & Foster Children

For many adopted children and those in foster care, the three most difficult days of the year are Mother’s Day, Christmas or Hanukkah, and the child’s birthday. These special days often bring about feelings of loneliness, sadness, and grief, especially for children who had spent them with abusive parents, those on drugs or alcohol, or without a family setting at all in the past.

Children who have experienced trauma may remember days like Christmas more as a time of dealing with inadequate parents and the lack of gifts and food. Some children mourn over and miss positive memories they shared with their biological parents during holidays. Many children who have come from family backgrounds in which their lives were extremely unpredictable hate the element of surprise connected with these holidays as well as with birthdays. Therefore, many foster and adoptive parents are well acquainted with the fact that their children act out before and during these special days.

How to help adoptive and foster children and their foster or adoptive parents through difficult days

In order to help a child with the pain of Mother’s Day, Christmas or Hanukkah, and their birthdays, adoptive and foster parents can:

1. Acknowledge the pain of the child’s many losses.

Encourage the child to share his or her feelings about those they have lost to reinforce that his or her emotions are perfectly normal. You could encourage the child to honor his or her birth mother and other mothers at home during a candle lighting ceremony or similar ritual to celebrate the special occasion. It is helpful to honor your child’s previous mothers before Mother’s Day, Christmas or Hanukkah, and the child’s birthday. Even abusive birth mothers may be honored for giving birth to the child and providing whatever positive qualities the child may have inherited such as an attractive appearance, sports abilities, musical talent, and intelligence.

2. Talk with the child about his or her past holidays.

Gather specific information so that you can incorporate your child’s previous positive memories into your current family’s activities. Family get-togethers may be extremely difficult. Be honest with each other about your feelings. Sit down with your family and decide what you want to do for each specific holiday. Undertake only what each family member is able to handle comfortably.

3. Remember there is no right or wrong way to handle special occasions.

You may wish to follow family traditions or change them. It may help to do things just a little differently. Holiday activities can change from year to year. Be careful of “shoulds”. It is better to do what is most helpful for you and your children than to follow a prescribed regimen of activities. Set limitations if a situation looks especially difficult for your child before it is to occur. Realize that it isn’t going to be easy and do only the things that are very special and important to you and your child.

4. Remember that your child’s negative reactions to special occasions are based on his or her grief. Becoming angry with a child who is grieving accomplishes nothing. Understand and accept the child’s feelings about the special occasion and about the people he or she has lost. Acknowledge those feelings, encourage the child to express them, and then move toward the special occasion with the intent of providing yet another opportunity for the child to heal.

5. Communicate with other adults in your child’s life. As Mother’s Day approaches, chat with your child’s teacher about usual assignments surrounding the day. The teacher needs to know about such circumstances in order to modify assignments to fit the needs of children who no longer live with their biological mothers. As holidays near, let friends and relatives know your unique plans for the holidays. Ask them to honor your decisions on behalf of your family’s special needs.

6. Nurture yourself. Many adoptive mothers have an especially difficult time on Mother’s Day. You may long to have a positive relationship with a child who can’t attach and feel isolated and sad as well. Try to let go of expectations you place on your child as well as yourself. Do something nice for yourself.

Dysmaturity and the Challenges of Friendship

July 18, 2018, by Eileen Devine, LCSW

There’s a boy in our neighborhood who is half my daughter’s chronological age and lives a few houses down. He and our daughter occasionally play outside together when my husband or I are working in the yard and can keep an eye on them. He’s about four-and-a-half and she’s nine, but since she is living with FAS, they are in the same place developmentally— still building essential social skills such as compromising, learning to take turns, and sharing favorite toys. In many ways, they are great playmates.

The other day, my daughter asked if we could invite this friend over to play inside our house. Knowing that she’s been eager to have a friend over, with infrequent opportunities to do so, I agreed and set it up with his mom. Before our young neighbor arrived, my daughter and I talked about how to be a good host when a friend comes to visit. She enthusiastically provided her own ideas on what this might look like and how she would make him feel welcome.

She could hardly contain her excitement.

Despite all of this, the moment he arrived (right on time and excited to play), she ran and hid from him behind a couch. He and I tried to get her to come out from her hiding spot, but she stayed there, growling at him like a dog and hissing like a cat.

My heart breaks for her in these types of moments (and there are plenty of them), knowing that the impact of her actions, and how they affect a blossoming friendship she so desperately craves, is completely lost on her. Knowing that she is extremely social, and wants nothing more than to have true friends like her older “neurotypical” brother, but watching her struggle with the basics of how to be a friend— even with patient coaching and encouragement in advance— is unbelievably sad for me as her mom.

In my work with many other parents of children impacted by FASD, and through my own parenting experience, I’ve come to believe that one of the most difficult aspects of watching our children with FASD grow older is to see the heartbreak that comes with trying to make, relate to, and keep friends. While it’s certainly true that the social complexities any child faces growing up will deliver a measure of heart-breaking moments, this feels different. This is a profound, lingering heartbreak that runs deep because it’s about more than just the situation at hand— the most recent drama with the friend at school or the hurt feelings from something uttered on the playground. This heartbreak is about witnessing, repeatedly, the growing pains that come with having a child whose brain works differently, the sort of difference that renders establishing and maintaining successful, authentic friendships incredibly challenging.

I hear different versions of this heart-breaking story from nearly everyone I work with: parents and family members raising children with FASD, as well as adults living with FASD who speak to the social isolation they often experience.

It might be the high schooler with FASD who engages in risky behavior with a new peer group they want to impress, but lacks a clear understanding of the consequences of their actions.

The way in which this same high schooler has a “falling out” with a new friend each week, but can’t identify why this keeps happening.

It might be an adult with FASD who isolates in their room all day, reducing their social interactions to online “friends,” but has only minimal understanding of the wide-reaching ramifications of social media interactions with “friends” who are complete strangers.

Or the middle schooler who is seen as “immature,” playing too rough on the playground, talking about toys and movies intended for much younger children, dominating conversations without self-awareness, alienating herself by talking too loudly and too frequently.

The ten-year-old that is acting “silly” in a desperate attempt to fit in and be funny, but is seen by classmates as the kid who “ruins everything.”

And the twelve-year-old who still requires nearly constant adult supervision to be safe and doesn’t understand why he can’t ride down to the park by himself, like all the other 12-year-olds in the neighborhood.

We know that individuals with FASD have brains that work differently, and sometimes we can see this clearly in delayed and halted speech, lack of executive functioning skills, poor impulse control and environmental sensitivity which frequently results in sensory overload.

Difficulty forming relationships can certainly be due to poor impulse control (I want, so I grab or steal; that’s mine, so I take without asking; he’s in my way, so I push to get him out of my way), inability to abstract (a struggle to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” or read social cues) or inability to see consequences of actions. What we don’t hear discussed as often is how a brain that did not have the opportunity to develop “on-time” struggles just as significantly with relationships and social interactions as it does do with various other primary characteristics due to dysmaturity.

Dysmaturitywhere a gap exists between the developmental age and the chronological age of an individualis a primary characteristic of FASD. I believe it is foundational to our understanding of individuals with this diagnosis, setting the stage for all the other primary characteristics to follow. It is not uncommon for individuals with FASD to be, developmentally, half their chronological age, which has profound ramifications for that individual when it comes to making and maintaining friendships. It’s not difficult to imagine the ways in which a child with dysmaturity would struggle within peer groups. Since society almost always groups children by age for school and other activities, the environments through which children with FASD move highlight this difference in ever more painful ways.

I’ve also found that dysmaturity is the primary characteristic that’s commonly most difficult for parents to fully and consistently integrate into a new understanding of their child, and, as a result, this aspect of FASD is frequently minimized or left completely unrecognized. For this reason, I often begin processing a situation that has occurred with a child by asking, “How old is he (or she) developmentally?” Asking this simple question lays the foundation and brings the dysmaturity to the forefront. It’s often not until we truly begin to dissect specific situations parents have encountered with their child that the full impact of dysmaturity on their child’s life comes into full focus.

And even with an awareness of dysmaturity, the reality of its impact is still difficult to accept. It can be largely invisible. Sometimes, it’s not until a younger, “neurotypical” sibling begins to surpass an older child with FASD in areas of social and emotional maturity that the reality finally hits. Other times, it is a slowly unfolding awareness, prompted by the question, “What age does that action remind you of?” when reflecting on a child’s behavior.

Once this awareness is present, other understandable, tough questions come next:

If my child is half their age developmentally, what does this mean for their future?

What does this mean for my future, as their parent?

Will my child ever be able to find a place or community where they “fit in?”

Will they ever “catch up,” or does the developmental gap remain?

It can be difficult to remain in the moment as a parent when such heavy, difficult questions about the present and future remain unanswered. But there are things we can do as parents, in the present moment, to work within, rather than against, the limitations of dysmaturity.

When that young neighbor came over to play with our daughter, only to have her growl from behind the couch, I didn’t call off the play date, lecture her or launch into potential consequences. I focused on keeping my own frustration, disappointment, and anxiety in check. I remained calm and supportive, reminding my daughter that her friend was there just for her, hoping to have fun with her.

When she eventually emerged from her hiding spot, after a great deal of regulated support from me, we shifted into playing with her friend. I supervised nearby, to ensure things were off to a good start (that she was regulated again). When I was confident of this, I continued to observe from a distance in order to assist with negotiating tricky social situations as they arose. I was attentive to the ways in which, from that point forward, she was a good host to her friend, so I could be sure to recognize and point out those things later.

Afterward, I made a point to speak with her friend’s mother about what had occurred, so that the mom might better understand my daughter when dysmaturity inevitably came up again in the relationship. I was mindful of my inclination to feel shame and embarrassment, and, while acknowledging these feelings creeping in, tried to avoid letting them overwhelm me. I didn’t apologize for my daughter’s disability, but simply provided context to our neighbor for deeper understanding.

Finally, later that night when my daughter was ready for bed and snuggled up to me after reading a book, I circled back to remind her of the things she did well while her friend was over and how proud we were of her resilience. We also discussed things we might consider doing differently the next time, and why. I resisted the urge to rush through this conversation, and instead focused on speaking slowly, giving time to process, providing context, and walking through how her friend might have felt at the moment she was growling and hissing at him.

Like many parents of children with brain differences, I’m continuously working to accept the need to re-teach and engage the circling process, again and again, knowing that a slightly different variation of this situation will inevitably arise, because that’s what happens with a 9-year-old child who lives in the world as a 4-year-old developmentally.

Where FASD is concerned, there is an ever-so-slow maturation process, one that sometimes moves so glacially we don’t even believe it’s happening. And then, every once in a while, it’s as if the needle shifts seismically, in a way that shows real progress. We get that glimpse of our child’s ability to think of a friend before themselves. Or our child comes to us when they’re upset by a friend’s comment, instead of reacting impulsively, in word or action, towards the friend. Another reminder that they are not acting immaturely, they are actually a younger age developmentally. Success hinges, not only on understanding this, but internalizing and practicing responses that arise from a neurobehavioral, brain-based perspective.