ADVICE: Why Can’t My Child Focus?

Tips and tricks to help your child stay on task during remote learning
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As parents across the country step into the role of homeschool teacher this year, it’s opened our eyes to the challenges of managing a classroom—and given us a whole new respect for teachers.

Many of us now know that asking kids to remain at their desk and focus for hours—or even minutes—is as unrealistic as them thanking us for all we did for them today.

Why can it be so difficult for our children to focus? In my recent article, “Why Is My Kid Doing That,” I introduced the sensory cups. If you recall, sensory input for our kids is what coffee is for most of us caffeine-loving adults. We need enough each morning to get us to that “just right” place so we’re alert and ready to focus. But if we have too much, we’re too jittery and have a hard time staying on task.

When children don’t have enough sensory input to fill their cup, they’re under-stimulated and will seek out sensory stimulation elsewhere. When they’ve had too much, they are over-stimulated and may meltdown or shut down. Either way, they won’t be focused or able to do their best work.


Here are some tips to help kids get their sensory cups to that “just right” level:

Movement. Movement can help both an over- and under-stimulated child. Allow your child to move around before they sit down at their desk, and give them frequent movement breaks. To get the most bang for your buck on the sensory system, try swinging, spinning, rolling, jumping, riding a bike or scooter, climbing, running, animal walks (i.e. crabwalk or frog jump), or any activity that allows them to move through space and use their big muscle groups.

Alternative Seating. In the same way movement and sensory input can improve a child’s ability to focus, where our kids sit to do their work can make a positive impact as well. My favorites are desk chairs that spin, sitting on an exercise ball, lying on the floor propped up on their elbows, standing, sitting in a hammock, rocking chair, or bean bag chair, using a chair band, or rolling a ball under their feet.

Music. Music can do for the brain what Adderall does, so help your child create a playlist that helps them focus best. It could range from spa music to the “Star Wars” soundtrack. Let them listen through noise cancelling headphones if needed to block out other stimulation.

Timers. Kids work best with predictability and some sense of control. I like to set a timer for however long they are expected to work (don’t forget to have realistic expectations!). When that timer goes off, set it again for a movement break. Repeat this cycle until their work is complete.

Chewy Snacks. Think about the snacks you grab when you’re stressed or need to focus. Chances are it’s something chewy or crunchy. That’s because of the sensory input we get through our jaw muscles when we chew. At snack time, offer your kids apple slices, carrot sticks, dried cereal, and dried fruit leathers, or let them chew on gum.


CINDY UTZINGER is an occupational therapist, mother of two, and author of Why Is My Kid Doing That?, a book to help parents better understand their child’s behavior.