Why We Struggle to Hold Attention In The Classroom

Are you constantly hearing your child’s teachers tell you that your child needs to pay attention in class? For some, they might add that they are ‘a sweet kid’ while others are seeing the words ‘distraction to others’.
I understand that all too well. As a matter of fact, for whatever reason, my mom kept my report cards, and time after time I am seeing that my attention needs work. I’ve even attached some of these to this post.


Maintaining focus is hard work for an ADHD kiddo. We have so many things at play making it difficult for us to maintain focus. Our impulses, distractions, and effort are three main reasons we struggle to hold attention when the teacher is talking. What do we do about this? The game-changer is self-awareness. Many times, we don’t know what is taking our attention away from the lesson being taught, much less, strategies to help us improve.
Over the next few days, I will dive further into impulses, distractions, effort, and self-awareness to help you better understand our inattention in the classroom.


One of the biggest obstacles for an ADHD student is distractions. There are two different types of distractions that can direct our attention from the task at hand. Those are internal distractions and external distractions.
Internal distractions are thoughts and emotions that we are unable to control. Have you ever been consumed by your emotions? Have you had those thoughts that hype you up and you can’t stop thinking about it?
When I was in High School, I remember we had this big volleyball game against one of the best teams in the state. I was so excited about this game that for the entire school day, it took my attention away from my teachers. In my head, I was going through every scenario from how we would walk out on the floor to which direction I was going to hit the ball to get it past their blockers. Unfortunately for me, we had a test in history that day, I rushed through it ready to get back to my exciting thoughts.


Last week, I mentioned that when we were learning our times tables, whoever got a high grade on the quiz would get ice cream on Friday. I never got the ice cream. That made me embarrassed and sad. So, when Friday came, I was spending the whole day worrying about what my classmates will think when they see that I didn’t get ice cream. I was unable to direct my attention towards the lesson being taught that day.
We can control our internal distractions but for many with ADHD, it is a skill not yet developed. Our inability to control those thoughts and emotions leads us to mentally be somewhere else when we should be focused on the teacher.


External distractions are the buzzing light, ticking clock, people in the hallway, cars driving by…. Oh, look a squirrel! Sometimes we can control these and other times we cannot. External distractions can pose two problems for us. The first being that it takes our attention away from the task at hand. The second is that we don’t know how to return our attention back to the class.


When we see that squirrel outside the window. We direct our attention to the squirrel. We either spend an enormous amount of time watching the squirrel try to crack open the nut. Or, watching the squirrel try to crack open the nut reminds us of trying to open the peanut butter jar this morning which makes us think about how hungry we are which leads to us dreaming about Chick-fil-a after school which reminds us that mom is picking us up late… the cycle is never-ending!


The best thing to do in overcoming either type of distraction is to build our self-awareness!


Acting before we think is the only way those of us with a lack of impulse control know how to be. In the classroom, this can show up as blurting out, not keeping our hands to ourselves, and breaking things.


There is always that one kid in school who pulls the fire alarm. Odds are, that kid has ADHD with impulsivity.
A child who struggles with impulsivity in the classroom comes home frequently, having gotten in trouble in school. Yet, the behaviors continue to happen day after day. Why is this? We do not know how to think before we act. As Dr. Hallowell put it, we have a Ferrari brain with the breaks of a bicycle. We need to learn the skills to slow our brain down to be in a place where we think before we act.


We may have gotten in trouble for our actions, but that doesn’t help us understand what lead us to those actions. I’ll give you an example.


When I was in High School, I had made chocolate chip cookies. I had about 12 sitting out and my mom asked me to put them in a baggie. I got out a sandwich baggie and started putting the cookies in it. My mom immediately stopped me and told me that I needed to get out a gallon bag because they would not all fit into the small sandwich bag.


Challenge accepted, mom…. I showed her and crumbled every one of those cookies to fit them in the small bag. I proceeded to hold that bag up and say, with a lot of 16-year-old attitude, “See, told you they would fit.”


As you can imagine, that did not go over well with my mom. Before I knew it, she was yelling at me and I was chucking that bag of crushed up cookies at her head. BAM action before thought. Here’s the thing. I had learned earlier that day that I had failed a test in school. The grade hadn’t been put in the gradebook yet but I was anticipating the moment my mom saw that grade. I was already on edge. This caused me to be sassy about the cookies and then when she exploded because of my stubborn sass, I reacted in an impulsive manner.


I know all of this now. However, this is not something I was aware of at the time. I did not know why I got to the point of chucking the cookie. When my mom asked me if I knew why I was in trouble, I said no. I answered honestly. I did not understand why I was in trouble. I knew I threw the cookies, but I had no idea how bad I was acting. I didn’t know what got me to that point. I know this is not a classroom example. Still, our boredom, struggles, impatience, inattention, and whatever else you can think of are why we are impulsive in the classroom. We just don’t understand that, and we don’t have the tools needed to control our impulses.


Effort is everything. You cannot be successful in life if you do not have a killer work ethic. This is where a lot of panic occurs for parents. They see their child and how capable they are if they would just put forth more effort.


That is easier said than done. For us to put forth effort and develop a good work ethic, we have to know how. How to manage our time, organize, be less forgetful, prioritize, plan, study, balance work and play. The list could go on.
For many of us with ADHD, it is easier to just give up and not do anything than it is to give it our all and still fail. We have this fear that we really are incapable. That is a false belief we have created in our heads based on past experiences. We need to throw out that belief that we are going to fail anyway so why even try.


Failure is the fastest way to learn. It is all the failures that make us successful in life. But, kids don’t understand that. They just see failure as an embarrassment. They aren’t wrong, it can be embarrassing. BUT, working through that is what will turn our ADHD struggles into our ADHD superpowers.


Neurotypical kids – kids with what I like to call boring brains – are able to wiz through school almost seamlessly. That is not the case for those living in chaos. I have a friend whom I went to school with from Kindergarten through High School. She always gave me a hard time over my poor grades and struggles. In college, that same friend of mine got an internship in the exact same program I did. That internship turned into a full-time job for me. Two years later, she was able to get a full-time job in the same program. After 4 years working in this program, I decided it was time to take a big risk and leave my full-time job to chase my dream that is Focus Forward.


I went into a meeting with my boss, asked for an insane amount of money ready for them to turn me down and for me to walk away. I walked out of that meeting and this friend, who for years made fun of me for struggling, could not stop telling me how much she wished she could do what I just did. Now, four years later, she continues to tell me how in awe she is of everything I have accomplished.


The only reason I had the guts to resign from my full-time job was because I have failed before. I knew how to work through problems from a thousand different angles and turn those experiences into successes.
This is why ADHD is my superpower. This is why failure is important.


I didn’t just get here overnight. I had to go through a lot of self-reflection to learn why I wasn’t putting forth my best effort.


School is not easy for those of us with ADHD. Whether your student is the one barely staying afloat or constantly burning the midnight oil to maintain their good grades. The lack of executive function skills (time management, organization, memory, planning, prioritizing, etc.) is a main part of that struggle.


We can do the same thing 100 times and have no idea why it is not working. This is why a support system is so important. We need a partner in crime who can help us step back and figure out what needs to be changed so we can start moving towards our fullest potential.


We have touched a little on our struggles with ADHD & the classroom. I have talked you through distractions, impulses, and effort. All of these topics are important in helping us understand where the problems stem from.
Now what? You may have seen a theme of self-awareness throughout. The first thing I am always working on my clients with is their self-awareness.


What is distracting us? When distracted, what is the reaction? How long do we stay distracted? How do we pull ourselves out of being in a distracted mode?


These are just a few examples of questions that can help build self-awareness around distractions specifically.
In addition to ADHD, I have a mild learning disability in reading. I was told it was not enough to be diagnosed as dyslexia, but it was apparent I struggled with reading and reading comprehension. Because of this, my mom sent me to a reading specialist.


During my time there, I was taught to put a tally mark in the margins when I became aware that I was distracted while reading. This was a tool that I used time and time again, but not just when reading. When I was in class and became aware that I was not listening to the teacher, I would put a tally on a post-it. I would do the same thing when taking a test, cleaning my room, and driving (lol, jk. But, not… I had lots of accidents when I was in High School).
My parents gave me their 14-year-old Toyota Sienna Minivan and told me I could do whatever I wanted to it. So, I threw some cheetah print fabric on the roof and I had all of my classmates sign the seats with permanent marker (you can see a signature above my head in the attached picture). I had tally marks on the passenger seat marking every time I was distracted – aka every time I hit something. I can’t find a picture of all the tally marks, but I do have a picture of the one that retired that van.


Now returning to your regularly scheduled post!


Many things can help build self-awareness. It does not have to be consistently wreaking a car, I mean tally marks🙃 . In building self-awareness, your child will gain a new perspective on their struggles, providing insight on tools we can use to overcome those struggles.


What is something your student could do to build self-awareness around their attention in the classroom?

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