We all face the problem of inattention as teachers of our children.

Sometimes children are inattentive out of boredom or fatigue, or because they are five years old (a notoriously inattentive age).

Sometimes they are inattentive out of rebellion. And sometimes kids are inattentive simply because it is very difficult for them to pay attention to any one thing very long.

When children are consistently inattentive, labels like ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder) might be suggested. These terms can stir up a wild range of emotions and debates within the homeschool community. Reactions from one end of the spectrum (“There is no such thing!”) to the other (“Oh yes there is!”) are common.

Debates as to treatments can get just as heated, particularly when the question of using medication is raised.

How do we figure out what is the right thing to do with our child when inattention is a problem?

I have found most of these children need a combination approach to managing their behavior. These approaches are in essence just good teaching/parenting techniques. However, children with attention problems seem to need more direct teaching and parent monitoring than other children ~ and for a significantly longer time.

Because of this, many parents feel that what they are doing isn’t working. If you have an inattentive child, the chances are that you are doing at least some of the right things, but you may feel discouraged because your child continues to be inattentive unless you are actively engaged with him (often nose to nose, as is common at my house).

The combination of strategies that I have found the most effective contains some of each of the following elements in different combinations depending on each child. These strategies are:


  • Consistent Discipline
  • Active Learning
  • Physical Exercise
  • Proper Diet
  • Controlling Television
  • Medication if needed

Consistent Discipline

Discipline is child training. Some children may be naturally attentive or attentive to certain things, but most children need to be trained to attend when something is only moderately interesting (like grammar). Ultimately we call this self-control, but at the beginning it is definitely mom control.

For children who are inattentive because of age or lack of training, attentiveness will gradually increase as they are expected to attend and they see the resulting consequences (i.e., If I get my math done I can go play, but if I don’t I have to stay inside until it’s done.) These children gradually need less and less help in meeting expectations for attention.

However, a child with a true attention problem will need a lot more direct teaching and monitoring in order to learn and practice this type of self-control. Let me illustrate this point with my two daughters.

My high-energy eight-year-old can be very inattentive because she does not choose to attend. This is a maturity issue, and so mom-control and training in self-control are in order. I have to remind her to pay attention then set time limits, rewards, and consequences as appropriate in order to help her develop this skill.

On the other hand, my other daughter is autistic and while she does come and do her work out of obedience, I have to constantly be the one keeping her focused on the task at hand. This is not disobedience or rebellion on her part. She is simply incapable of sustained focus without me sitting right beside her pointing to the next item to be done.

True ADD or ADHD children are often much like this. Sometimes as parents we may need to accept that our children with attention difficulties need this extra help, and not feel like we are failing because we can’t teach them something their brain can’t handle.

Active Learning

Inattentive children tend to learn better with hands-on materials and active participation. Even though we want to train our children in attentiveness as much as possible, we need to respect their learning needs at the same time.

Active learning does not mean that we have to make everything fun or exciting. It does mean that we accept the fact that our children often need to touch and move in order to learn. Sometimes this can involve projects, but other times it can be as simple as allowing children to stand or walk while learning.

I do the majority of my daughter’s discussion type schoolwork while we are on our daily walk. The movement helps her to sustain focus much longer than if she were sitting still.
One girl I worked with several years ago read better when sitting in a rocking chair than in a stationary chair; and a mother once told me that she had her son do all of his reading while walking in circles in their backyard.

Physical Activity

So often we use going out to play as an incentive for kids getting their work done, but with inattentive kids, we may be better off telling them that they can’t do their schoolwork until they are done playing. OK, that’s going too far, but physical exercise CAN make a big difference in helping an inattentive child sustain focus,

We start our school time with P.E., usually a brisk walk, and if my daughter really loses her focus we go out and jump on the trampoline that I have just for that purpose.

For older kids (especially boys), taking a break for calisthenics or weight lifting can be very helpful in working off excess energy and distractibility. Just make sure that you DO require they return and finish the task you broke from. That’s an important part of training in self-control.

Proper Diet

Food sensitivities and allergies can cause inattentive behavior. It is, of course, wise to feed our children nutritious food, but some children who demonstrate inattentive behavior can be sensitive to food that we think of as good. The most common foods that can cause attention and behavior problems are dairy products, wheat, and corn. A good resource on this topic is The Biology of Behavior by Dianne Craft

There has also been much talk about vitamin and mineral supplements for ADD children. I do believe that these can benefit some, but not all, children. My daughter does take vitamin and mineral supplements and it helps to a certain degree, but it is certainly not a miracle cure.

Controlling Technology

Most homeschool families are already way ahead of the game when it comes to limiting technology. One thing I hear constantly from parents with inattentive children is that they are baffled by their child’s ability to attend to a television program or computer game but not to other things.

The answer to this is very simple. Computer games, education programs and apps, and television programs are really geared to the inattentive brain. Most of these show short segments and change topics often. Thus, even though your child appears to be attending to one thing for a long time, his attention is actually being shifted constantly during the activity. This is exactly suited to an inattentive learning style.

Because of this, technology can be a good teaching tool for inattentive children when used in limited amounts. Too much, however, reinforces inattentive learning tendencies.

Medication (if needed)

There are some children who are being trained properly, who are being provided with active learning opportunities, who are getting enough physical activity, proper diet, who don’t watch too much TV, and who STILL have such difficulty attending that virtually no learning can take place. For these children, medication can be highly indicated.

Homeschooling, because of the one-on-one environment, eliminates the need for medication in many children who would otherwise not be able to function in a classroom setting. But if you have a child who cannot attend even in the one-on-one setting, do not feel badly if you chose to use medication as a learning aid.

Also, consider that medication can be used short term. For example, my daughter with autism reached a point several years ago where I couldn’t get her attention long enough to teach her any of the focusing skills I wanted to work on with her. We decided to use a short (18 months) course of medication to help her cope better so we could teach her some skills. This worked well and she is now off the medication and able to attend better (with help, of course) than she could before the medication.

Dealing with inattentiveness is frustrating even when it is the normal inattentiveness of childhood. For those of us with extremely inattentive children it is easy to feel like a failure as a teacher. Remember that if God has called you to homeschool, He will provide the grace that you need in all things–even inattentive children.

Copyright 1997. Used by permission of the author. First published in The California Parent Educator magazine, February/March 1997.

Sharon Hensley is the author of Home Schooling Children with Special Needs. She holds a Master’s Degree in Special Education and has worked with a variety of special needs children including her oldest daughter who is autistic and mentally retarded. Sharon began teaching in 1983, and moved into the field of special education in 1985. She has done classroom teaching, private therapy and consulting. She began homeschooling in 1992 offers consulting services to all homeschooling families who are blessed with special learners of any type. You can contact Sharon at [email protected] or visit her website at www.avcsbooks.com.