We have an almost 7-year-old son, a 4-year-old daughter and our oldest daughter is mentally 3 years old because of cerebral palsy. Almost every day we show a two-minute children's video to all three children, then ask a question about it. The question is usually relatively simple as it involves recall of a fact, and does not require analysis or even comprehension.

Yesterday we ask our son the question, and he gives a completely irrelevant answer from a completely different part of the video. We tell him that's incorrect.

We ask his little sister the exact same question. Sometimes she knows, sometimes she doesn't know, and sometimes we suspect she pretends to not know because she finds it cute and fun. However, she is four years old, so this is a learning experience for her, not something we expect her to already be able to do.

We ask his big sister the exact same question. Sometimes she surprises us by knowing. This time she thinks it's a game to not know because of her siblings' responses. I whisper the answer to her and she gives it.

I ask the little sister the question again and she answers correctly this time, having heard her sister give the correct answer after I whispered it to her.

I ask our son the question again, who was quiet and looking directly at his sisters when they each gave the correct answer to the exact same question. He gives the exact same off-the-wall answer he tried to give before!

We know from previous experience that he will usually get stuck on that answer. We can repeat the cycle a few more times and he will give the same answer, so now we just give up and try it again tomorrow. We think he is so focused on trying to give the right answer that he is thinking about his best guess for it, and forgets to listen to what's going on around him, even though outwardly he appears to be paying close attention.

This happens two or three times per week, and what also has us concerned is that sometimes he may not really understand a correct answer he gives, but just got lucky at guessing which random phrase we will ask about.

How can we tell when he is really paying attention and when he is just making lucky guesses or copying others, and how can we help him snap out of these inward cycles? Is there a name for this kind of behavior that I can use to research it further?

  • 4
    I find what you are doing slightly weird... What's the point of this daily excercise?
    – Dariusz
    Feb 26, 2014 at 13:58
  • We do it both to teach the content of the video and to work on their listening and comprehension skills. It probably seems weird because most families outsource those lessons, but we homeschool so things like this are a natural part of our daily family routine. I should note that it's not just this one video per day where he gets "stuck" like that. This is just a representative example. It's not just academic questions, but also questions like, "Where did you put your toy?" Feb 26, 2014 at 14:48

3 Answers 3


I can speak from personal experience rather than parental experience. I used to do this with my teachers rather than parents. Daily quizzing wasn't part of the home routine. However, at school, sometimes I would get an answer stuck in my head to a point where that was the correct answer, always, no matter what. When the correct answer was eventually given, I would get so focused on being correct, that I completely ignored my surroundings, losing out on the real answer. Other issues also occurred in school that had my teachers worried but my parents didn't want to have me checked out.

Now before I continue to the next part, this is just my personal experience and is just a thought about what your son may be going through.

I developed my own methods of coping with getting an education. Those self-taught skills of "snapping myself out of it" to pay attention to my surroundings lasted me all the way up until graduation. After that, I joined the military and was away from formal education for a bit, so some of these issues I had been having were forgotten. After leaving the military and beginning college, these issues resurfaced and I began to struggle with assignments because I would get hyper-focused on different topics very rapidly. So 17 years after grade school, I took the initiative to go see someone about these issues I was having in school and I was diagnosed with ADD. Since then, my counselor and I have been working in sessions on how I can improve my abilities as a student and how to relax in an educational environment, so I don't hyper-focus.

Again, just personal experience. If it becomes a problem, see someone about it. Avoid medication or at least avoid stimulants and he should be able to get the skills he needs, assuming this is the same issue.


I was asked to expound upon the skills I had to learn by myself.

  1. Move, do something, be in a state of motion constantly, when attention is needed. For some reason people find this more annoying than a skill, but I found it useful. Whenever I tapped or wiggled my leg, or if standing, shifted my weight constantly, I found that I stayed engaged. When I say state of motion, I don't mean pacing or doing jumping jacks, even small things would work. Unfortunately now, I have a bad habit of tapping. Some people find that annoying but in my alone time, I find it to be quite useful.

  2. Remind yourself to stay engaged. This was tough. I always knew when I needed to stay on topic, I just had a tendency to not do it. I had to actively remind myself to stay on focus, whether it was a mental poke or something more audible like asking myself "Ok, what am I doing right now and what should I be doing." It's only crazy if you respond to yourself :-).

  3. Limiting projects and self-requirements. Don't allow your son to put a lot on his plate. The more he has on it, the easier it is to get distracted and not "be in the now". I found that when I slimmed down the projects I was working on, or the responsibilities I was giving myself, I kept my head in the game more often. When I do have a lot on my plate, I get distracted by all of the projects and when thinking about something outside of those projects (these exercises would be something outside of my scope of importance), I would spend minimal time thinking about it, make up my mind about what I was going to do about it (in this case, choosing an answer), and never look back (sticking with the answer).

I hope this isn't making you more confused. What I can tell you is that a big factor in my performance was how stressed I was. With just the right amount of stress, I found that I was more productive, worked faster, and generally did better work. However, my stress level has a tipping point. If it ever goes over that edge, I shut down mentally as well as physically. This was one of the reasons I sought help due to a culmination of events that shut me down for about a week. Honestly, ever since seeking treatment, I feel very good about my progress. Again, this may not be what your son is going through. It's just a thought.

  • Thanks, very useful. Could you provide more details about the self-taught skills? I'd like to try to actively teach those kinds of skills instead of both him and us being frustrated until he eventually figures it out by trial and error like you did. The main reason we homeschool is so we can tailor his education to the way he learns, instead of the other way around. In other words, what do you wish your teachers would do to help you focus on the right thing? Apr 18, 2014 at 15:17
  • Also, what exactly about the military made hyperfocus less of an issue for you? It seems to me like military service would require a great deal of focus, just in a different way than a classroom. Apr 18, 2014 at 15:17
  • @KarlBielefeldt, I hope that's a little more clear. In terms of military, for the first 3 years, I didn't do a whole lot of thinking. Granted, when doing my job, I was always engaged but we were always moving around with very little down time. Outside of actual work, we were always told where to go, what to do, how to do it, and when it should be done. There was no guess work. I was also surrounded by other people too. For the last 2 years of my time in, I worked with a counterpart doing a job that constantly kept my attention, leaving little time to think of personal projects. Apr 18, 2014 at 16:31

The easy answer would be to suggest to show the video to each child separately without the others in the room to attempt to gauge their true level of understanding. From there you can then decide whether to continue do this exercise separately or together. Without more details about your son's medical history, the second question is more difficult to answer. It could mean he requires more specific cognitive training or a consult with his physician to explore options. I've found in my experience with physicians, you need to be specific about the information you're looking for otherwise you just get general answers.

  • We're in the process of getting him to see a psychiatrist. I just wondered if parents of similar children had insights. Feb 26, 2014 at 16:31
  • With my son who is now 8, we've had to let him know before we ask a question, that we're looking for a serious answer. Sets up your expectation beforehand that it's not joking time.
    – awhitson
    Feb 26, 2014 at 16:33
  • I'm the oldest of 3. Get us all 3 in a room and ask us anything and the chaos begins! Now, consider taking 3 kids from different grades (similar to what you have here) and put them into a room, couple that with the fact they are all siblings, and just try to ask a question. They would wish you the best and then give you their best, lol. From other posts, I know you care deeply, so I'd try this suggestion but use different videos with different questions for each child - they'll talk afterwards and coordinate if they can, so breaking it up will help you in removing similarities. Mar 12, 2014 at 4:12

I can't see the point to such a regular exercise except to influence them to bond more as group in opposition with the parents. Three very different children, different ages, different sexes, different capabilities... it seems designed to get them to act together.

And that makes me wonder what the problem is. It seems that the described behavior is what is intended.

There is no good way to do this kind of thing without first creating some motivation in all participating children. There needs to be a reason for the children to want to do the exercises according to how you describe what you want to see. And it can't be something like direct reward/punishment for individuals. It has to be praise (or whatever) for all as a group when behaviors are appropriate. They have to want to do well together.

The simple act of a regular 'quiz' is likely to generate tiny resentments and frictions from the start. It's an interruption to whatever is on their minds in the minutes before. But then, if one ever makes an error when another gets it correct, there will be a tiny lessening of any desire to go along with it. One is shown to be "better" than the other, and it happens in front of the other.

By itself, that becomes reward and punishment.

With that being unavoidable, it has to be determined how to balance competition and cooperation while avoiding conflict. Those are three powerful forces in human interactions.

As it is, the children can begin to see how they can cooperate for their amusement and also compete with parents for control of an activity that they didn't choose for themselves. At the same time, they can avoid conflicts within their group of children by adopting behaviors of the others. For them, all of the human motivations are already on their side.

About the only way out that I can see is to present them with an explanation. Something maybe along the lines of your wanting to see how they might improve as a group. Then there might be a group reward if some measured progress is shown. Everybody gets to go to the next Disney movie when it comes around if the group achieves some limited goal. Let them know that family groups can be important, and this is a way to feel a sense of accomplishment in mastering the skill.

To get any of that done, you have to examine yourself. You need to know why you're doing this in the first place. You need to know it well enough that you can explain it to children. If you can't do it in a way that they can understand and accept, then maybe you don't have good enough reason to begin with. It can't just be a vague "Because it's good for the kids."

So, what exactly are your reasons? How can you state them at the level of children? What is the goal? What do you really want to see and what do you want to discourage? (Why?)

If you think you can get those answers across to the children, they should actually become willing to participate and to do well.

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