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I have a 7 year old child who very likely has ADD and/or ADHD, he can't focus on his own for more than 30-60 seconds. If someone is working directly with him, then they can generally keep him engaged, but this is problematic in classroom settings where the teacher can't always give one on one attention. In an ideal world this wouldn't be a huge problem, someone could work with him until his brain had developed further. But in reality, school systems hate a student who needs that much attention, and the usual solution is Amphetamine style drugs.

I feel like we often drug our children because the human race hasn't yet really developed any techniques that are easier to employ than drugs. Pill goes in, student comes out.

Still it seems like some researchers, doctors, and teachers must have developed or are trying to develop techniques for treating ADD that doesn't involve drugs. However, most known techniques seem to involve diagnosing the student's problem, if they don't have ADD/ADHD then that cause can be attacked, but if they do have ADD/ADHD then the next step is drugs.

Are there any techniques for developing a child's attention span, even when they do have ADD/ADHD?

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Talk to the school and your doctor

I'll preface this by saying ADHD is a complex issue - asking here you may well get some anecdotal techniques and suggestions but we aren't (necessarily) trained professionals. When providing the diagnosis your doctor should have given you information on how best to support your child - medication will be one suggestion but they should have provided information on alternatives too. If they didn't then go back to them or read up on advice from professionals online.

That being said the school may have staff trained to assist students with learning difficulties. There are certain things that can be done in the classroom to assist with learning. The CDC suggests things like:

  • Behavioral classroom management - this works on all students but, as a parent, if you could get involved by taking an interest in their report card and praising them for good behaviour it could solidify the effect a little more. Work with the school on this.

  • If the school doesn't have in-house support there may be laws (depending on jurisdiction) that mean you can apply for such support. It may be that they can get some 1-1 support if needed. Examples on the CDC website are:

    • Extra time on tests;
    • Instruction and assignments tailored to the child;
    • Positive reinforcement and feedback;
    • Using technology to assist with tasks;
    • Allowing breaks or time to move around;
    • Changes to the environment to limit distraction; and
    • Extra help with staying organized.
  • Their advice for parents is:

How to best advocate for your child

  • Understand your child’s diagnosis, how it impacts their education, and what can be done at home to help.
  • Understand your child’s IEP. If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Speak with your child’s teacher.
  • When possible, obtain written documentation from teachers, administrators, or other professionals working with your child.
  • Know your rights.
  • Play an active role in preparing your child’s IEP or 504 Plan.
  • Keep careful records, including written documentation, communication between home and school, progress reports, and evaluations.
  • Try to maintain a good working relationship with the school while being a strong advocate for your child.
  • Communicate any concerns you may have about your child’s progress or IEP or 504 Plan.
  • Encourage your child every day, and devise a system to help with homework and other school projects.

Personal opinions

One suggestion I do have, as someone with learning difficulties, is to be conscious of your language around the topic. In your question you say

in reality, school systems hate a student who needs that much attention

I get it, its frustrating to see the system failing your child, but if you speak like that around your child they may feel more isolated. Learning difficulties can be isolating enough on their own without adding words like "hate" into the mix.

Funding for support staff is intended to assist the system in adapting. It isn't perfect by any means but it can help.

From personal experience (one of those anecdotes I said to be wary of earlier) being invested in your child's education is invaluable. For me it was reading and writing (anything language based) I struggled with and my parents put an extra emphasis on spending time with me around that. We would read stories together and then they would ask if I liked the ending. We would talk about what happened in the book and how the characters might feel and then write an ending together. Some of them were ridiculous (you know how a child's imagination works) but spending that time together eventually I would write my own endings to stories and my parents would write another and we would compare.

The details of that story aren't particularly important, what is important is that my parents spent time with me but let me lead at times. Maybe that'll work for you.

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    Thanks for the advice. Jul 21 at 14:52
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I was diagnosed with ADHD at a pretty young age and grew up in a home where mental health was at a premium so I was someone who was given an overabundance of resources, whereas many are not as lucky.

The short answer is you can't increase their attention span. It's not like a muscle that can be worked out to be better at what it does. Generally speaking, as the child grows older their attention span will get better and they will be able to catch themselves when they are getting sidetracked if it's something they are aware of.

The most effective thing that can be done is to teach them systems to maintain focus and contextual awareness of what is going on around them. Something my mother did for me and some helpful educators at school would do is let me know certain phrases they would be used during lectures or things I should be listening for. By turning the activity into more of a game I had different incentives to listen for certain things and it pushed me to focus more.

That being said every child is going to be different. What works for one will not work for others. It's best to work with a therapist to get assistance in finding what works for your child.

On medication, meds are not necessarily a bad thing. I experienced the full gamuts of treatment and have been on just about every med. There are medications today that are just as effective and with fewer side effects than Adderall and Ritalin. I would definitely recommend visiting with a child psychiatrist to discuss them as the medication to treat ADHD has advanced considerably in the last 20 years.

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As someone who had undiagnosed ADHD as a child, I want to say this.

It's admirable that you want to find ways without medicines. It is possible to learn tricks and workarounds, to an extent, and it is helpful to do so. You can help with that.

BUT it only goes a small part of the way

In ADHD, the brain, literally, can not shut stuff out properly. Can not self regulate attention and focus properly. Can not manage sleep cycles, time management, task switching, holding onto stuff when other stuff happens, starting and stopping things, properly.

This stuff is not "things to teach and learn". I can tell you from personal lived experience of the condition, you can explain it every day for the next 20 years, and he can understand it perfectly when you do. If he has ADHD, there is a good chance it will not make the slightest difference.

You may as well tell a person with paraplegia, every single day, what walking is like, and expect them to walk, as teach someone with ADHD how time and task management matter, or how not behaving impulsively is important sometimes, or to stay focused, and expect them to become skilled at it like others do. Or expect your car brakes to work if brake fluid is leaking.

(That's actually a pretty good analogy for how ADHD impacts, in the brain - stimulants are the "brake fluid" regulating focus, which is lost too quickly because of incorrect stimulant regulation; daily top-ups help with that).

The brain literally is not producing enough of the stimulant type of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) for the circuits that handle that kind of function, to work properly. Even if he himself desperately wants it to.

Subjectively, think of ADHD a bit like being "locked in". You know what's needed... And it "somehow doesn't happen". Again, and again, and again, and again, and again. No matter how often you are told. No matter how often blamed, how bad you feel, what the consequences or incentives or punishments. Because the part of the brain that carries that stuff out, is not able to consistently or reliably do so.

Even when a person with ADHD does focus intensely - and they can - that's not a good sign. There's a state that people with ADHD call "hyperfocus". That's exactly the same problem. Brain can't change tack, disengage, or manage what it pays attention to or ignores. It's just as big a problem. Often it's more frustrating; it seems they can focus fine on things they like, so why not the rest. But it's just another ADHD trap. The brain has no real control over focus, whether that's lack of it, or excess of it. The only difference is you get more blamed and guilt tripped over the latter. Sometimes I couldn't do an essay. But sometimes I couldn't stop doing an essay, and nothing else got done for the next 3 days. Including basic self care, sleep, promised chores, and other homework. 1am... 5am... Brain is on a roller.

I have laid it on a bit heavily. One can learn a bit. But not well, or easily, or quickly, and often not enough to avoid trouble. You get very good at last minute, or rushing stuff or covering it up, or accepting the social and personal impacts, because what else can you do.

Even for something as simple as sleep cycle, as a kid, I've gone through behavioural, sleep hygiene, melatonin, motivational rewards, punishments/losses (in the form of things that don't happen if I'm not up), alarm clocks, and the result? Maybe one night in 8 or 10, I get to bed when it would be good for me, and the rest are anything from 8pm to 6am, to "not at all". Stack Exchange is one of the things my brain turns to, during those long hours. Because that's what it does, not necessarily always because that's what I know I need (meds help a lot but not everything's fixable even with them. I probably started on them too late. They help a lot with the worst symptoms however like "brain fog" and that alone is worth it). Homework at school? 8.30am on the bus. Social? Anything from 30 mins late for friends, to 2 hours, to total non show. Set an alarm? I'll hear it. It may or may not get me out of the door, or I might think of some random distraction as I head out and next thing it's 3 hours later and too late. Paperwork, forms, bills? You name it. And yes, over time tried pretty much everything. "Write notes"? Outcome, desk covered with notes, can't keep track. "Use a computer", outcome? Ended up on paper anyway, failed. Set a task or 2 a day? Some succeeded. Some took a week. Some didn't get done for a year or at all. Some took so much undue time and effort that a huge amount else was put off or never got done.

Then around 17 - 23 ish, it gets more fun. When people move out or go to college/university, and don't have family and support around every moment...... that was not fun times, in an ADHD sense. Some manage. And for some, it's when their tenuous hold on managing starts to slip. In small and private ways, that nobody sees, perhaps. That can be hidden. Or other ways.

What changed in the end? Meds. Not learning. Too late to salvage much of what I could have got at school, if I'd been on them sooner and hence more able to learn habits, and not be as I was.

ADHD is a nasty corrosive condition. This is what it's like.

So yes you can help and teach skills for it. That's highly recommended. I know that's your question. The truth is, they may work for some, but not that well, they don't fix it for real, and they never worked for me, and I don't know what would have, is the answer. I'm sorry. I live with this and none of the non-meds answers ever worked for me. So do not be so anti/reluctant if meds are recommended. They can be a life-changer. For real. That's what I would impress on you.

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