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We have a 15-year old, standard-issue geeky honors student. Good all-around. We have a problem with his homework. I think it's a problem with attention management.

Here's the deal - sophomore year, and his first year of all honors courses. He'd had learning problems and OT issues in grade school but generally grew out of it, and he did great freshman year. Go to his room, do his homework, by 8:30 pm he's done and doing other things.

This year his grades are still good, but... the homework. I know kids in honors classes can get a lot of homework, but for him, it's hours and hours. After a lot of frustrating diagnosis, I think I figured out what it is. He spaces out... really bad. This is even after we get rid of all distractions, etc. If I'm in the same room with him and checking on him frequently (like every 10 minutes) he has no problem doing it in the allotted time. (Which can still be 2-3 hours every night, a lot but still manageable.) But without proctoring, he can go 20 minutes just doing nothing, and do it again and again, dragging it out for many hours. He once pulled an actual all-nighter, which we found out about the next morning. Not good.

Why does he have this problem managing attention? And how can we assist with this? We can't let his junior year be a repeat of this year.

Any idea what might be going on?

(p.s. he doesn't want to drop out of honors because he's gotten to the point where he finds main-sequence courses boring and repetitious)

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  • Does he have other things he'd rather be doing? Your description doesn't seem to make its sound like he's procrastinating. If he finished his homework on time, what would he then be doing?
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 11 at 20:15
  • If he finished on time... practicing guitar (which he enjoys), goofing off, whatever he wants really. I would think he'd be motivated to get it done on time. I'm wasn't the same as him at that age, if anything I'd do a quick & dirty job on my homework just to have it done.
    – J B NY
    Jun 13 at 1:31
  • @RoryAlsop’s answer is excellent, and definitely the way to approach it. If that doesn’t work, background noise might. It’s possible that no distractions is a distraction in itself. Some people need music or noise of some kind to concentrate.
    – anongoodnurse
    Jun 14 at 13:09
  • Where do you live where a child is expected to do two to three hours of homework per night? That's already excessive to begin with.
    – nick012000
    2 days ago

2 Answers 2

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Why does he have this problem? Well, he's 15 - their brains are changing so much it's impressive they can walk and talk, let alone concentrate. It's not uncommon at all.

If in the short term you need to be in the same room and check, I would suggest doing that - but try experimenting with ways to focus. Does he focus on his hobbies? Or on music? Or does he need to time-chunk things into small segments separated by a quick break, a walk, or a drink of water?

Most studies seem to suggest any more than 25 minutes at a time at that age seem to be difficult (Wilson & Korn say 10 to 15 mins, while Microsoft's 2016 study reckoned 8 seconds), so can you try him with 25 minutes, then a run round the block, or something like that - make a game of it.

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  • 2
    A link to one of the studies might be helpful for the OP . Thanks!
    – anongoodnurse
    Jun 11 at 20:18
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    Thanks for reminding me @anongoodnurse - I was trying to find one not behind a paywall
    – Rory Alsop
    Jun 12 at 9:12
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From the description given, it's also a possibility that ADHD / Autism is having an effect, I'll focus on ADHD as the diagnosis I got and opinions prior simply stated they had a lot of overlap.

According to the NHS a couple of symptoms have been covered, notably inattentiveness and often swapping of activities. Going through school I never did homework, unless watched over by a teacher/parent, which is common according to the doctor that diagnosed me.

This was bought on by it just not being stimulating.

Anecdotally, nothing really needed to change as everything that needed doing gets done so long as there's a deadline. For people with ADHD, something usually needs to "prompt" action and enforce it gets done, in this case it's you checking on him in my case it was usually "If I don't start now, it I will physically not have the time".

Here are some possible things that could help:

  • You could try create some form of artificial deadline such as must be done before X or Y will happen. Though don't try to force this to hard as some people bounce off of these hard.

  • Leave at least some form of distraction, maybe not things such as games but things like a fidget cube that will offer some distraction whilst not taking full cognitive attention. (ADHD can cause problems from over and under stimulation)

  • As suggested in the other answer set up a timer of uptime/downtime to reset attention.

I often find myself zoning out for extended periods, and then fidgeting and trying to find something interesting to do once I do because I'm no longer capable of not doing so.

I don't have a perfect example to compare against however, I'm from England where homework doesn't really matter if it doesn't get done (so it didn't). My coursework for my degree was usually done at the last second however.

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  • Hi Cassie, and welcome! I have to agree that ADHD was one of my thoughts as well, so it’s nice to hear from someone who has experienced this. Do you have any recommendations for the OP that might help? I’m getting the idea that the answer you gave is, it will get done. Is this right? Thanks.
    – anongoodnurse
    Jun 19 at 12:08
  • Am starting to wonder if it's ADHD... grades from his finals came back and they were horrible, in spite of him studying constantly for it. When I asked him why the bad grades, he admitted he wasn't able to complete -any- of his tests. We've discussed the need for him to show at least some work for all problems to get partial credit, but somehow if he doesn't have consistent redirection, something goes off the rails.
    – J B NY
    2 hours ago

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