Say what!?! For years we’ve been telling parents that their children with ADD (and ADHD) can’t focus, but then made them aware at the same time that their children can hyperfocus. How the heck does that work? Well, our terminology is partly to blame. You’ll often hear it said that people with ADD have a “short attention span”, but this is inaccurate. The crux of the matter is that people with ADD actually have difficulties with directing and regulating their attention.
People with ADD usually find the most pleasure in activities that provide instant feedback, because feedback and reward ramps up the levels of Dopamine in the brain (a neurochemical that is usually in short supply in ADD brains). This also explains why children with ADD often find it so difficult to transition smoothly from one activity to another.
During consultations I have often heard parents say things such as: “My child can’t possibly have ADD. He only battles to concentrate on things he doesn’t enjoy, but on something he likes, like TV games or Lego he can concentrate for hours. In fact, I often can’t get his attention away”. And this is exactly the problem, children with ADD will often focus on pleasurable activities to the exclusion of everything else! They will not hear your instructions, will neglect homework, miss deadlines and forget to meet up with friends as planned while they are hyperfocussing on a pleasurable activity.
But hyper-focus needn’t be a curse – it can also be a great asset and might be the key to helping children with ADD prosper! As parents it is our job is to teach children to channel this focus to something positive, like their schoolwork. Similarly, teachers should harness the benefits of hyperfocus in class by ensuring that schoolwork is stimulating and rewarding. And if you find yourself at wits end and simply can’t think of a way to make an activity more pleasurable you can at least use the lure of hyperfocus on a pleasurable activity as a reward for completing something your child finds boring. For instance: telling them that they can play TV games for 30 minutes after they have completed their homework.
Here are some guidelines on how to use the gift of hyperfocus to benefit your ADD child:
- Discuss and agree beforehand on when a hyperfocus activity may be entered into and what the time limit will be.
- Don’t expect you child to stop at time limit. You will probably have to intervene by calling his name, tapping him on the shoulder or setting an alarm for him.
- Moving from one activity to the next usually works best when you wait for a natural break, such as the end of television programme or the completion of a chapter in a book. When there is no natural break in the activity your child tends to hyperfocus on set a timer and also remind her 5 minutes before the time is up, then allow the alarm to ring for a little while when it goes off to help drive the message home that it is time to move onto something else.
- Remember that your child is not being disobedient when he doesn’t want to end his hyperfocus activity, his brain is literally just too busy to register what you are saying, so don’t be angry as you try to get his attention away. Remember to be friendly, but firm and do not give in to requests to play for a little longer.
Anel Annandale is a prominent Educational Psychologist with a passion for early childhood development and a special interest in neuropsychology.
She is experienced in the field and has established herself as an expert, often appearing on television shows such as Exspresso. She is also available as a guest speaker at relevant events and functions.