Homeschooling a Distractible Child


kathy kuhl-300x200Homeschooling a distractible child can be nerve-wracking. You step away for two minutes and your distractible one has:

  1. a) mentally drifted to a far galaxy,
  2. b) physically left the room,
  3. c) put on a favorite costume and started pretending, or
  4. d) all of the above.

You tell these kids soccer practice is in twenty minutes, so they should finish up that math problem and get their gear. You come back in 15 minutes, and they’re building a castle out of Unifix cubes, their math and soccer forgotten.

“I’m sorry!” they say. “I didn’t mean to!” “I forgot!” Sometimes, that is true.

Some of us have children who are distracted by everything, all the time. They may have attention deficit disorder (AD/HD) or an executive function disorder. (Executive functions are the planning and organizing time, materials, and attention.) Other children may simply be immature. But it’s still frustrating for parents.

How do we help these inattentive, exasperating, darling children of ours? Here are four steps.

1. Look through their eyes. Think about what it feels like to be highly distractible, regularly disappointing Mom and Dad.

When I was a kid, I lost so many gloves, pencils, and school gear, my mother despaired. My good grades didn’t seem to matter since I couldn’t recall where I’d left my coat, or remember to change out of the new slacks before I ripped them up roller-skating.

How much worse it is for the boy who is so distractible that he struggles to stick to the lesson and who forgets where he left his schoolwork, or the girl who doesn’t remember to study her spelling words, despite her best intentions. How discouraging for them.

We must remember that for some people, everything is fascinating. A hundred things you and I can ignore are screaming for their attention. One seven-year old girl said having AD/HD was like having seven television playing around her. Many with attention problems say they don’t have an “attention deficit,” they have too much attention. We need to begin with sympathy.

2. Think outside the (school) box:

When we bring our children home, we must be careful not to repeat tactics from school that didn’t work for our children. Schools teach hundreds of kids, set them in rows of desks, and rely heavily on lectures and textbook. As homeschoolers we have more freedom. We don’t have to give lectures. The world can be our classroom. Explore—and write about it.

Remember that movement helps distractible kids focus. Every morning as I homeschooled my distractible son, we spent about 75 minutes on language arts and about as long on math. But we worked on different activities in different parts of the house: reading on the sofa, desk work in the dining room, and so on. And we moved during lessons. For instance, we always walked around the house as we skip-counted: tiny steps as we counted by twos, and enormous steps as we counted by nines. My son practiced his spelling words in huge letters on the driveway

3. Set clear, reasonable goals.

If your child can’t study math for more than twelve minutes, start giving ten-minute math lessons. Why not make success possible, rather than leaving math with both of you feeling you’ve failed. You can have several mini math lessons each day and celebrate the successes.

Keep the targets clear: “If you do a good, neat job on this paragraph, and you’re finished by noon, we will eat lunch at the park.” Trial and error will help you determine which rewards are the right size: not too wonderful to become distracting, nor too small to both with, nor so impossible to reach that the child doesn’t even try. “Finish reading the book in the next twenty minutes, and we’ll watch the movie version tonight,” is only a good goal if you know that they could finish the book in twenty minutes!

4.  Kindly let your children experience consequences of their actions. I don’t mean that if a child breaks a $500 computer, you sell all their belongings to replace it! And certainly, you can offer extensions when reasonable. But you don’t want your child to grow up thinking that you don’t mean what you say, or to expecting their professors or bosses to be as lenient.

As a tired parent, I know how easy it is to take our kid’s lapses and forgetfulness personally. “All I asked you to do was….” How easy it is for us parents to want to punish them out of anger or spite: “You didn’t listen to me, so ….” But don’t be offended or superior. I admit I’ve done both, and it never does any good.

If your child has AD/HD, it will take longer for them to connect actions with consequences, even if they are very bright. Remember that this is frustrating for them, too. (“Why am I like this?” my son moaned to himself.) When your child forgets to do something, discuss it kindly and firmly, and be consistent. Follow the Golden Rule. Treat them as you’d like to be treated if you forgot something, not like you are evil nor an idiot.

If you remember their perspective and their weakness, adjust your homeschool environment and schedule, set reasonable goals, and let them experience some consequences from their mistakes, you can encourage this distractible child. And inch by inch, you’ll see more success.

© 2015 Kathy Kuhl. All rights reserved.


Kathy Kuhl, author of Encouraging Your Child, Staying Sane as You Homeschool and Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner, is a featured speaker at WHO’s convention June 12-13.  Check out the workshop schedule. Learn more about Kathy’s work at