Teaching is hard enough, but when you have a child who has a hard time focusing, it can seem impossible! I’m talking about the type of child who has the uncontrollable need to fidget with something at all times. He is easily distracted by the slightest sound or movement. She may ask irrelevant questions or blurt out stories and random thoughts. Teaching children like this can really try your patience, but I have found a way.
I homeschooled our son until he started college at age 16. But mentally, I wasn’t done homeschooling. So I wrote a series of math books, showing how I taught my son, and began tutoring kids who were struggling in math. Of all the kids I tutored, there were two that struck me as oddly similar. Just looking at them you wouldn’t see any similarities, but when it came to learning, they were identical.
They were both smart, but neither one of them knew it. They both had the ability to learn, but they were so easily distracted that they had a hard time concentrating. They both paid so much attention to every detail that even the slightest change in scenery would bring about a whole host of questions. Every foreign object would be questioned. Every sound would need an explanation. For them, holding still and listening was as hard as learning math.
These two kids wanted to learn, but it was as if there was something constantly pulling their attention away. Imagine yourself having a conversation with the most boring person you’ve ever met. You are looking at the person and you can hear him, but you are actually paying more attention to the interesting conversation going on behind you. You have the ability to follow this conversation, but your attention is being pulled behind you. That’s how these two kids seemed to me. I couldn’t hold their attention long enough to get through a whole lesson. There was always something else in the room that got their attention before I did.
My husband overheard us and he bluntly told me, “You need to discipline those kids. They need to sit still, stop playing with stuff, and pay attention.” I agreed with him, but when I tried to be stern with one of the boys and make him sit still and pay attention, it was as if he started melting. In fact, he almost fell asleep. I could actually see his eyes rolling back as he slowly blinked. That wasn’t working for me.
The next day, the boy happened to discover a little piece of foam, some leftover packaging material. This piece of foam immediately became his main focus. He picked it up and fidgeted with it while I tried getting through a few math problems. However, his fidgeting quickly developed into throwing this piece of foam and catching it as it banked off the couch.
I started getting a little agitated with his behavior, so I reached out to take away the piece of foam. But just then I stopped and said, “Throw it here.” He quickly threw the foam to me. I asked him, “What is seven plus seven?” As I threw the foam back to him, he thought for a second, answered “Fourteen,” and then threw the foam back to me. I asked him another math question and continued the game of catch.
At that moment I had a breakthrough. I realized that if I mildly entertained the part of his brain that was curious and fidgety, his intellectual side was ready to receive knowledge.
About that time, my husband walked by again. He couldn’t believe we were playing catch when we were supposed to be learning math. He was appalled that I was letting him get away with that kind of behavior. But then he stopped and listened. He heard the boy solving math problems with enthusiasm. He was amazed: The boy was answering math problem after math problem.
I couldn’t believe it. Once his hands and eyes were occupied, I was left with an intelligent brain waiting for information. He was a very smart boy, but when he was told to sit still and listen, he nearly had an internal meltdown. He didn’t seem to have an “off button” for his curious, fidgety side, so trying to suppress that behavior became his main focus. He couldn’t receive new information because on the inside he was in the middle of a war.
I tried this same technique with a young girl. When she showed up for class the next day, she quickly spotted a Mr. Potato Head game in the corner of the room. This became her main focus. She was not going to be able to listen to me until she had had a chance to play with the toy, so I let her spill out all the pieces. As she plugged in the different eyes and ears, I used that opportunity to explain the Slope Formula to her. If you aren’t familiar with the Slope Formula, it looks extremely complicated and confuses a lot of math students, but I have a very simple method to teach it. Within minutes, she learned the Slope Formula and said, “That was easy.” The whole time she was building a Mr. Potato Head face.
Oftentimes these kids are told they have a learning disability, such as ADD or ADHD. I say they are extremely observant people with a unique learning style that has the potential to make them highly knowledgeable. I would like to see this learning style get a new name, because when you give a young person a label that ends in the word “disorder” or “disability,” you tear down their self-esteem instantly. I prefer the term “active ntellects.”
I hope this helps you understand that you are teaching a wise, energetic person who is fully capable of learning. Embrace your child’s gift. Realize that he has the ability to multi-task. Recognize that once his hands and eyes are mildly entertained, his brain is a sponge waiting to soak up knowledge. “The heart of the prudent getteth knowledge; and the ear of the wise seeketh knowledge.” (Proverbs 18:15)
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.