Many myths surrounding ADHD are potentially harmful to students, including the idea that kids with ADHD “just can’t pay attention.” While it’s true that students with ADHD often struggle with attention and focus, saying that they “can’t” pay attention is a misleading oversimplification.
The truth is that students with ADHD are often capable of sustained focus and attention when they are interested in the topic. In fact, sometimes they become so engrossed in what interests them, they can’t pay attention to anything else.
This experience, known as hyperfocus, is an often overlooked yet common experience for students with ADHD. Michael Rosenthal, a neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, describes the challenge of hyperfocus can happen when someone with ADHD becomes so intensely focused on things of interest that they lose site of “things that aren’t interesting for them to do but are important for them to do.”
The important thing to remember is that ADHD is not about an inability to pay attention. The challenge is in regulating attention. “You have to consider it from a perspective where it’s a disorder and part of the disorder is that you have trouble modulating your attention,” says Dr. Rosenthal. “It’s not an inherently good or inherently bad thing, but it is just what it is and it can be used for good things and used for bad things.”
So, when a student with ADHD has the choice to do something they want to do, such as play video games, they are likely to forget about everything they have to do, such as complete their homework. This is a risk for any student, but a student with ADHD will have a lot more trouble refocusing on things that have to get done when they have the option of doing something more interesting.
What can we do to help our students?
- Explain hyperfocus. When students understand what hyperfocus is, they will be better able to recognize when it is happening, which will help them break the cycle.
- Identify and remove distractions. It takes a lot of willpower to resist something interesting, so why not anticipate distractions and remove them? Students may choose to put their phone out of reach or work in a setting, such as the library, where playing video games isn’t allowed.
- Use hyperfocus strategically. If students can find something interesting in the subject matter they are studying, then hyperfocus can be used to their advantage. They’ll be hooked on their homework and will be able to get the job done more efficiently.
- Keep the conversation going. Students are experts on their own minds. By teaching them about hyperfocus, exploring strategies, and reflecting on how successful—or not—these strategies are, students can develop the self-awareness to recognize and reign in their struggle to regulate their attention.
- Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director