No Meds, No Worries: Behavioral Techniques to Improve Focus

Boy laying in grassFor children, adolescents, and adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), difficulty maintaining focus is often the most prominent challenge. Although medication can lead to huge improvements in the ability to focus, some individuals cannot take medication, choose not to, and in some cases medication alone is not sufficient to fully address difficulties with attention.

In the absence of help from medication, here are several simple strategies to help improve focus:

Classroom Strategies

  • Take frequent notes on class material.
  • If possible and feasible, have the child or teen complete fill-in-the-blank notes provided by a teacher.
  • Some children and teens sustain focus better by keeping their hands occupied with something small, such as a stress ball, eraser, or a similar item.
  • Younger children may do well with using exercise hands on the legs of their chairs. Allowing them to push their legs against these will provide tension, reduce fidgeting, and in turn may improve concentration.
  • For older children and teens, teaching them how to stretch subtly during class may help reduce fidgeting and improve focus.
  • Use a vibrating watch to prompt the child or teen at specific time intervals to regain focus.

Homework-Completion Strategies

  • Have the child or teen create an agenda each evening for which assignments will be completed and the order in which they will be completed. Encourage the child/teen to estimate how long each will take when creating the agenda. This will help the child/teen to mentally prepare to complete the assignments for a designated period of time and may help improve focus.
  • For reading assignments, designate a chair for the child or teen to sit in. Let the child/teen sit in that chair only when reading for school. This will help train the child or teen to focus on reading when in that chair.
  • Reduce distractions such as the availability of a cell phone, computer access not related to homework assignments, noise, etc. Using apps such as White Noise (to reduce background noise) and Interval Minder (to stay on task) may be helpful.

Work-Completion Strategies

  • Create a daily to-do list and estimate how long each task will take.
  • Block out time in your calendar to complete each task as if it were an appointment.
  • As appropriate, schedule specific blocks of time to return phone calls, email, etc., instead of returning them as they come in. Obviously, this depends on your job responsibilities and the urgency of responding, but doing this will limit distractions that impede your ability to complete specific tasks in a timely manner.
  • If getting to meetings on time is an issue, use countdown apps or reminders to prompt you 30 minutes, 15 minutes, and five minutes before you have to leave to attend the meeting. When the five-minute reminder goes off, stop what you are doing and go.
  • When writing/editing a report, set realistic deadlines to finish writing/editing each paragraph, section, page, or other part of the document. If you get slowed down when editing and keep rereading the same lines or sections over again, try tapping your finger or hand on the desk as you read each word. This action may help you edit more quickly and keep you moving along.
  • If having trouble editing carefully, try reading the text out loud. This may help improve the quality of your work.

The strategies above are likely to help improve focus. Obviously, the exact cause of the difficulty sustaining focus, and individual differences, will affect how helpful each of these strategies may be. I suggest you try the strategies that seem appropriate for your needs and work on developing your own. If needed, seeking out a therapist who specializes in this or an ADHD/executive functioning coach may be helpful. A trained professional can ensure that you are able to follow through in carrying out implementation of these types of techniques successfully.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Carey Heller, PsyD, ADHD: Inattention, Impulsivity, and Hyperactivity Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Dahlia

    November 6th, 2014 at 10:03 AM

    I want to commend you for being brave and going against the grain of what we as parents are always hearing and showing us that there are ways to help with this kind of behavior and lack of mental focus that does not have to include medicating our children.

    That is the only answer that many of us have been given for so long, have them take this drug or that, that I think that many of us have come to believe that this is the only option and the only thing that will help with their mental clarity.

    I challenge every parent out there who is struggling with this issue to at least take a look at this and try these other strategies first before you jump into the world of medication. There are other options and solutions and they don’t always have to revolve only around what can we medicate our kids with to make them more like every other kid at school.

  • corrinne

    November 6th, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    just how much do you think that classroom teachers will advocate for these methods versus medication? I have at times heard teachers be some of the strongest proponents for meds because it seemingly makes their lives easier in the classroom. Thoughts anyone?

  • JeriLyn

    November 7th, 2014 at 10:41 AM

    Having my daughter make and actually use a daily agenda has worked miracles for our family. It may seem like such a small thing, but for her, the act of writing things down and then having this as a reference point to which she can turn has been a real eye opener for all of us. It does seem so simple and minuscule, and what works for us may take a little more trial and error for you, but once we started helping her out with this step it was as if the missing piece of the puzzle for her finally fell into place. Her grades improved, her attitude about school improved, and with that I think that even her self esteem has improved.

  • Lora

    November 9th, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    Could you suggest anything for younger kids? I like a lot of these but most of them still seem like strategies for older kids and adults. But I have a younger one who has a hard time focusing. I think that a lot of these will be great to introduce as she gets a little older but for now we need some help with strategies that are more on her level.

  • Kyle P.

    November 10th, 2014 at 8:22 AM

    I know that there will always be pros and cons to any solution, but I think that we all have to keep an open mind when it comes to instances such as these.

    We have to be able to take a step back form it and understand that this is not a one size fits all kind of problem so it will not readily be fixed in that way either.

    It can be great to solicit help and advice form numerous sources abut a=only as long as you realize that just because this worked for one does not mean that it will automatically work for you. It can be a lot of trial and error involved with this.

  • kathryn

    November 13th, 2014 at 3:55 PM

    I think that a lot of times while this CAN be the best solution, by the time you get around to trying it patience is running thin and you want something that will be an immediate and quick fix. This will take time and adjusting and I know that there are simply a lot of people who do not feel that they have the time for all of that.

  • Carey Heller, Psy.D.

    November 19th, 2014 at 9:19 AM

    Thank you for taking the time to read this article and share your thoughts. Feel free to make suggestions on topics you’d like to read about and I am happy to keep those in mind when I write future articles.

  • Roselee

    June 12th, 2016 at 4:25 PM

    Wow, didn’t think that aspect of computers.

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