Some of the most common questions I get are from parents raising kids with ADHD are those wondering how to help their kids focus more during homework or quiet time. Instead of taking 20 minutes to do homework, it turns into a two-hour long fiasco ruining everyone’s evening.
Our children’s ADHD means that they are delayed in the executive function skills needed to focus, plan and execute their homework. This makes what we consider “simple tasks” like worksheets or math problems not simple for them at all.
So what can we do to make homework or quiet time productive, and not a meltdown trigger (for you or your kiddo)?
It starts with the basics: removing extra distractions and promoting an environment of calm.
This can mean:
- Turning off the TV or taking away devices that are distracting
- Creating a window of time where the whole family is quietly working
- Building a workspace, desk, or area in your kid’s room that is their “work station”
- Calmly engaging with your child to get them back on task
- Breaking the work into small “chunks” of tasks.
- Setting a small timer or vibration that goes off every few minutes to remind your child of their task
One thing many people assume they also need to eliminate is sound – any sound at all, but especially music. After all, it’s noise and can distract your child from their tasks, right?
While some music (the loud, bouncy, lyric-filled kind) can be very distracting, many studies actually show that the right kind of music can increase focus, problem-solving, productivity, and mood while working.
Research on Music, Focus and ADHD
I recently wrote an article about how music affects mood for our kiddos, especially when they struggle with anxiety and/or depression on top of ADHD. In that article, I touched on the use of music to increase focus for our kids. As you probably know, most music makes you want to dance – not do the tasks at hand.
But some music, specifically slower-tempo music, classical music, and instrumental varieties can actually increase the likelihood that you can complete a task effectively. One of the most famous studies that highlight this is the Mozart Effect, where participants either listened to one of Mozart’s sonatas, listened to a verbal relaxation recording, or sat in silence. After this “stimulation,” they were then measured on their ability to solve specific problems.
The findings indicated a temporary boost in IQ for the participants who listened to Mozart, with no effect in the other groups. And while that boost was only temporary, it helped them solve problems in the moment – something that can dramatically help our kids!
The Acoustical Society of America also has found that tracks with nature sounds (like rain, waves, a forest, etc.) help people perform better on a task, and feel more positive about their environment. Another study performed by Middle State Tennessee University also supports the use of instrumental music – basically popular songs performed without lyrics. Their findings indicate that people who listen to instrumental music over lyrical music score higher on tests and complete tasks easier.
Studies specifically looking at the relationship between music and focus in children with ADHD have found that some kids do benefit from listening to music during homework sessions. Indeed, music increases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which many children with ADHD are deficient in. Dopamine is largely responsible for our ability to regulate attention, helps with short term working memory, and also serves as motivation. Dopamine is also a “feel-good” biochemical, which means that listening to music makes us feel better while increasing our ability to focus.
Pretty cool, huh?
Using Music to Cultivate Focus
So what does all of this mean for our kiddos? Aside from turning on a gentle instrumental playlist or buying a nature sounds CD, how can we harness the power of music to help make homework time a space for serenity and focus?
Helping our kids focus with music starts with three things:
- Finding the right music and the right volume for your child
- Using music as a cue for focus
- Understanding your child’s limits
Find the Right Music
Consider the last time you worked really well with music in the background. Odds are it wasn’t loud, lyrical, bass-filled music – it was probably quiet, instrumental music or a playlist you know by heart. Use this as a starting point for your child’s music tastes, but also ask what kind of music they want to hear.
Play around with different CDs or playlists – there are tons of FREE resources out there, including:
- Your local library
- Spotify (check out their “Mood” or “Focus” categories)
- iTunes Radio
- Google Play
Also experiment with different volumes. Your child may focus well with music playing loudly from another room, or they may like a quiet device situated directly by their work station. Some children may prefer to work with headphones on. Sometimes it may differ from day-to-day; let your child explore their musical tastes and focus tools.
Music as a Focus Cue
If you’ve ever used white noise or nature sounds when your child was a baby to drown out noise and “cue” sleep time, you’ll understand the power of this step. Basically, when you’re ready to start homework time or want to trigger a much-needed “moment of silence” in the house, just put on your tried-and-true playlist. With enough exposure, your child will begin to feel more relaxed, understand that it’s time to get their tasks done, and will be able to focus as the music plays.
There is a limit to this, though, which is why the next part is so important.
Understand Your Child’s Limitations
You don’t want homework time to last two hours. Neither does your child. And even when you use music as a trigger for focus, there are limits to your child’s attention span and energy levels. Don’t mistake the use of music as an excuse to have your child “do more.” Whether you already know your child’s focus window or you need to explore this more, make sure that you’re honoring their progress and not pushing them too far.
Just because music cultivates focus doesn’t mean that your child won’t burn out if they’re working for too long!
Different Music for Different Moods
A very useful trick for engaging your child’s focus with music is to play a fun, dance-y playlist before they get to work. Not only can they get out some jitters, but they can also reverse any negative energy they’ve felt after a long day at school or at home. I created this “happy playlist” you can grab if you want to find good, clean, upbeat music to turn your and your kiddo’s day around.
After they’ve danced it out, you can switch to your favorite focus playlist, or simply turn down the music so it’s not distracting. Whatever works best for your kid. You’ll have to play around with this, but don’t underestimate the power of the appropriate music to help minimize the trainwreck that is currently homework time!
You can use music with your kid (and your whole family) to enhance focus and improve attention to tasks, as well as structure this time so your child feels invigorated and empowered!
If you want to try nature sounds, Dr. Jonas Braasch of the Polytechnic Institute recommends this nature sounds playlist on Spotify.
If you prefer instrumental music, try Instrumental Study on Spotify.
If you want gentle classical (and not loud, dramatic crescendos), try Gentle Classical: From Dusk to Dawn on Spotify.
There are even some amazing brain entrainment tracks on YouTube designed specifically to help people with ADHD focus. Be sure to wear headphones for these types of focus tools!
If your child insists on trying something more upbeat, find a song or two that they know really well and put it on repeat. It might drive you crazy, but it may be just want your child needs to cruise through their homework.
If you find a wonderful resource, please pass it along in the Comments for our readers to use as well!
Together, We Can Do This.
From Rachmaninov to rock ’n’ roll, listening to music while studying may help some children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For some, music has similar positive effects to medication.
The findings are part of a study on the effects of distractors on children with ADHD. A team of researchers, led by FIU Center for Children and Families Director William E. Pelham Jr., set out to examine how distractions – such as music and television – affect children with ADHD.
Professor William Pelham and team recently found that music may not affect the concentration abilities of children with ADHD as much as previously thought.
Traditionally, Pelham said, parents and teachers believe distractors only have negative effects. Pelham set out to discover how music and videos actually impact the abilities of children with ADHD to focus in the classroom. Leading into the study, Pelham believed the music would have negative effects in many cases, and would have no effects at best. But even a world-renowned psychologist and leading authority on ADHD can be surprised by his own research findings.
“If a kid says he can watch TV and focus, it’s just not true. With television, we found out what we needed to know,” said Pelham, who also serves as chairman of FIU’s Department of Psychology. “But with music we actually discovered, in most cases, it didn’t really affect the children.”
While a few were distracted by music, the majority were not.
“And in some cases,” Pelham noted, “we found listening to music helped the kids with ADHD to complete their work. Actually for this subgroup, the effect of music on them was nearly as effective as medication.”
The research studied both medicated and non-medicated male students with ADHD, as well as a control group of male students who were not diagnosed with ADHD. The students were given the opportunity to weigh in on the music and video selections. The radio stations selected for the music portion of the study featured contemporary music including rock and rap.
“Rather than just assuming it’s better for a child with ADHD to do their homework in complete silence, it may help their concentration to let them listen to music,” Pelham said. “If parents want to know if listening to music will help their child’s performance in school, they should try it. In psychology, we have what we call single-subject-design studies. Basically, it’s trial and error. If a child’s performance improves after trying the music for a period of time, then that’s a pretty good indicator that the child falls into the subgroup of children that benefit from music.”
While the research indicates music may help some, Pelham said there is opportunity to explore why and to what degree.
“There’s actually a lot of different directions you could take this research,” Pelham said. “But I’m an applied person. I like to find out what I can do to help people.” ♦
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