Your child says that listening to music or watching television helps him or her concentrate when doing schoolwork. But is he or she right? Sitting down to concentrate on homework is hard when you have ADHD. Not surprisingly, kids, teens, and their parents are always on the lookout for ways to make homework less painful. For many families that I’ve worked with, arguments often erupt over whether or not the television, music, or other noise should be allowed during homework. Desperate to help their kids get their work done, many parents are willing to make more concessions during homework time than they would for other activities and chores throughout the day. But do things like television and music really help kids with ADHD concentrate? Or are they simply fun distractions? Let’s look at what the science has to say.
Television: Your child may find homework less painful when he or she is watching television, but chances are his or her work performance is suffering. In a study conducted at a renowned ADHD center, scientists examined the effects of television on schoolwork completion and focus in kids with ADHD.1 When the television was on in the classroom, kids with ADHD, on average, completed significantly less schoolwork than when the television was turned off. They were also off-task more frequently and had to be reminded more often by the teacher to get back to work.
Music: Like television, music can help make boring tasks less painful. For example, studies have shown that people will stay on a treadmill longer and find that time goes by faster when they’re listing to music. But is music too much of a distraction for kids with ADHD who need to focus on schoolwork? In the television study described above, the researchers also studied the effects of music and found it to be much less distracting than television. For most of the kids with ADHD, background music didn’t have any effect on their performance, and 12% of the kids actually completed more work when they were listening to music! Additional studies of kids with attention problems have demonstrated improved performance on memory tasks when music without a vocal track is played in the background.
White Noise: While your child may not be specifically asking to have white noise on in the background while he or she works, research shows that it may actually be helpful for kids with ADHD. A recent study compared the effect of white noise on the cognitive performance of three groups of kids: those with exceptionally high levels of attention, those with average levels of attention, those with low levels of attention2. For the least attentive kids, white noise (at a medium to high volume) significantly improved their cognitive performance. Interestingly, for the kids in the high attention group, white noise worsened their performance. It had no effect on kids with average levels of attention. A handful of additional studies have produced similar results for kids with attention challenges.
Bottom Line: Skip the television. If your child wants to listen to music or white noise, then test it out. Does he or she make more careless mistakes on his or her homework, does he or she take longer to complete it? Or, if there’s no change in his or her work, but your child seems happier, more calm and content, then that would count as an improvement. Let your child know ahead of time that you’ll be monitoring his or her progress. Maybe that will even motivate him or her to work better, so he or she can keep the music or background noise around!
1Pelham, W.E., Waschbush, D.A., Hoza, B., Gnagy, E.M., Greiner, A.R., Sams, S.E….Carter, R.L. (2011). Music and Video as Distractors for Boys with ADHD in the Classroom: Comparison with Controls, Individual Differences, and Medication Effects. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 39(8), 1085–1098. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-011-9529-z
2Helps, S. K., Bamford, S., Sonuga-Barke, E. J. S., & Söderlund, G. B. W. (2014). Different Effects of Adding White Noise on Cognitive Performance of Sub-, Normal and Super-Attentive School Children. PLOS ONE, 9(11), e112768.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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