Kids with ADHD thrive when they are engaged in activities that are exciting, interesting, and challenging. In fact, sometimes it may seem like their ADHD has practically disappeared when they’re doing something that they enjoy. On the flip side, when activities are more routine and less interesting, kids with ADHD quickly become painfully bored. They struggle to focus, and will try just about anything to escape the boredom. At school, you’ll find them jumping up to sharpen their pencil even though it already has a perfect point, asking to get up and get a drink of water even when they’re not thirsty, or asking for the bathroom pass just so they can leave the room. Why do everyday tasks seem so boring to kids with ADHD? Kids without ADHD might not enjoy these activities, but they don’t seem to be tortured by them.
Much of the boredom and difficulty focusing that kids with ADHD experience has to do with individual differences in the amount of mental stimulation that they require before their brain will “click into gear” and become engaged. Everyone has an optimal level of mental stimulation that they need in order to focus and learn. If something is too mentally stimulating, it will hard to stay engaged for very long. If something is not mentally stimulating enough, then it will be hard to focus right from the start. For kids (and adults) without ADHD, the amount of mental stimulation that they need for optimal focus and engagement would fall somewhere in the average range (about a 5 on a scale from 1-10). For individuals with ADHD, their brains work a bit differently. In order for their brains to click into gear, and focus without a great deal of effort, an activity or task needs to be more interesting than average. It may need to fall around a 7 or an 8 on our scale.
Take a look at the graphic above. The student in this picture is presenting a pretty interesting book report - it’s about a 6 on our scale. Most kids in the room aren’t having a problem staying engaged, and the teacher isn’t expecting anyone to find the presentation boring. Unfortunately, for the typical students with ADHD, this presentation is just not interesting enough. Their brains aren’t clicking into gear and they aren’t naturally engaged like most of the other students. They find the presentation “boring” and may find it very uncomfortable to stay seated and listen. Research has shown that many kids with ADHD use physical movement as a strategy for increasing mental engagement, since movement actually stimulates the brain. So, the students with ADHD will probably start fidgeting, and some may even try to find an excuse to stand up and get out of their chair.
If the presentation was just a bit more interesting, either because of the topic area or because it included pictures or interactive activities, then it would cross the engagement threshold for the kids without ADHD and the kids with ADHD. If you observed the students listening to this more engaging presentation, you might not be able to guess which kids in the room had ADHD. They would not seem bored, they would probably be sitting pretty still, and they would be listening attentively.
These differences in the level of mental stimulation required for kids with ADHD lead to the perception that they can focus “when they want to” or “when something is interesting to them.” It confuses parents and teachers who struggle to understand why a child with ADHD can focus so well on videogames but can’t stay engaged when he or she is completing school assignments. Even outside of academics, it frustrates everyone when a child with ADHD complains that he or she is bored when everyone else seems to be having a good time. It’s important to remember that kids with ADHD don’t choose to be bored. There are very real brain-based differences that make many everyday situations actually feel very boring for kids with ADHD. While the world cannot change to accommodate the mental engagement needs of all kids with ADHD, there are some strategies that parents, teachers, and kids can do to help their brains click into gear more often. I’ll be talking about those strategies in my next post, so stay tuned!
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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