There are often focus and attention issues in practice with young children when they are first starting to learn an instrument. Often students naturally build their ability to focus over time but, sometimes students are struggling with a bigger issue of ADHD which makes the focus needed to practice difficult for everyone involved.
The tips I am going to share below may help any child learning to focus for longer periods of time.
For students with ADHD they will likely need strategies like these to be able to practice for any significant length of time.
Before we go on to talk about specific strategies – let me tell you about my personal experience with ADHD.
When I was a young teacher a mother came to my studio with her son and said their former teacher would not work with him any longer because he was struggling in lessons due to ADHD (this was 15 years ago and I think there were far fewer resources and far less accessible information for teachers at this time).
She brought me a sheet of paper with the symptoms listed and asked me to read them and tell her if I was willing to try to work with him.
And there spelled out in black and white was a long list of characteristics that I could have written myself if someone asked me to make a list of all the things that frustrated me about myself.
It literally made my eyes well up with tears because I really realized for the first time that these things were not character flaws, they were due to how my brain functioned.
When I was young girls were not usually diagnosed with ADHD – especially the inattentive type. Instead my parents were told I wasn’t working up to my potential, my desk and locker were an inexplicably disorganized mess, and though I seemed to be doing my homework it just wasn’t making it back into school.
Being Diagnosed with ADHD in my 20’s was actually a relief to me because once I knew that I was struggling with something specific, I could learn to use strategies to work with myself and use my creative brain to my advantage instead of fighting myself all the time.
Whether your child uses medication or not, helping them learn the skills to navigate life with their unique, fast paced brain is important.
I credit the structure and creativity involved in music with helping me do just that.
If this is your child
let me stop and tell you that I have had to learn to manage this and it’s not always easy. In fact, my brain does not work like that of many other people. I will also tell you that now that I know this and have learned to work with myself – I consider this one of my greatest strengths, even though un-managed it is also a great weakness.
With all of this in mind, here are 5 Ways to work effectively with ADHD students in practice or lessons.
A big thank you to my colleagues and friends Jody Morrissette and Karen Huffman, this article stemmed from a conversation where the three of us were sharing ideas on the topic.
A disclaimer: these are general strategies to try, but your child is unique. Try them out and see what works best for your child individually.
Keep lessons and practice moving. When I work with students with ADHD I make sure I have more activities planned than I could possibly have time for, because I may need them all. If the practice time is keep moving with engaging activities and the student has to try new things consistently throughout the time on the instrument it will help keep them engaged.
For me, my brain seems to move on double speed . . . if there is any lag in activities or too much talking, especially as a kid, then my brain starts finding other things to focus on.
Keep the pace fast!
Incorporate lots of movement into lessons and practice. Do jumping jacks between activities. Toss a ball in a bucket after so many correct repetitions. Stretch arms and wiggle around. Do lots of activities of different types like sitting on the floor for a theory activity and then standing up to play.
Research is showing that while older children without ADHD learn better if they hold still it is the opposite with children who have ADHD:
“excessive movement that’s a trademark of hyperactive children — previously thought to be ever-present — is actually apparent only when they need to use the brain’s executive brain functions, especially their working memory.
The new study goes an important step further, proving the movement serves a purpose.
“What we’ve found is that when they’re moving the most, the majority of them perform better,” Rapport said. “They have to move to maintain alertness.”
Working with what our children need in order to succeed is the best way to help them reach their potential and feel good about who they are. If their brain needs them to move, let them move – this is especially important if they’ve had to hold still all day in school.
One thing that really helps capture the attention of students with focus issues is incorporating novelty. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Instead of playing 6 review songs in one spot, play one in each room of the house. This is not just for fun, being in new surroundings will help keep things interesting and help your child focus if they have ADHD.
Find printable games, little dice, or little manipulatives and create a toolkit of practice items so that you can keep practice engaging. A link to my article on practice toolkits can be found here. Put tasks to be completed on pieces of paper in a jar so what comes next is a surprise. Keep things new an interesting to help keep your child engaged.
Because my brain tends to think about many things at once it is not enough to tell me to focus. But if I have something specific to focus on – I actually can focus quite intently. Balance something small on the instrument. Find a focus point across the room to point the scroll at. Put a sticky note on the bow as a reminder to focus on it while the student plays. Draw a dot on a part of the hand where the student is supposed to focus on their hand position.
Giving a visual cue like this is very helpful!
Students with ADHD need structure. It seems like the examples above are ones that think outside the box and so sometimes it’s easy to forget that with all the creative ways we may work with these children they also need us as adults to provide structure for them to work within.
As an adult who struggled with this growing up I can tell you that when I set up a structure for myself (Like daily practice, a balance of time to be creative but also scheduled time to get work done) that is when I work the best. Timers that go off when it’s time to get tasks done help provide structure. A white board with tasks that need to be done, and can be checked off, provide structure.
Sometimes I hear parents who want their child to initiate and start practice on their own. Do not expect this of children with ADHD. If they know when practice is coming they will feel more settled in getting started. If it feels random and there is no structure to practice in the day, that is a recipe for lots of conflict around getting started. Their brains are probably thinking of 10 different things, and practice may or may not be one of them. Starting practice is something they need your help with.
This is an excellent article with ideas for structure http://parentingadhdandautism.com/2014/07/15/5-tips-calm-adhd-kids-structure-kids-adhd/.
I hope this has given you a better understanding of some ways you can best work with your students or child(ren).