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Family Life: My nine-year-old son can't seem to focus on anything

Q I have a nine-year-old son who is having a very hard time in school concentrating and focusing on his work.

He finds it hard to complete work given to him, including copying homework instructions into his journal and taking home the correct books/copies. The situation at home is similar with tasks such as brushing his teeth, eating meals etc.

His teacher assures me that he does not need to be assessed but feels he is not reaching anywhere near his potential. She has said he will find secondary school very difficult unless he can drastically improve his concentration and organisational skills.

Both my husband and I are very aware of diet and adequate sleep so these are not the problem. I have suggested to his teacher that his concentration problems could be emotional but she doesn't agree. A couple of weeks after my son began junior infants his little brother was born. Sadly he was very ill and lived for only three days. Naturally all three of us were devastated. Seventeen months later a third son came into the world and he too was very ill. Thankfully after two weeks in hospital he was able to come home 100pc well.

My eldest was amazing with his little brother, especially as he had to share his mam and dad after six years of having us to himself. Unfortunately I suffered post-natal depression for six months and on top of that 'number three' was a very demanding baby. So this is why I think my eldest son's problems are emotional. But whatever the reason, I want to help him to get tuned in again.

A You can't always tell why some children are disorganised, forgetful and unfocused. Some children are overwhelmed by emotional stresses that don't allow them the processing space to focus and attend to things that happen in the here and now. They can appear distracted and withdrawn.

Other children, by dint of their temperament, can just have a very short attention span and a limited capacity to focus and concentrate. Some professionals will attribute this to genetics, chemical alterations in the brain or other biological features of the brain.

When poor concentration is accompanied by impulsivity, obstinacy, recklessness and a tendency to create confrontation it can lead to a child being categorised as having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Add hyperactivity, giddiness, distractibility and an incapacity to sit still and a child could be classified as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

I am not a huge fan of the labels ADD or ADHD because I think parents, teachers and professionals can easily lose sight of the positive aspects of the child and also put all the blame and responsibility on the child to 'correct' their behaviour without acknowledging the crucial role that adults have in guiding and directing children.

You seem to believe that his problems concentrating are emotionally based. You suggest that he might be distracted because he still feels the weight of his brother's death. Additionally, there was a period of time when you couldn't focus on him or attend to him to the same degree because of post-natal depression and then the demands of a needy baby.

Perhaps you could be right. These are stressful experiences for anyone to have, never mind a six- or seven-year-old boy. The best way to address any such emotional difficulty is to talk about it with him.

When you talk to him about the experiences that you identify above, try to be empathetic and understanding that these were significant things that happened to him.

You may find that you have to put labels on the feelings that you think he might have had about these events.

Because he is comparatively young he may not be able to explain his own feelings, nor may he have the confidence to voice his true feelings for fear of upsetting you by seeming critical of you or his dad, or by bringing up sad memories.

You may find that by encouraging and facilitating him to express his feelings that he will become more present and connected to the events that happen in his daily life.

If he doesn't have any protracted worries lingering then he might have more capacity to focus.

Irrespective of the reasons why he is distracted and disorganised, you can also help him very practically by putting more structure on his day and his week.

For example, creating a chart to record all the after-school activities that he may have will give him a better chance of being prepared each day. Plan his homework for the same time daily, such that he establishes very clear routines for getting down to work.

Always give him single commands. Then ask him to repeat the command after you to ensure that he has attended to it and remembered it. Try not to overwhelm him with several things to do sequentially. It is generally better to break it down into single steps for him.

Teach him to make checklists of common tasks that he has to do at home or in school. Encourage him into the habit of ticking his personal to-do list off, and then show it to you or his teacher.

Giving him small tasks to achieve around the house (like chores) will allow him an increased sense of personal responsibility. This also allows you opportunities to praise and acknowledge his preparation for the task, perseverance at it and final achievement of things that he sets out to do.

Health & Living