motivation to change behavior is far more impacted by praise and positivity than by criticism and negativity

Distance learning poses a big challenge for school kids during the pandemic. They’ve lost easy access to their teachers, resources, familiar routines and settings, and to their friends. For children with learning differences, they’ve also lost the accommodations and strategies implemented by the schools to support their learning. 

Many kids will experience frustration and discouragement as they try to learn online. Children with attentional issues may find distance learning especially difficult and demoralizing. As a parent, you’ll need to not only facilitate their learning, but help them stay positive about learning and their abilities as they navigate this new situation. This excerpt from Magination Press book, My Wandering Dreaming Mind by Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT, provides strategies you can use to help your child focus on the positive and keep trying when their efforts don’t quite go the way they hoped.

The invisible problem

A child with attentional issues is typically unaware when they are daydreaming or forgetting, so they are unable to prevent it. When a child experiences constant correction for executive functioning that is outside their control, they may begin to internalize the frequent reprimands. So if the behavior is undesirable, they conclude that they must also be undesirable.

Focus on genuine positives

It’s well established that motivation to change behavior is far more impacted by praise and positivity than by criticism and negativity. Setting expectations and noticing even small, positive things a child does every day can empower them to want to meet those expectations. For a child with attentional issues, it can be empowering to point out that their brain sometimes operates differently, which is why they may struggle, but because children often find alternate ways  of coping, sometimes drawbacks of executive functioning issues can be flipped to a positive. But—children have great radar and can sense when an adult is inauthentic! It’s important to provide positive feedback that is genuine and unique to your child.

  • Think about the way your child moves through the world. Are there behaviors like daydreaming that can be thought of positively—such as being curious or imaginative?
  • Emphasize those positives by encouraging activities that strengthen them. If they are curious, what are they curious about? If checking out library books on the topic isn’t an option, try helping your child research the topic online or reach out to family or friends who might know about it. Note aloud the amazing things your child’s curiosity uncovers.
  • If your child is forgetful, perhaps it is because their mind is so busy! Ask your child what’s on their mind—you may discover something you didn’t realize, and you’ll help them begin a practice of self-awareness by being mindful of their thoughts and behavior.
  • If they daydream, you may find that their imagination is a spectacular thing, filled with creativity and joy. Perhaps they are artistic or tell wonderful stories. Give them a sketchbook to draw or record their stories. Dive into their imagination with them.
  • Look for real life examples of how your child’s positive qualities can make a difference in the world, such as Madame Curie’s curiosity winning her the Nobel Prize, or Neil Armstrong’s risk-taking sending him to space!
  • For every corrective comment, incorporate a practice of sandwiching it with positives. “You are so observant! Bun now is not the time to be noticing the birds, we are doing letters. Later you can tell me all about your awesome detective powers and what you noticed the birds doing.”
Allow them to try—and fail

Feeling confident comes from working toward something. A child with learning and attentional issues often struggles with the “doing” part. They may have been watching the birds and missed an instruction! It can be tempting for the rushed grown-up in their life to simply do the task for them. But they will have a harder time developing confidence in their own abilities if they aren’t allowed to “do.” 

  • Make sure they understand the steps, and then let them try.
  • Praise their attempts, especially because you know it’s hard for them. Praise for effort will motivate them to take a risk and try again, even if they don’t succeed.
  • Foster a growth mindset—believing that with practice, an ability will improve over time, and understanding that mistakes may happen along the way, but are sometimes also an opportunity to solve a problem.
  • Acknowledge a mistake, and also point out times when things went right. “Yes, you forgot to do your math assignment, but you remembered to write in your journal. How did you do that? Let’s come up with a similar way to help you remember to do your math.”
  • Notice your own setbacks aloud. Be open about—but don’t overly focus on—your own struggles, with careful emphasis on how you overcome them.  For example, if your child frequently loses things, relate it to how you sometimes misplace things, too. “I’m always losing my keys, but if I put them in the key dish when I get home, I know exactly where they are! Let’s figure out how you can easily find your shoes!”

With praise and effort, encouragement to push past mistakes, and a reframe of the negative, you child will come to feel—despite the struggles—that they are, in fact, the amazing child you know them to be!

And while COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted your child’s education routine, it does provide you with the unique opportunity to observe and support your child’s learning and nurture their unique talents. Below you’ll find a link to My Wandering Dreaming Mind and to other books addressing the needs of children with attentional issues.

by Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT

This Article's Author

Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT, is a psychotherapist who specializes in helping families of children with autism spectrum disorder, AD/HD, and learning disabilities. She lives in Northern California.

Related Books from Magination Press

  • My Wandering Dreaming Mind

    Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT

    Sadie feels like her thoughts are soaring into the clouds and she can’t bring them back down to earth. She has trouble paying attention, which makes keeping track of schoolwork, friends, chores, and everything else really tough. Sometimes she can only focus on her mistakes.

    When Sadie talks to her parents about her wandering, dreaming mind, they offer a clever plan to help remind Sadie how amazing she is.

    Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers with more information on ADHD, self-esteem, and helping children focus on the positives.

  • My Whirling, Twirling Motor

    By Merriam Sarcia Saunders

    Charlie feels like he has a whirling, twirling motor running inside him…all the time! He doesn’t WANT to have so much energy, but sometimes he just can’t settle down.

    When his mom wants to talk to him, he figures he’s in trouble…but she has a surprise for him instead.

    Includes a Note to Parents, Caregivers, & Teachers with more information on hyperactivity, AD/HD, behavior management, and helping children focus on the positives.

  • 50 Activities and Games for Kids With ADHD

    Patricia O. Quinn, MD and Judith M. Stern, MA

    The games, puzzles, activities, articles, and resources in this exciting collection from the newsletter BRAKES offer more than 50 ways for kids to handle the challenges of ADHD. Along with practical tips for solving problems and getting organized, boys and girls can also read about real kids like themselves. And they can discover a wealth of ideas that make life more manageable—and more fun!

  • Learning to Plan and Be Organized: Executive Function Skills for Kids With AD/HD

    Kathleen G. Nadeau, PhD

    When you are good at planning and organizing, your day just runs smoother. And guess what? These skills can help you reach your goals, too!

    Packed with examples, activities, and fun, this workbook will help you:

    • Build good habits
    • Develop routines
    • Organize your stuff
    • Get things done
    • Manage your time
    • Plan projects
    • Create reminders for yourself
    • And much more!

    Learning to Plan and Be Organized also includes a note and additional resources for parents.