Some of the most common questions I get are from parents raising kids with ADHD are those wondering how to help their kids focus more during homework or quiet time. Instead of taking 20 minutes to do homework, it turns into a two-hour long fiasco ruining everyone’s evening.
Our children’s ADHD means that they are delayed in the executive function skills needed to focus, plan and execute their homework. This makes what we consider “simple tasks” like worksheets or math problems not simple for them at all.
So what can we do to make homework or quiet time productive, and not a meltdown trigger (for you or your kiddo)?
It starts with the basics: removing extra distractions and promoting an environment of calm.
This can mean:
- Turning off the TV or taking away devices that are distracting
- Creating a window of time where the whole family is quietly working
- Building a workspace, desk, or area in your kid’s room that is their “work station”
- Calmly engaging with your child to get them back on task
- Breaking the work into small “chunks” of tasks.
- Setting a small timer or vibration that goes off every few minutes to remind your child of their task
One thing many people assume they also need to eliminate is sound – any sound at all, but especially music. After all, it’s noise and can distract your child from their tasks, right?
While some music (the loud, bouncy, lyric-filled kind) can be very distracting, many studies actually show that the right kind of music can increase focus, problem-solving, productivity, and mood while working.
Research on Music, Focus and ADHD
I recently wrote an article about how music affects mood for our kiddos, especially when they struggle with anxiety and/or depression on top of ADHD. In that article, I touched on the use of music to increase focus for our kids. As you probably know, most music makes you want to dance – not do the tasks at hand.
But some music, specifically slower-tempo music, classical music, and instrumental varieties can actually increase the likelihood that you can complete a task effectively. One of the most famous studies that highlight this is the Mozart Effect, where participants either listened to one of Mozart’s sonatas, listened to a verbal relaxation recording, or sat in silence. After this “stimulation,” they were then measured on their ability to solve specific problems.
The findings indicated a temporary boost in IQ for the participants who listened to Mozart, with no effect in the other groups. And while that boost was only temporary, it helped them solve problems in the moment – something that can dramatically help our kids!
The Acoustical Society of America also has found that tracks with nature sounds (like rain, waves, a forest, etc.) help people perform better on a task, and feel more positive about their environment. Another study performed by Middle State Tennessee University also supports the use of instrumental music – basically popular songs performed without lyrics. Their findings indicate that people who listen to instrumental music over lyrical music score higher on tests and complete tasks easier.
Studies specifically looking at the relationship between music and focus in children with ADHD have found that some kids do benefit from listening to music during homework sessions. Indeed, music increases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which many children with ADHD are deficient in. Dopamine is largely responsible for our ability to regulate attention, helps with short term working memory, and also serves as motivation. Dopamine is also a “feel-good” biochemical, which means that listening to music makes us feel better while increasing our ability to focus.
Pretty cool, huh?
Using Music to Cultivate Focus
So what does all of this mean for our kiddos? Aside from turning on a gentle instrumental playlist or buying a nature sounds CD, how can we harness the power of music to help make homework time a space for serenity and focus?
Helping our kids focus with music starts with three things:
- Finding the right music and the right volume for your child
- Using music as a cue for focus
- Understanding your child’s limits
Find the Right Music
Consider the last time you worked really well with music in the background. Odds are it wasn’t loud, lyrical, bass-filled music – it was probably quiet, instrumental music or a playlist you know by heart. Use this as a starting point for your child’s music tastes, but also ask what kind of music they want to hear.
Play around with different CDs or playlists – there are tons of FREE resources out there, including:
- Your local library
- Spotify (check out their “Mood” or “Focus” categories)
- iTunes Radio
- Google Play
Also experiment with different volumes. Your child may focus well with music playing loudly from another room, or they may like a quiet device situated directly by their work station. Some children may prefer to work with headphones on. Sometimes it may differ from day-to-day; let your child explore their musical tastes and focus tools.
Music as a Focus Cue
If you’ve ever used white noise or nature sounds when your child was a baby to drown out noise and “cue” sleep time, you’ll understand the power of this step. Basically, when you’re ready to start homework time or want to trigger a much-needed “moment of silence” in the house, just put on your tried-and-true playlist. With enough exposure, your child will begin to feel more relaxed, understand that it’s time to get their tasks done, and will be able to focus as the music plays.
There is a limit to this, though, which is why the next part is so important.
Understand Your Child’s Limitations
You don’t want homework time to last two hours. Neither does your child. And even when you use music as a trigger for focus, there are limits to your child’s attention span and energy levels. Don’t mistake the use of music as an excuse to have your child “do more.” Whether you already know your child’s focus window or you need to explore this more, make sure that you’re honoring their progress and not pushing them too far.
Just because music cultivates focus doesn’t mean that your child won’t burn out if they’re working for too long!
Different Music for Different Moods
A very useful trick for engaging your child’s focus with music is to play a fun, dance-y playlist before they get to work. Not only can they get out some jitters, but they can also reverse any negative energy they’ve felt after a long day at school or at home. I created this “happy playlist” you can grab if you want to find good, clean, upbeat music to turn your and your kiddo’s day around.
After they’ve danced it out, you can switch to your favorite focus playlist, or simply turn down the music so it’s not distracting. Whatever works best for your kid. You’ll have to play around with this, but don’t underestimate the power of the appropriate music to help minimize the trainwreck that is currently homework time!
You can use music with your kid (and your whole family) to enhance focus and improve attention to tasks, as well as structure this time so your child feels invigorated and empowered!
If you want to try nature sounds, Dr. Jonas Braasch of the Polytechnic Institute recommends this nature sounds playlist on Spotify.
If you prefer instrumental music, try Instrumental Study on Spotify.
If you want gentle classical (and not loud, dramatic crescendos), try Gentle Classical: From Dusk to Dawn on Spotify.
There are even some amazing brain entrainment tracks on YouTube designed specifically to help people with ADHD focus. Be sure to wear headphones for these types of focus tools!
If your child insists on trying something more upbeat, find a song or two that they know really well and put it on repeat. It might drive you crazy, but it may be just want your child needs to cruise through their homework.
If you find a wonderful resource, please pass it along in the Comments for our readers to use as well!
Together, We Can Do This.
Music can change the world because it can change people.
Interventions for ADHD usually include medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, coaching, support groups, and/or changes in the home, work, or school environments. Sometimes we hear about other tools to make life with ADHD more manageable too. These include exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, and good sleep. They all works together and most people with ADHD probably use a combination of these to manage their symptoms.
In this blog we’re going to look at another surprising tool that helps with the challenges of ADHD: music.
The power of music
Music has a special place in our hearts … as well as our brains. Who hasn’t experienced really deep feelings listening to a song, or recalled a distant but powerful memory listening to music? Music helps us to get going in morning, finish tough work-outs, tolerate boring rush-hours, celebrate marriages, birthdays, and holidays, and even to mark the memories of those we’ve lost. It adds something amazing to our lives. It can be a device of political self-expression. It unifies countries and marks solemn world events. Think about how often you usually hear music in a typical day.
Music lifts our spirits, gets our hearts and legs moving, and of course really impacts our emotions. I’m an amateur musician so it’s on my mind a lot.
I saw the new Star Wars film (The Force Awakens) last weekend and was instantly aware of how key John Williams’ score is to the plot and characters in the film. It informs us about what we’re supposed to feel and what the characters are feeling. When the bad guys show up on screen, eerie dark music warns us about them. It cues us on who the good guys are, who triumphed over whom, and when we’re supposed to feel anxious, tense, or exhilarated.
Music is a major component of movies and TV. Test this some time with a scary movie or a reality TV show. At a scary part of a horror movie turn off the sound and notice how much less frightening it becomes. That’s what music adds to our experience. Or turn off the sound on a reality TV show and notice all the cues you suddenly miss about the characters, their relationships, and who is feeling what! It’s remarkable actually.
So I’m a music junkie and in my free time I like to sing and play two instruments (guitar and play keyboard). I try to practice about three times a week if I can. It gives me a sense of serenity, lifts my mood, challenges my mind and body, helps structure my day, and evokes my emotions.
My dog used to get really excited when she first heard me play guitar. These days she reacts less to it, I assume because she’s used to it (hopefully not because she dislikes my playing), but when I first got her she scampered over in a joyful, curious mood when she heard chords coming from my guitar. There is a joy in listening to music, making music, and sharing it with others.
Music and cognition
So music is powerful and fun, but how is that helpful for ADHD? Well, whether you have ADHD or not, the benefits of music are many. And some of the problems that come up in ADHD may be impacted by music.
For instance, several studies show that people who were musically trained tend to do better as a group on tests of memory, attention, and executive functioning, compared to those who were untrained. That doesn’t mean they were professional musicians; just that they had musical training for some amount of time. Also, these comparisons were made across the two broad groups, not among individuals in the studies.
Still, this is important because both attention and executive functioning are deficient in ADHD. ADHD gurus Russell Barkley and Ari Tuckman argue that executive dysfunction is a core part of the cognitive symptoms in ADHD. And a 2014 study involving brain imaging shows that musical training is linked with improved executive functioning in kids and adults (see study details at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0099868).
How the brain processes and uses music can change based on experience. For instance, singing is usually governed by the right side of the brain while speaking is usually controlled by the left side. Following a left sided stroke, some people cannot speak, and so speech pathologists may incorporate singing into their language rehabilitation, since it draws on the right side of the brain, as one step in helping them to regain language skills!
On a related topic, scientists have suggested that we process music differently if we have been musically trained. Music tends to be processed by the left side of the brain among people who have been musically trained. This makes some sense as the left side is more logical, linguistic, and analytical, while the right side is more holistic and big-picture. Music is more often processed by the right side among those who have not been musically trained.
Taken together, these results suggest that music impacts cognition, including some of the cognitive functions that tend to have problems in ADHD.
ADHD and music
Some recent studies have looked at ADHD and music more directly. On the surface music seems like it would benefit someone with ADHD, given that music is so enjoyable and it might improve multi-tasking, adherence to structure, collaboration, auditory processing, and self-confidence.
We know that in ADHD there tends to be low level of brain messenger chemical, dopamine. One reason that stimulants are thought to help improve ADHD symptoms is because they increase dopamine levels. Well, music seems to do that as well! A 2011 study by Valerie Salimpoor and colleagues shows that music raises dopamine levels, which might account for the sense of pleasure and increased arousal we feel listening to music (see study details at: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v14/n2/full/nn.2726.html).
Another study from Florida International University found that some kids with ADHD benefit by listening to music while doing their homework. This again probably has to do with the activation and arousal effects of music (see study details at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21695447).
Finally, a 2014 study at Boston Children’s Hospital showed improved executive functioning in kids and adults trained in music before the age of 12 compared to kids who were not trained in music.
Whether listening or playing, a fun way to experience music is by sharing it with others. This adds a social and interactive component to it as well. Making music together can be as casual and spontaneous as playing songs at home with a family member or friend, or as structured as a school orchestra or community choir. When we contribute together we feel unity and mutual enjoyment.
Here in Chicago we have a large musical organization called the Old Town School of Folk Music (website at: https://www.oldtownschool.org/). The word “folk” in the title reflects the origins of the school but it’s really a misnomer to me, since the school has hundreds of group classes involving instrumental instruction, as well ensembles that range from country to heavy metal, to jazz, blues, R & B, hip-hop, folk, Broadway, and all varieties of rock and pop.
What I love about the classes is the strong sense of camaraderie as well as the challenge of using our ears when we play together. That boosts auditory memory and attention. Unlike a chorus or a concert band for instance, the Old Town experience is closer to being in a band and having to rely on things auditory processes to play together, rather than everything being notated in a detailed score. A few other cities, like San Francisco and Denver, also have amateur music school programs similar to the Old Town School.
So music is fun and it is good for our hearts and minds. Tell us about your experiences with music and ADHD. Does it make practicing hard for you? Does music help with your concentration, self-confidence, and social experiences? Do you hyper-focus when listening to or playing music? Share with us your experiences with music and ADHD.