“MOM – he’s bothering me! Make him stop!!” This was the sound of homework time in my household when my two sons were in elementary school. Often all the “offending” brother had done was to erase a mistake or scratch his head.

The boys began their elementary years doing their homework simultaneously in the same room, but that did not last long. They were diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) in elementary school and were easily distracted and fidgety while trying to concentrate on something as mundane as schoolwork.

Throughout their childhood, my husband and I learned a lot about helping hyperactive, distracted children get their work done. Drawing from that experience, and my nearly three decades as a pediatrician, here are my tips for helping your hyperactive kids (and you) as another school year dawns:

Start with a break and structure

Before homework time begins on school days, offer your children a snack and allow them to run around for at least 30 minutes. They need time to unwind. Schedule routine homework times and locations for them to follow whenever possible.

Minimize distractions

This is important for children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or ADHD. Many of them, like my sons, are distracted by any noises – even the sound of a family pet wandering around the room. Give these children their own quiet homework space or study room, or buy them foam earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. Remove any distracting clutter and electronics (tablets, computers, televisions, phones or games).

Break homework and projects into smaller segments

At the beginning of each homework session, I encouraged my children to write out lists of their assignments, including my younger daughter. (All three found this so helpful they still use lists 20 years later). Next we highlighted what work needed to be done that day and what could be spread out over the rest of the week. This strategy allows your child to address a small chunk of work she will be able to complete in a short period of time, then move on.

Try to incorporate your child’s areas of interest

One of my sons once had to read a book when he was in third grade, so we picked one on dinosaurs. Later that year, he chose to research fighter jets for a project about World War II. While children with attention disorders struggle to pay attention to many lessons, when they find an activity or topic they are interested in, they tend to laser focus.

Encourage active breaks

Consistent physical activity especially has been shown to help hyperactive children – and kids with ADHD in particular – focus better on schoolwork, according to the latest research. “While specific recommendations regarding frequency and intensity of exercise in ADHD have not been established,” wrote John Randolph, a board certified clinical neuropsychologist, in the National Academy of Neuropsychology’s recent newsletter, “there is growing consensus that regular exercise engagement is a powerful non-pharmacological treatment for management of ADHD symptoms and promotion of cognitive health.”

The recommended length of a physical activity break depends on the children’s ages, the amount of homework they have and what you know about your individual children. Sometimes breaks in my household were as short as a couple minutes, with my kids doing 50 jumping jacks in place.

Reward your children for completing each task

Hyperactive children and children with ADHD crave positive feedback and incentives because they often receive negative feedback at school (and sometimes at home). Their reward could be 10 minutes of games, 20 minutes of playing outside, a special snack – or even a playdate with a friend (for completing a longer task).

I have found these strategies help children do well with their schoolwork. As a bonus, they also help them foster a positive relationship with you. Hyperactive kids and kids with attention disorders are often wired differently than other children. For example, they are more likely to become innovators and other creative types as adults. However, they may need your assistance in getting schoolwork done as children to enjoy that success later in life.

Even kids who are on medication for ADHD or ADD need to learn behavioral approaches to handle their condition long term. Drugs don’t cure ADHD or ADD; nothing does. But you can help your hyperactive children manage their conditions and get schoolwork done with some combination of prescription medications, behavior modification and exercise – in addition to good “old fashioned” parenting.

You may then become proud parents, like my husband and me. After their tussles, we split the boys up into separate, quiet rooms to do their schoolwork. They both have since earned their bachelor’s degrees and are pursuing medical school. After all this time, they may end up learning in the same (class) room again.


Ann Hellerstein is a board-certified pediatrician with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group (MAPMG). She has been practicing for 28 years and sees patients at Kaiser Permanente’s Gaithersburg Medical Center.