Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Teaching is hard enough, but when you have a child who has a hard time focusing, it can seem impossible! I’m talking about the type of child who has the uncontrollable need to fidget with something at all times. He is easily distracted by the slightest sound or movement. She may ask irrelevant questions or blurt out stories and random thoughts. Teaching children like this can really try your patience, but I have found a way to succeed.

I homeschooled our son until he started college at age 16. But mentally, I wasn’t done homeschooling! So I wrote a series of math books that showed how I taught my son, and I began tutoring kids who were struggling in math. Of all the kids I tutored, there were two who struck me as oddly similar. Just looking at them you wouldn’t see any similarities, but when it came to learning, they were identical.  

They were both smart, but neither one of them knew it. They both had the ability to learn, but they were so easily distracted that they had a hard time concentrating. They both paid so much attention to every detail that even the slightest change in scenery would bring about a whole host of questions. They would ask questions about every foreign object. Every sound would need an explanation. For them, holding still and listening was as hard as learning math!

These two kids wanted to learn, but it was as if there were something constantly pulling their attention away. Imagine yourself having a conversation with the most boring person you’ve ever met. You are looking at the person and you can hear him, but you are actually paying more attention to the interesting conversation going on behind you. You have the ability to follow this conversation, but your attention is being directed to the conversation elsewhere. That’s how these two kids seemed to me. I couldn’t hold their attention long enough to get through a whole lesson. There was always something else in the room that got their attention before I did.

My husband overheard us and he bluntly told me: “You need to discipline those kids. They need to sit still, stop playing with stuff, and pay attention.” I agreed with him, but when I tried to be stern with the boy and make him sit still and pay attention, it was as if he started melting. In fact, he almost fell asleep. I could actually see his eyes rolling back as he slowly blinked. That wasn’t working for me.  

The next day, the boy happened to discover a little piece of foam, some leftover packaging material. This piece of foam immediately became his main focus. He picked it up and fidgeted with it while I tried getting through a few math problems. However, his fidgeting quickly developed into throwing this piece of foam and catching it as it banked off the couch.  

I started getting agitated with his behavior, so I reached out to take away the piece of foam. But instead I said, “Throw it here.” He quickly threw the foam to me. I asked him, “What is 7 plus 7?” As I threw the foam back to him, he thought for a second, answered “Fourteen,” and then threw the foam back to me. I asked him another math question and the game of catch continued.

At that moment I had a breakthrough. I realized that if I would mildly entertain the part of his brain that is curious and fidgety, his intellectual side could more readily receive knowledge. 

About that time, my husband walked by again. He couldn’t believe we were playing catch when we were supposed to be learning math. He was appalled that I was letting the student get away with that kind of behavior. But then he stopped and listened. My husband heard the boy solving math problem after math problem with enthusiasm, and he was amazed!