Helping child after custody change

I have a 12 year old stepdaughter who is in 7th grade. My husband & I just received custody for the school year. We noticed that she can not stay on task for a long period of time. She doodles in school and can not manage her time effectively.

Are there any exercises that we can do with her at home to increase her attention span?

We have already changed her diet & sleep patterns, as they were non-existent before she came to live with us.

Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Thank you.


Dear Mary,

Thank you for your letter. I hope that I can be of some help to you and to your step-daughter.

When I think back to the time when I was 12 years old, I remember being very emotional, distracted, and less than cooperative with my parents. It is a difficult age as it is a time of physical, social, and emotional change. Combine that with a change in home, family dynamics, and school and you have a child who is dealing with a great deal more than she may be able to handle.

Your letter indicates that you have established a diet and sleep routine for her which is certainly a great start. Eating properly and getting enough rest gives children energy and lays the groundwork for a healthy lifestyle. If she hasn't had this in her life for some time, it will take quite awhile for her body to get accustomed to the change. In addition to these two areas, is your step-daughter also getting regular exercise, such as riding a bike, walking, swimming, or skating? These activities are fun and will also contribute to the healthy lifestyle that you are helping her to develop. She may also make friends doing these types of activities, especially if she belongs to a club or exercises in the same park on a regular basis. Friendships and social contacts are very important to children at this age, and she may be experiencing some difficult making friends at her new school.

How does your step-daughter feel about the new living situation? Is she happy to be living with you, or would she rather be with her mother? If you have not yet had the opportunity to listen to her feelings about the changes in her life, make the time to do so. She may be harboring some feelings of anxiety, fear, or unhappiness that she has not been able to share with anyone. Often children who are "doodlers" and have trouble paying attention are preoccupied with other matters, things that may need to be worked out before they can give their full attention to school. Allowing her to share her feelings shows her how much you care about her, something that she may need to be reminded of frequently as she adjusts to the new living arrangements.

In terms of helping her to stay focused for longer periods of time, there are a couple of things you can do at home to help her. For example, try using a timer when she does her homework. Start with a small increment of time, maybe 10 minutes, and tell her that she needs to stay on task for that time period. When the timer goes off, she may take a short break to get a drink or walk around, then she will need to go back for another 10 minutes of work. Eventually extend the time, adding one minute each week or so, so that she is working for longer segments. Another thing that you should work on with her is making lists. When she gets home from school, have her make a list of what she needs to do and what she would like to do if she has time. Teach her to prioritize, putting things like chores and homework ahead of leisure activities. Show her that if she completes the things that she must do, she can then do the things that she would like to do, such as listening to music or visiting with friends. The "dangling carrot" is sometimes enough incentive to learn organization. You may also want to purchase a day planner for her and show her how to use it at school and at home.

I wish you and your step-daughter the best of luck in making this adjustment, Mary.

Erlyne Osburn

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