The Superpower of Hyperfocus

9/3/2021 9:00:11 AM

The Superpower of Hyperfocus

As a teacher, the beginning of the new year brings fresh school supplies and organization.  As the Director of ExploreMore!, Covington Latin School’s enrichment program for gifted and talented students, I recently found myself going through our ExploreMore! storage so that we may start our next session off fresh. Upon finishing the summer camp, we end up with boxes of discarded materials like pipe cleaners, cardboard boxes, and household science materials. The chaos of neurodivergent organization can no longer be ignored. I, like many of our explorers, have boxes and boxes of old interests and hobbies. ExploreMore! storage is no exception. Our offerings of diverse classes for the Gifted and Talented community in our area lead to quite the eclectic grouping of materials. 

First, I stumbled upon old sewing patterns, denim, and knitting needles: the official storage of Fashion and Design. Another box contained Indiana Jones-style artifacts and sand: Dino-dig’s remnants. The third box of the day contained beakers, lab coats, and enough borax to do laundry for a year. That could be from any number of classes. 

All of these classes were requested by our students. Most of our classes are. These seemingly bottomless boxes contain the hobbies of ExploreMore! past that have long been forgotten. The stacks of stored interests reminded me of just how quickly trends can change. What is even more striking is how intensely our kids care for their interests, as if they had created Minecraft or Harry Potter themselves. These interests become more. They are all-consuming. Our obsession means we learn EVERYTHING about it. We leave no stone unturned. 

Originally, this behavior may seem endearing. Many parents find that it makes holiday shopping a bit easier. Grandparents know exactly how to talk to their grandchildren. If you want to know anything about the presidents, they have an answer and a ten-minute monologue prepared. But it seems as if as soon as you’ve gotten used to hearing about which of our founding fathers had the most cats (Explorer, John, tells me that it is Washington), the interest shifts. Now the cycle has started all over again. You’re left with $400 in merchandise and a case of whiplash. 

This occurrence is known as hyperfocus and is most common in neurodivergent populations. While many may see this as an intellectual superpower, it can be frustrating to parents, teachers, and even the kids. 

Last year, I had a student say, “Ms. Darpel, I love history, but I don’t love what we are studying in class. Can we learn more about the fashion of Ancient Rome?” As someone who has often felt this way, I knew I needed to allow him to explore that option. Our Gifted superheroes throughout the classroom can now pick one aspect of the unit and become expert on it. They then present these topics to the class. Not only are they gaining confidence through their exploration of their passion, but they are also gaining public speaking skills. 

Not everyone has the ability to adopt this method. So how can you implement and engage with your hyper-focused kid at home? 

One way to make your child feel special while also connected with the family is to have theme nights. Give your child a budget for supplies, a list of ingredients, or other parameters so that they can create a night for the whole family. Not only will they get to share their passion with the family, but they will learn valuable money, social, and practical skills. 

Another option to control hyperfocus is to set a timer. I do this in many of my own relationships. Often I will say, “Give me ten minutes to talk to you about the craft I made. Then I will turn it off.” Not only does this make me more cognizant of my own focus, but it is a good cue for others around me. The same can work for your child. Give them ten minutes on their activity then twenty minutes of homework or chores. When this method is first implemented, it can seem daunting, but eventually, it will become a lifelong habit that they are sure to thank you for. 

Finally, and possibly the simplest implementation is setting a timer or alarm. The minute that blaring noise is heard, the synapses in the brain snap to attention. Your child will be pulled out of the trance they’ve been in. Within those few minutes, your child could have traveled to the Jurassic period and learned about thirteen new plant species while the world around her completely faded away. That buzzer is her signal that it is time to get back to algebra. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best solutions. 

Creating consistent and meaningful plans for the control and management of hyperfocus will allow your Gifted and Talented children to flourish. If, and when, we look at hyperfocus as yet another superpower of our children, they will find that they are capable of much more because they are able to remain on task. Look not at what they are missing through hyper-focusing, but look at what they are able to achieve and overcome because of it. 

About the Author: 

Samantha Darpel is the Executive Director of ExploreMore! Gifted. She has been with the program for six years as a teacher, Assistant Director, and Executive Director. Samantha is working toward a Gifted and Talented endorsement to add to her Masters of Middle School and Secondary Education from the University of the Cumberlands. She has also been teaching the gifted and talented community for six years.