9 Strategies to Increase Attention and On-Task Behavior

Above all, the most important thing needed for a child to progress with anything is focus. When presenting a child with a task, particularly a novel task, you must establish meaningful engagement with the child, in other words, where the child can focus on the task. What exactly does focus mean? The ability to sustain selective attention or concentration on the task at hand while ignoring or filtering out the non-relevant or distracting information in one’s environment. Sustained selective attention yields steady results on a task over time. For some children, often, this is very challenging.

ADHD, autism, executive function disorder, and learning disabilities are only some of the conditions that may cause children to have trouble focusing, especially when presented with a non-preferred activity. When working with children that have difficulty concentrating, you need to start where they are and build from there. Do not try to push a child beyond their threshold, as you will likely not get the results you seek. Instead, gradually work their way up to lengthier engagement periods and greater attention spans.

Here are some guidelines, attention span in typically developing children is about 3 to 5 minutes per year of age. For example, if a child is four years old, you can expect that they will attend to an educational task like letter recognition for about 12 to 20 minutes. Attention span is typically greater for preferred activities like playing a video game, watching a video on an iPad, or wherever the child’s interest lies. Attention span may be less for an activity that is extremely difficult or frustrating for the child. During those times, providing a customized level of challenge and other support is crucial to spark greater focus.

How To Build Attention Span:

Figure out their baseline and build from there.
Determine Their Baseline
  1.  Figure out their baseline and build from there: Assign a task, use a timer, and determine how long the child can remain on task. Do this a few times and take an average. For example, if the child can work on learning to write letters for only 2 minutes, then set their challenge for 4 minutes and offer support (described below) to get them there. Once they’ve reached 4 minutes, shoot for 6 minutes. Continue to build on what they can already do. It is helpful to let the child know how much time is remaining, for example, saying, “one more minute and then all done.”
Get To Know Your Learner
  1. Get to Know Your Learner:  Some kids are visual learners, some are auditory, and some are hands-on learners. Provide the type of input the child needs. For example, let’s say the child is learning to form letters. For a hands-on learner, provide lots of tactile input. Use a cookie sheet to make letters in whipped cream or pudding. For the visual learner, add food coloring to the whipped cream to create a more intense visual experience. For the auditory learner, sing verbal prompts to the tune of a popular kid’s song. For the multi-sensory learner, do all of the above. Cater to their learning style. 
Provide Movement Opportunities
  1. Provide Movement Opportunities:  Research has shown that when students engage in physical activity and movement breaks throughout the school day, learning, behavior, and social improvements are seen. But don’t stop there. Offer movement opportunities during the task as well. Place a wiggle cushion on the child’s chair (DIY option, use a deflated beach ball), or have them sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair. Some children respond well to hand fidgets; having something to manipulate in their hand can help with focus. Some children may prefer to stand rather than sit. Why not? Sitting still is not your goal; on-task behavior is!

Therapist’s Choice: Allow for movement during the task using one of these options. Here are my top picks for flexible seating available at Amazon.

Disclosure:  As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Provide Environmental Supports
  1. Provide Environmental Support: Limit visual and auditory distractions. Provide a workspace that is free of clutter. It is important to consider wall space as well. Many wall pictures/posters and other things can be visually overstimulating. Provide an organized workspace that promotes calm and, ultimately, concentration. Some children struggle to tune out ambient noises, and noise-canceling headphones can help. Some children respond well to calming music. Mindfulness playlists and other playlists geared to improve focus are available on YouTube.

Therapist’s Choice: The noise-canceling headphones in the links below are my top picks. Both are available at Amazon.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Break down big tasks into smaller tasks
  1. Break down big tasks into smaller ones:  Modify assignments to avoid overwhelming the child. For example: if doing a math worksheet with 20 questions, have the child complete only the odd or even-numbered items. Most often, children only need to solve some problems on a worksheet to demonstrate an understanding of the material. Strive for quality rather than quantity.
Create a Checklist
  1. Create a Checklist: Support executive functioning skills by creating a checklist. Checklists help the child understand how to approach a task. Indicate what to do first, next, and so on. Break down each step of the task, much like writing a recipe. Have the child check the boxes as they work. Not only will this help with planning and organization, but it also offers a sense of accomplishment that will serve as positive reinforcement.   
Use a Timer
  1. Use a timer: Timers facilitate time management skills. They will help the child understand your expectations for the work span. There are many types of timers designed to meet the specific needs of children. For example, some children do not respond well to auditory timers because the chime can cause anxiety. In this case, visual timers are a great option. Instead of a chime, the visual marker gradually disappears as time elapses.  

Therapist’s Choice: The visual timers in the links below are my top picks. The one on the left is portable, only 3 inches tall, and ideal for use on a desktop. The one on the right is available in two sizes, 8 and 12 inches. Suitable for use by teachers in the classroom setting. Both are available at Amazon.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Offer Rewards
  1. Offer Rewards: We all work better when our efforts are recognized and rewarded. Determine what motivates the child and offer whatever that is as a reward. For example, some kids like edibles, while others may enjoy screen time. Reward/sticker charts are helpful as the child can see what they are working for and how close they are to getting it. Take advantage of every opportunity to celebrate. Recognize every accomplishment, big and small. For example, the child remained focused for an increased amount of time (even if the work is not finished, recognize the effort and time spent on the task).
Provide Breaks
  1. Provide Breaks: This strategy may be the most important! Once the child has reached their maximum level of meaningful engagement in the task, take a break! If this means offering a break after only a few minutes on task, do it. You may feel like the child is not as productive as you’d like them to be, but you will find the opposite in the end. Breaks allow the child to hit the reset button, returning to work demands with renewed focus and energy. By following the suggestions above, you will gradually see an increase in attention span. As attention span develops, the frequency of breaks needed will decrease. Stick with it, and all the hard work will pay off.   

Fun Strokes Freebie!

Here’s a snapshot of the 9 strategies to increase attention and on-task behavior discussed in this post. Use it as a quick reference when working with your child or student.

9 Strategies to Increase Attending Skills
9 Strategies to Increase Attending Skills

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The Fun Strokes blog is designed for educational and informational use only for teachers, therapists, and parents. It is not intended as medical advice or therapeutic treatment that would be provided in an individualized treatment plan. If you suspect a child has delays, please consult an occupational therapist.

Published by Linda Craig Dennis

Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Author and Creator of Fun Strokes Pre-writing Program

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