Above all, the most important thing needed in order 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 is able to 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. This is the level of attention that yields steady results on a task over time. For some children, this can be a great challenge.
ADHD, autism, executive function disorder and learning disabilities are only some of the conditions that may cause children to have trouble focusing on a non preferred activity. When working with children that have difficulty focusing, you need to start where they are and build from there. Do not try to push a child beyond their threshold as you more than likely will not get the results you are seeking. 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. 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 a preferred activity 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. This is when it is important to provide a customized level of challenge and other supports that will spark greater focus.
How to build attention span:
- Figure out what their baseline is and build from there: Assign a task, use a timer and determine exactly 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 supports (described below) to get him or her there. Once they’ve reached 4 minutes, try 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: Some kids are visual learners, some are auditory some are hands-on learners. Provide the type of input the child needs. For example, let’s say the child is working on learning how 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 kids song. For the multi-sensory learner, do all of the above.
- Provide Movement Opportunities: Research has shown that when students engage in physical activity and movement breaks throughout the school day improvements are seen in learning, behavior and socially. But don’t stop there, offer movement opportunities during the task as well. Place a wiggle cushion on the child’s chair (can 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, positioning is not you goal, on-task behavior is!
- Provide Environmental Supports: Limit visual and auditory distractions. Work in a space that is free of clutter. It is important to consider wall space as well. Many pictures/posters and other things on the wall can be visually overstimulating. Work in an organized space that promotes calm and ultimately concentration. Some children need quiet, and noise cancelling headphones can help. Other children respond well to calming music, popular right now are mindfulness playlists that are available on YouTube.
- Break down big tasks into smaller tasks: Oftentimes children do not need to do every problem to demonstrate an understanding of the material. For example: if doing a math worksheet with 20 questions, have the child do only the odd or even numbered equations. Strive for quality rather than quantity.
- Create a Checklist: Support executive functioning skills by creating a checklist. This will help the child understand how to approach a task. Indicate what needs to be done first, next and so on. Break down each step of the task and create a list for each step, much like writing a recipe. Have the child check the boxes as they work. Not only will this help with planning and organization, it also offers a sense of accomplishment that will serve as positive reinforcement.
- Use a timer: Timers facilitate time management skills. They will help the child to understand your expectations for work span. Some children do not respond to traditional timers because the auditory chime can cause anxiety. Visual timers are a great option as they provide a visual prompt of the time remaining. Instead of a chime, as the time elapses the visual marker gradually disappears.
- Offer Rewards: I believe we all work better when our efforts are recognized and rewarded. Figure out what motivates the child and offer whatever that is as a reward. For example, some kids like edibles, others may enjoy screen time. Reward charts are helpful as the child is able to see what they are working for and how close they are to getting it.
- 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 of time on task, do it. You may feel like the child is not as productive as you’d like them to be, but in the end you will find just the opposite. 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 increase their attention span. As attention span develops, the frequency of breaks will decrease. Stick with it and all the hard work will pay off.