Pay Attention!

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The teacher is talking to you about your childs attention problem … visions of Ritalin dance in your head … but wait. Before jumping to conclusions, take a look at what you can do to help your child naturally.

Only a few years ago, you could pick up any newspaper or magazine and find an article about children with attention problems (“Little Johnny is always daydreaming!”) All the buzz was attention deficit disorder (ADD), or, add another letter and the plot thickened – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and “Little Johnny cannot sit still!” It seemed everyone was talking about it – and how to nip it in the bud with stimulant medications like Ritalin or Adderall. And while attention problems have not gone away, it’s safe to say that the over-zealousness for medicating inattentive children is out. But perhaps your own child’s teacher or coach has hinted that your child needs improvement in the attention category. Perhaps you’ve been told to “watch it closely” or even had someone suggest that you have your child evaluated by a professional. You are concerned and rightly so. In the classroom, once your child has been “tagged” as an attention problem, his behavior will be scrutinized to find significance in every squirmy morning, misunderstood direction or incomplete assignment. So now it’s your turn to pay attention.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that an estimated 4 to 12 percent of school-age children are affected by ADHD, a condition of the brain that makes it difficult for children to control their behavior. It is one of the most chronic conditions of childhood. So while parents may worry that too many children are labeled and medicated for attention problems, teachers, on the other hand, encounter many children who lack basic attention skills expected in a typical classroom such as taking turns, listening when others speak, concentrating on the task at hand or completing assigned work. Before jumping immediately to ADHD, first make every effort to help your child learn to manage his attention.

First Things First

Let’s look at what attention is, first. It is NOT a fixed, unchangeable characteristic. It is a skill that develops and is influenced by a variety of things, including the child’s age, what he is asked to do, where he is asked to do it and what interesting things are around him. Attention can also be strengthened or weakened by factors in the child’s environment and experiences that the family provides. With children growing up surrounded by fast-paced mass media, a culture of quick fixes and instant gratification, it is the rare child who is content to be alone with his thoughts with no external stimulation for any length of time. Rarer still is the child who is able to persevere and sustain concentration on a difficult or uninteresting task. Yet, to succeed in school, and in life, the ability to focus attention and thought is crucial. Children of all ages can benefit from this help. It is never too early – or too late – to start.

Help children develop attention management skills in three concrete ways:

  1. Establish routines
  2. Provide attention-building activities
  3. Model attention skills

Establish Routines

When it appears a child is not paying attention, he is often confused about exactly what he is supposed to do. Sometimes expectations change in unpredictable ways. Routines help remove uncertainty for the child. As adults, we get dressed and undressed in much the same way every day, go to work on a regular basis and typically follow daily routines to accomplish these goals. We don’t have to pay much attention to “getting it right.” When we teach children routines to deal with repetitive parts of their day, we help them free their attention for more interesting and challenging parts of the day.

For parents of school-aged children, a regular morning routine is a good place to begin. Establish a specific time for your children to wake up. Schedule getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, packing the backpack, leaving for the bus and any other tasks to be done at the same time and in the same order each day. Younger children may need reminders and prompts to keep things moving. A checklist on an erasable board accomplishes the same thing for older children while instilling a sense of responsibility and independence. Keep the same routine on weekends so children know what they’re expected to do each morning.

An after-school routine works well, too. It is important to have a place for children to deposit their school-related paraphernalia when they come home. Then, when they need to do homework or pack up in the morning, everything is available. Schedule your child’s snack, playtime, after-school activities, dinner, homework and bedtime to suit your family’s schedule. The more predictable and consistent the routine is day-to-day, the easier it will be for children to understand what’s expected of them.

Often, in school, children with diagnosed attention problems, including ADHD, receive classroom accommodations as a part of their treatment or behavioral management program. These accommodations typically include sitting near the teacher, sitting in a quiet place away from distractions, having frequent breaks with an opportunity to stretch or move around, breaking long assignments into smaller pieces, and mixing easier or more interesting assignments with the harder or more tedious ones to break up things and hold the child’s interest. For your attention-challenged child, put home accommodations in place, too. Homework should be done in a quiet place away from distractions, preferably in the same place very night. Help your child organize his work into time and subject segments. If he’s a whiz at spelling but hates math, let him do half his math, then spelling, to build confidence and break the tedium, then have a snack and finish the math. A homework routine goes a long way to keep peace and help your child develop lifelong attention and concentration skills.

Provide Attention-Building Activities

Another way to develop attention skills is to encourage attention-building activities such as board and car games. In these activities, children have to take turns, attempt to reach a goal and develop a strategy. They learn to pay attention in order to follow what is happening and to become more proficient. Parcheesi, Crazy Eights or Uno are examples. More complex board games – such as checkers, chess and Scrabble – become appropriate as attention spans increase. Additionally, activities that direct a child’s involvement toward a clear goal help build attention-management skills. For example, a jigsaw puzzle does more to develop attention skills than playing with action figures or dolls, which require involvement but not always a clear goal. Exposure to these types of activities from an early age will help children build attention skills and teach the importance of seeing a task through to the finish rather than settling for instant gratification.

Model Attention Skills

A third way to develop attention skills is to model them yourself. Parents are their children’s first teachers and role models. If parents do not manage their own attention well, children won’t either. The hurried lifestyle families live today is not conducive to giving children undivided attention, but unless they receive it, they are unlikely to learn this important skill. A relaxed, conversation-rich family dinner is a good place to start. When family members tell each other about their day and listen to what others have to say in an unhurried way, taking turns is modeled. A benefit is, that when your turn comes, everyone will listen to you. Likewise, when you give your child undivided attention, he learns the importance of doing one thing at a time. Similarly, finishing what you start teaches the child the importance of following through on tasks. You model divided attention when you listen to your child while doing something else.

Children’s skills in attention management are developed over time. Parents who provide a predictably structured environment, choose appropriate activities and model attentive behavior in their own lives can do a great deal to help their children develop these skills. All children need this sort of help, and parents who provide it are less likely to see their children labeled ADHD or referred to specialists for attention difficulties.

Patricia Schwert and Lucia French, both mothers, are professors of early childhood education. French collaborated on developing an early childhood curriculum that fosters the development of attention skills.

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