Teenagers and Kids with Attention Problems
How can we help teenagers and kids with attention problems at home and at school?
This information is not aimed at parents of children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), though many of the ideas presented will be helpful.
When children have concentration and attention problems, early intervention is key. Otherwise, they may not fulfil their academic potential and may start to become labelled as “naughty” or defiant.
Attention, listening and concentration skills are hugely important for learning. In the modern world of technology and constant distraction, I fear these skills are at risk.
Attention, listening and concentration are all connected, yet slightly separate things. Let’s think about what each involves.
Attention in Children
For a child to attend to something important, he needs to have the skills to:
- Be alert for something to attend to. For example, in a swimming class he needs to stand ready and waiting for the next instruction, not playing or daydreaming.
- Stop one task, if he is asked to do another which takes priority. For example: “Stop playing Minecraft, and go and brush your teeth”).
- Recognise which things are important to attend to. For example, in class as a rule of thumb it is important to attend to what the teacher is saying, but not the other students. On a page of written information, he needs to scan the page with his eyes and quickly figure out where to start (e.g. he may notice that the instructions are written in bold.)
- Tune out or filter out what is not important, such as background chatter.
Listening Skills in Children
Listening involves the following:
- Taking in/understanding verbal information.
- Processing this information – for example dividing it into steps to make use of it. (“First I need to get afloat from the side of the pool. Then I need to find a space. Then hold the float to my tummy. Finally, I need to use my feet to kick off and swim to the other side.”)
- Sometimes, we need to give a written or verbal response, not an action. The child needs to decide which course of action is most appropriate.
Concentration in Children
Concentrating involves staying on a task until it is complete. This might involve:
- Motivating herself to get started.
- Tuning out distractions.
- Moving from one step to another without losing concentration (“Okay, I’ve got the float, what do I need to do next?”).
- Knowing how to deal with obstacles. For example, some children might give up if they get stuck. This results in a loss of concentration. Another child might decide: “I’m stuck on that question but I will move on to the next one, then come back”. This requires a kind of mental flexibility, and also resilience (the ability to “bounce back” from problems).
Creating the best conditions for attention and concentration
Your child may have mastered the many skills required for successful attention, concentration and listening. He may have acquired the mental maturity to prioritise what is required, over what he wants to do. Yet still, his performance may vary. Things which can affect how well a child’s brain is functioning at any given time include:
How regularly he is eating
If he is eating enough of the nutrients required for brain and body functioning
The amount and quality of sleep he has had
How much exercise he has done
The number of demands he is already coping with (for example, if a child already completed 3 tests today, fatigue may contribute to poor performance in the 4th test)
Other distracting demands a child may be facing in life (eg illness, family life events)
Strategies to help your child with attention and concentration
Here are just a few of the strategies I recommend in Brighter Futures: A Parents’ Guide To Raising Happy, Confident Children In The Primary School Years (parenting help), the parenting guide I have written with five of my colleagues. The book explains when, and most importantly why, you might use each strategy.
Practise and reward
Work on children’s listening and concentration skills directly to help them improve. You could design a reward programme to help your child practise. Each day, spend ten minutes working together on a game or activity which requires concentration and attention. Bring him back on track if his attention wanders. Give simple, clear instructions. Your child should receive a reward (such as a token which they can collect, and eventually exchange for a prize). Give the reward simply for trying, regardless of how well he did in the task. Examples of games you could try include:
- “Freeze!”: The child pulls silly poses, and when you shout “Freeze!” he has to sit very still for 10 seconds. If he achieves this he gets to make you freeze. You can gradually increase the time from 10 seconds.
- “Beat the clock”: Use this to achieve a necessary task such as getting ready for school the next day. Give your child simple instruction, such as “put your homework diary in your bag”. Then, counting down “3,2,1” give him a certain amount of time to achieve it (eg 1 minute). Set a timer. When he comes back to you, if he has “beaten the clock”, give him a high five, and then give the next instruction. Five “beat the clocks” earns him a reward. Increase the length of the tasks (and the complexity of the instructions) as your child grows more and more skilled.
Encourage a calming learning environment at home and at school
If your child is in a state of stress (for example, feeling overloaded by the amount of work, or stressed by the task of organising and planning their work), the brain is not “optimised” for learning. The brain’s stress state happens when it gets ready for “fight or flight” because it thinks it is in danger. In other words, it thinks survival is a priority and focuses on that rather than on learning. The brain’s primitive parts take over from the frontal cortex (which is the part that is needed for planning, organising, and supporting new learning in general). The child does not learn effectively because the brain is overwhelmed.
Homework and school work
Create a calming learning environment to take a child out of the stressed and overwhelmed state described above. Space, where a child does his homework, must be quiet and as free of other sensory experiences as possible. This gives him the best chance of being able to pay attention to the instructions, and stay on task.
If stress regularly affects your child at school, speak to your child’s teacher about making changes in the classroom to ensure your child can move into a calmer state. For example, providing a calm space to sit for a few minutes where the child can access soothing activities (such as colouring).
Break tasks or instructions down into small chunks, using rewards after each success
Children can get easily overwhelmed by homework tasks or chores. This can happen even when their concentration, attention and listening skills are good. A seven-year-old, for example, may not be able to follow the instruction: “Tidy your room”. Instead, break it down into smaller chunks. For instance:
Example: Helping James to tidy his room
Step 1: “James, the first step is to clean your floor. Put everything on the bed, then we can decide what to do with it.” (James manages to achieve this.) “Wow, well done James, Mummy is going to be so impressed. Here is your reward token.”
Step 2: “Now put your books on the bookshelf. The big ones on the bottom and the little ones on the top. I will come back in a few minutes to check how you are doing”. (James manages to achieve this.) “Fantastic James. Here’s your second reward token!”
Step 3: “Next we need to sort your clothes out. Most of these are dirty. Pick each item of clothing up and see if it is dirty. If it is, go and put it in the washing basket. I will help you put away the rest.” And so on.