Have you noticed that everyone’s attention span is slowly disappearing? It’s no surprise that this is one area of weakness I notice in a lot of the children with autism who come see me in my practice.
Distractors are everyone, so I find that teaching children with autism to sustain attention is critical to long-term learning success.
When you enhance this executive functioning skill, you can expect to see rapid improvements across all domains of your child’s learning.
Specifically, this can help children with:
- Following directions
- Answering questions
- Maintaining appropriate conversations
Help improve your child’s ability to focus with these 4 tips:
1) Minimize distractors for better attention
In order for a child to be successful you have to begin with an optimal learning environment.
Choose a location that is free from visual and auditory distractors. This could mean clearing clutter off the table, throwing beloved toys in the closet, or being mindful to turn off a television that might be playing in the background.
It’s also important to be cognizant of younger siblings or pets that might act as a distraction to your little one.
Once a child becomes proficient in an “optimal” learning space you can gradually add in subtle distractors (e.g. placing toys on the table) or low level background noise (e.g. playing music) so that your child is able to learn how to filter out distractors on their own.
2) Give a definitive end
Children are more apt to focus on a non-preferred task when they know there is an end in sight. Setting clear expectations in advance helps set children up for success.
Try using a visual schedule where you outline all of the activities you hope to accomplish. You can also use a token board where tokens are earned towards receiving a short break.
I love this app for creating effective token boards!
During an earned break I always set a timer and I allow a child to choose whatever activity they like. If possible, I try to encourage children to take a movement break where they are able to get out of their seat and get some energy out. It can be as simple as 10 star jumps or spinning around in a circle.
3) With attention, start small, think big
One way to gain momentum in any learning activity is to achieve success early on.
Create realistic expectations regarding what time intervals are developmentally appropriate for a child to pay attention.
Remember that children are able to sustain attention for varying lengths of time, dependent on age and interest in activity. As a general rule of thumb you can take their chronological age+1 to determine what’s appropriate.
For example, a 3-year-old child should be able to sustain attention to a learning activity for approximately 4 minutes (i.e. 3+1). Always start with a motivating game or toy and then you are able to gradually progress to less motivating activities.
4) Explain attention-related buzzwords
As adults we are constantly encouraging children to “focus” and “pay attention,” but often times children don’t have an understanding of what these words mean.
Explaining to a child that to “pay attention” means to “look at what you're doing” or “listen to a teacher when they are talking” can be helpful descriptions to teach the concept of attention.
I will often create opportunities where I’m purposefully NOT paying attention when a child is trying to gain my attention. Then I make a point to say: “Oops, I was not paying attention. I need to focus on the game”. This teaches children what it looks like when someone is not “paying attention”.
After several sessions children start to grasp when someone is or isn’t paying attention and they are usually able to catch me and say: “Ms. Rachel…you’re not paying attention!”
Over to you
What’s been your experience with your child’s ability to focus? Can they sustain attention, or do they struggle? Let me know in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!
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