4 Strategies to Increase your Child's Attention

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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Teaching Your Child to Control Impulsive Behavior

Impulse control is the ability for children to resist impulsive responses and regulate themselves so they are able to learn new skills. Impulsivity can often lead to children having difficulties following teacher directions, sharing with peers and taking turns in conversation. Being able to control such impulses is an executive functioning skill that can be strengthened over time, so try incorporating these 4 activities into an every day practice!

Hand Squeeze: 

When children catch a glimpse of a toy they want, they often can’t help but immediately grab it off the table. To help children resist this urge, I encourage them to squeeze their hands together before I introduce an exciting new toy. Constant reminders of “squeeze those hands!” help children resist the impulse of grabbing the toy. You could also use a fidget toy like a squeeze ball, but I love the hand squeeze technique since they will always have this at their disposal. 

Take Control of Technology: 

Games on tablets or phones can sometimes exacerbate a child’s impulsivity with constant temptations of icons to tap, drag and push. To help children manage these urges, I hold the game in front of them and help them practice listening to directions. I always employ the “Hand Squeeze” technique so that they are able to self-regulate as they wait for a turn. For young children an app such as "Peekaboo Barn" works perfectly because they can hear an animal inside the barn and then have to wait for two to three seconds before opening the doors. As the child becomes better at controlling his or her impulses you can gradually increase the wait time for longer increments.  For older children you can use an app such as “My PlayHome” and give children specific directions for more sophisticated commands (e.g. “Open the refrigerator and take out the pizza”). 

Impulse Re-Do: 

Every child has moments where they act impulsively (think: running out of the room because they are thirsty). You can capitalize on these moments as a teaching opportunity by helping a child replay them with an appropriate reaction and response. If a child runs out of the room for some water, I take the child’s hand and lead them back to the table. We then sit down and replay the situation again. I’ll often lead the child through the situation (e.g. “If we need water, first we raise our hand and then we ask the teacher”), and then I help them practice the appropriate reaction. Teaching these “Stop and Think” moments will help a child learn to regulate impulses more consistently.

Practice Taking One: 

Helping children “Take one” is another game to help practice managing the urge to grab as many toys as their little hands can hold. This works great with toys that have lots of small parts such as blocks,  puzzles or small food items such as blueberries or popcorn.  Initially I give constant reminders to “Take one” before each turn and then fade these reminders as a child becomes less impulsive. Be sure to give lots of positive praise “I love how you’re only taking one at a time”. 

Is your child having challenges with controlling his/her impulses? I’d love you to share any tips or tricks you use in the comments section below!

Over to you...

Does your nonverbal child with autism struggle with impulsive behavior? Which methods have you found most useful to help your child with his or her impulses? Let me know in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

P.S. PASS IT ON

Loved this post? Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook and send it to your friends via email.