Concentration. A choice or a need?
Some children require explicit teaching of attention and listening skills as they cannot learn them automatically. Others have unidentified needs which cause them to struggle with focus and they are not always easy to spot. Often their difficulties are misinterpreted as a ‘choice’ or as a behaviour difficulty which means the support might be inappropriate and ineffective. Despite being able to focus on tasks of their choosing, children can still have unidentified needs causing them to struggling to attend to school work and other tasks. These include language, developmental and neurological difficulties, or it could be due to an acute medical or mental health need. Therefore it is important that the first stage is to seek assessment in order to identify ‘why?’
Strategies to help children with attention and focus difficulties:
1) Be aware of smells such as aftershave or perfume, smells from food, equipment etc. Sometimes even subtle smells which we might not notice, or that don’t bother us can be very distracting for others.
2) The language you use. Use their name first and keep instructions clear, short, give them in the order they need to be followed and ‘chunk’ them. Don’t expect or ask for eye contact as some children focus better when looking away. Check their understanding by asking simple questions and using expectant pauses, ‘first you are going to………?’ Be aware of the tone of voice you use when speaking. Loud/quiet, changing tones and intonation etc. Which works best? Does changing tone/intonation engage them better? Allow time for children to process and respond. Some children can need up to 10 seconds.
Use visuals, gesture and demonstration to support the language you use, but provide these for children too. A simple ‘I need help’ ‘I need to leave the room’ or ‘I need the toilet’ card can reduce stress which can help concentration. Be aware that some children need explicit teaching of how and when to seek clarification and ask for help.
3) Reduce noise in the environment, but be aware that some children need sound from one source (e.g. music) in order to focus. Are there sounds coming from outside the room? From electrical appliances etc? Try ear defenders, or headphones.
4) Reduce visual input and visual distractions. Remove displays from their immediate environment. Think about where they are seated. Do they work better at the front or back of class? Do they need to be near the door? Away from windows? With others or away from others? You can make a simple workstation from a large cardboard box with one side and the bottom removed (If they prefer, you can remove the top too). Place it on the table for them to work ‘within’ so all visual distractions are contained outside their work area. Make sure they can’t be ‘bumped’ by other pupils when moving about the room.
5) Introduce structure and motivation, especially into difficult or ‘boring’ tasks. Use ‘now and next’ boards or ‘now, next and then’, but make sure the end task is motivating. For example;
- Now- ‘Write you name, heading, date.
- Next- ‘Do 5 sums’.
- Then- ‘5 minutes choosing time’.
Make sure its ‘interactive’ and the child is encouraged to remove the image/symbol, (or tick, or cross out depending on how you present the board) when each stage is complete. Once all are complete, you reset the board to keep them going and to complete the overall task. Use a visual timer and build up the time required to work on each stage, slowly. (Digital timers are often more distracting than sand timers). Remember to reduce the ‘cognitive load’ required. So if for example they find reading tricky, use visuals, symbols or pictures on the prompt boards. Encourage them to always complete a task before moving on.
6) Introduce fun listening activities before sitting down to work, such as ‘simon says’ or ‘I went to the shop and bought….’. Try encouraging self joint compressions and movement breaks before and during long tasks. A movement break could be doing a job for the teacher or handing out books etc.
7) If the child is chewing, fidgeting, squirming on their chair, tapping, chatting etc, they might have sensory processing needs which can be supported effectively once identified. Take a look at my blog Sensory Processing. Top 10 tips!
8) Give positive reinforcement through praise and, if motivating, a reward chart. Make sure its realistic and achievable though. For example, every 5 minutes they concentrate well for, tick a box and once they have the pre-agreed number of ticks, they get their reward. Avoid setting expectations for the full day, half a day or even for a full lesson. If they have a difficult time, make sure you don’t add any crosses or negativity to the reward chart, or use it as a ‘bribe’. Just restart the set time period and continue in a positive way. Make sure they understand what is meant by any verbal prompts you use ‘good sitting’, ‘good listening’ etc.
9) Consider transitions carefully. Some children struggle to focus at these times and might need visuals to support them to organise themselves for the next lesson or task. They might find it easier to go to the next lesson or task before or after the others. You could keep a simple log (noting what happened, what happened before/after, the environment, task etc). This can help identify triggers and also what works.
10) Point out what they are doing right and make it explicit. This is so important for self esteem and we rarely comment on the little things which we might take for granted. For example, ‘you are doing really good sitting’. ‘You wrote a whole sentence without stopping’. ‘You just said X that is a really good word’. Etc.