Attention: What is it and How Can We Help Those Struggling with it?
Attention is a complex process with many different factors that can impact it. For some of us, paying attention comes easily. For others, it can be very hard. Individuals with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or a Learning Disability may have significant struggles with their executive functioning, attention in particular. This does not mean that they are not trying to pay attention or ignoring what someone is saying to them. Instead they process information in a different way making this process more difficult. A child with ADHD is approximately 30-40% delayed in their executive functioning. This may result in them requiring more support than a neurotypical child. Even if paying attention is difficult, there are things that we can do to help direct, control and maintain our focus.
Let’s start by discussing what attention is. Sure, we have all heard of attention, but what exactly is it? Attention is one of our executive functions. These are the mental processes that help connect past experience with present action. They tell us what to do and when to do it. Attention is the ability to choose and concentrate on something in our environment. We all have the ability to pay attention to stimuli. Still, it can be hard for some to determine what to pay attention to and sustain attention, especially when the topic is not of interest to us.
There are 4 main steps to paying attention:
- Be aware. You want to start with being aware of what is going on around you and prepared to take in the information presented.
- Decide. Next, you need to decide what to pay attention to.
- Ignore distractions. Oftentimes, there is a lot going on around us! You need to decide to not pay attention to all the things happening around you (even if they are really exciting).
- Bring your attention back. If you do get distracted, that is ok. It happens. However, it is important to bring your attention back to the task at hand.
Sustaining attention is a cognitive skill that helps us to carry out tasks in our lives effectively. Below are some ways that you can help your child develop a skill set and strategies to sustain their attention:
Increasing Awareness of Personal Strengths and Weaknesses
We all have times/situations where paying attention seems easier than others. For example, many children find paying attention to highly stimulating activities (i.e., video games) to be very easy, and they can sustain that attention for hours. However, it may be harder to direct and maintain attention during times where the stimulus is less engaging (i.e., a lesson about a topic not of interest at school). It is important to discuss with a child the times where they may find paying attention easy, and times where it may be harder.
Structuring the Environment
Structuring the environment is a great way to ensure that there are less distractions to draw your child’s attention away from the target of their attention. For example, writing a paper at Disneyland would be impossible for almost anyone. There are so many other distractors going on competing for attention. You want to eliminate those distractors. Work with the child to ensure that anything that may draw their attention away from the target is removed (i.e, cell phones, TVs, other individuals).
Providing Prompts and Cues
There are times when all of us (including your child) will lose their attention. This is ok and it happens. We want to ensure that the child is aware that their attention has been directed to something else and then aware of how to bring it back to the task at hand. External cues can help the child direct their attention. These include:
- verbal cues (“look at me before I give you the instructions”; “you are looking out the window right now, is that what you want to be paying attention to?”)
- physical cues (tapping the child on the shoulder and pointing at what they are meant to be attending to)
- visual cues (i.e, visual timers, cue cards, apps that can monitor time on-task and time off-task), and
- auditory cues (alarms on watches/phones timers)
Breaks are an essential part of maintaining attention. It may seem counterproductive but a break can serve as a means to “fuel up” your child so they can direct and sustain their attention longer. Exercise (especially for children who struggle with attention) can help children with attentional challenges stay focused. Examples might include bouncing on an exercise ball, outdoor playtime, stretching or movement breaks. In addition, exercising for approximately 15 minutes prior to starting a challenging activity can help a child stay engaged. Chunking tasks into parts and taking a break after each piece are also great strategies (i.e., every 15 minutes the child gets a 5-minute break). Another great way for a child to “refuel their tank” is by having a nutritious snack (actually, research suggests some sugar is beneficial) and a glass of water.
Research shows that medication paired with behavioural interventions and strategies is the best way to treat ADHD. Medication can allow children to transition to a place wherein their brain is able to “tune out” distractions and attend to information. They may then be better able to learn strategies that can help them with their attention even more.
Getting a good night’s sleep is important for our brains to rest and recuperate for the next day’s activities. If we are not getting enough sleep, this will make paying attention even harder. There is research to suggest that there is an association between ADHD and sleeping problems. It is important that you work with your child to develop strong sleep hygiene habits such as:
- Taking stimulant medication earlier in the day
- Removing screen time within 1 hour of bedtime
- Removing tempting distractions from the bedroom (i.e., televisions, cellphones, gaming devices)
- Establishing and consistently following a bedtime routine
Putting it All Together:
Social modelling strategies are an effective way for children to see how to control their attention. This can look like:
“I have a webinar today that I have to watch. I know that this is something that I will have trouble maintaining my attention with as it is a topic I am not really interested in, but it is important that I pay attention so I can learn more. To help myself, I am going to use these strategies: First, I will clean off my workspace to ensure that there is nothing to distract me. Second, I will put a visual timer on my desk to remind myself of how long I need to pay attention. Third, I will set the timer for 15 minutes. At the 15 minute mark, I will take a break and move my body/grab a snack. Once I come back I will restart my timer again. This may be hard for me, but I know that with these strategies I can do it!”
Research suggests that the best way to become proficient at a skill is practice. For children who struggle with attention, this skill will develop over time with frequent practice and chances to develop their skills. Your child will not be perfect at this the first time they try. But with consistent practice, they will develop their skills to direct, sustain, and redirect (if needed) their attention. Be sure to provide positive feedback and praise their efforts throughout the process!
Children with ADHD will experience challenges with attention throughout their lives. This does not mean that they do not care or aren’t trying, but rather that their brains process information differently. It is important for children with ADHD to develop skills to advocate for themselves and their needs. Work with your child to identify a list of strategies that work best for them and their learning.
In summary, children who have Learning Disabilities and/or ADHD often have deficits in their executive functioning. One area of their executive functioning that may be significantly impeded is their attention. Getting, directing and sustaining their attention can be significantly harder. This is not to mean that these children cannot pay attention. It just means that they will have to develop and utilize specific strategies to help them. Strategies may not work the first time. They may have to be altered and revisited. But with practice and support, these individuals will be able to develop their skills to avoid distractions, concentrate on tasks, and sustain their attention to get the most out of their learning!