We’ve all worried about the attention levels of our children at some point. And if and when it becomes a real issue, what is the best way to handle it? We’ve asked Dr. Rebecca K. Dogan, an expert in child and adolescent psychology at OT&P Medical Practice in Hong Kong, for her advice on this common concern and tips on how we can help at home.
There are a number of factors that impact attention. For instance, young children have poorer attending skills and are more easily distracted than older children and adults. Other children may have a neurodevelopmental condition, such as ADHD, that causes brain abnormalities affecting concentration and impulse control. Children may also show inconsistent attention problems due to stress, anxiety, trauma, or a learning deficit. Although attending skills vary for most individuals, there are several easy ways parents can help their children foster stronger focus and concentration skills.
- Give clear, consistent rules and instructions. First, gain your child’s attention. Walk over to them, call their name, or if they’re distracted by something, remove the distracting item (phone, toy) from them before giving an instruction. Make sure your instructions are: Direct (“Sit in this blue chair please”) rather than indirect (“Would you like to sit here?”); Stated positively – tell your child what you want them to do (“Sit in this blue chair please”) vs not do (“I told you not to stand there”); and Simple (one instruction at a time).
Follow through and feedback is key to teaching good, consistent attending skills. If you have asked your child to do something, help assist them if needed to ensure the task is completed. But to make them feel more successful, make sure they are able to complete the task you have provided. It needs to be appropriate developmentally, socially, and academically. Giving positive feedback (“Nice job listening”, “You did a great job staying on-task”) will also help your child gain confidence and be more eager and motivated to strive to pay attention even better in the future.
- Keep a routine at home and get creative. Organizational skills go hand in hand with attending skills. Parents can use a visible calendar, or picture schedule to keep track of after school activities and routines (e.g., 3:30pm snack; 4:00pm homework; 5:00pm free time; 6:30pm dinner). The daily schedule should be reviewed in the morning and for younger children reviewed again after school. Morning and evening routines such as breakfast, bathing, quiet reading periods, and bedtime should remain as consistent as possible. Older children should also keep a visual schedule in a planner that is reviewed by a parent on a daily or weekly basis. Remember, organizational skills are learned and must be taught. This takes practice and support from family members.
Our attention is also linked to our interest in something. This is why some children can play with Lego or games for hours but cannot seem to complete a few math problems. Finding ways to make less preferred tasks more interesting will boost focus and effort.
- Help teach awareness of off-task behavior and fidgeting. Many children are not aware when they are not focused or engaged in highly distracting behaviors. Parents can help increase awareness by explaining what off-task behavior and fidgeting looks like and by listing examples and non-examples. This can even be made into a game where the child can try to “catch” a parent acting off-task or fidgeting during a time when attention is expected (e.g., dinner time, working from home).
Once your child is aware of these behaviors it is easier to teach him or her a new action or routine to get them back on track. For fidgeting, it is important to teach and practice an action that is incompatible with the fidget. For instance, finger tapping on a desk should be redirected to hands clasped or in their lap. For older children who get distracted, it is very helpful to teach them a preparation routine before beginning an activity that requires a lot of attention. An example may include creating a checklist of what to do prior to starting homework (e.g., 1. Remove all items off desk except paper and a pencil, 2. Turn off phone, 3. Close blinds to avoid being distracted by what’s outside, and 4. Set timer for work period).
Remember, individuals have a range of attention abilities. Focus as well as concentration can be affected by a vast number of things. If your child has a history of poor attention skills that have caused concern at home and school, an assessment may be warranted to decide if there is an underlying psychological condition and then determine what interventions are needed to help your child meet his or her true potential. But for most children, attention skills will develop with practice, patience, and time.
Dr. Rebecca K. Dogan grew up as an expatriate in Hong Kong and Singapore. She received her formal education and training in the United States and relocated back to Asia following graduate school. She has an M.A. in Clinical Psychology, received her Ph.D. in Behavioural Psychology / Behaviour Analysis and is a credentialed practitioner (BCBA-D; LMHP) who conducts behavioural assessments and is qualified to design and supervise behaviour analytic interventions. She is focused on providing clinical services to children and adolescents as well as their families.
Dr. Dogan works for OT&P Medical Practice at the Wanchai, Repulse Bay, and Clearwater Bay locations. If you would like to make an appointment please contact us at 2155 9055. For more information about Dr. Dogan’s services and specialties please visit http://www.otandp.com/.