Throughout our day-to-day lives, people are faced with a barrage of information and distractions. This barrage can take the shape of sensory information from external stimuli, such as sights, sounds, smells, tastes, changes in temperature, and tactile sensations triggered by the physical environment around us, and from internal stimuli, such as our physiological responses to hunger, pain, heart rate, and other bodily functions like having a full bladder.
Attention is the ability to achieve and sustain appropriate focus to a task. When an individual has attention skills, they are able to block out all irrelevant stimulation in order to focus on the situation or task that matters most in any particular moment. Attention is one of the first cognitive skills developed by your child and plays a significant role in guiding all future learning! It is particularly important when your child is learning new skills. Being able to attend to tasks for extended periods of time means your child is more likely to repeatedly practice what they are learning, which helps to solidify the learning pathways in your child’s body and brain!
Across all people, attention can change from a day-to-day basis and is influenced by a number of factors, such as motivation, self-esteem, sensory integration, language difficulties, and the presence of an established diagnosis. If you have a child that struggles with attention, particularly for non-preferred tasks that require sitting still like homework and eating meals, it may feel like a constant uphill battle. Below are our top 5 tips to help improve your child’s attention!
- Reduce background noises and distractions: Try and eliminate as many external stimuli as possible for your child by turning off the TV, removing technological devices (tablets, mobile phones, laptops, computers etc.) not required for the task, clearing clutter from your child’s workspace, and separating other children if that is a distraction for your child. We know our next tip seems counter-intuitive after being told to reduce background noise, but …
- Provide soft music: Some children find it difficult to work in environments with pure silence! Playing soft, ambient, instrumental music has been shown to improve attention and concentration – just make sure it is not too loud, has an even rhythm, and doesn’t have distracting lyrics your child can sing along too! While classical music is often recommended to improve attention, it doesn’t usually appeal to most people, let alone our children! “Chillstep” is the slower, steadier, more relaxing cousin of modern dubstep, and can be a great alternative to your child’s favourite radio station to listen to while doing homework or table-top tasks!
- Provide alternative seating options: Research shows alternative seating (exercise balls, wobble cushions, beanbags, sit-to-stand desks, etc.) can improve attention and concentration for children (and adults!) having trouble in these areas. Most alternative seating options also incorporate sensory input, which as we discussed earlier, influences whether your child can attend to tasks.
- Do “heavy work” before starting table-top tasks: “Heavy work” is any activity that requires you to use your muscles and joints, putting pressure on them as you move. “Heavy work” is great for your child as it can help calm them down, get any restless and wiggly movements out, and improve their attention for subsequent tasks. “Heavy work” activities include carrying groceries, hanging out wet washing, eating chewy or crunchy foods like carrot and celery sticks, drawing with chalk outside on both hands and knees
- Allow extra time for movement breaks: By giving yourself and your child more time for rest or movement breaks, this helps reduce the stress and pressure of completing tasks from start to finish in one go. A good general rule might be proving a 5 minute rest or movement break for every 10 minutes of sustained attention or task work. Rest or movement breaks could be as simple as getting your child to do 10 jumping jacks, running through a short mindfulness exercise with them, or playing a quick game of snap. Try and avoid using TV or technological devices for breaks!
- Use simple language and repeat instructions: Part of the reason why your child may have difficulties attending to tasks could be because they do not understand what they are meant to be doing. Always use short, simple sentences when explaining the task, or show them first if possible. Repeat the instructions and ask your child to say them back to you so you know your child understands.