A common misconception about children with attention problems is that they aren't paying attention at all. But children who struggle with attention may actually pay attention to everything; their difficulty is deciding what to focus on and maintaining that focus. And since attention is a complex neurocognitive process, there are several areas where signs of struggle appear.
What to Watch For
has difficulty concentrating; may complain of feeling tired or bored
does not seem to be well rested and fully awake during the day
has inconsistent work patterns that negatively impact quality and quantity of work
does not monitor quality of work or the effectiveness of strategies
does not use past successes and failures to guide current behavior, actions, or strategies
is apt to do too many things too quickly and some other things too slowly
has a poor sense of how time and how to manage it
If any of these signs occur inconsistently or in a particular subject area, they may be pointing to a different learning problem. When children struggle with reading, for example, because of a neurological breakdown that hinders their decoding ability, it is very difficult for them to concentrate and stay focused.
Where Do I Begin?
Home and School Collaboration
Attention difficulties can have a tremendous impact on all aspects of life. A candid and consistent dialogue between parents and teachers can provide significant support to a child with attention problems. Mutual respect and open communication can reduce tension and enable parents and teachers to benefit from each other's expertise and knowledge of the child from different perspectives. Working together, parents, teachers, and the children themselves can inform one another about how best to address the child's needs.
Parents and Teachers Communicating about Attention
When you suspect a child is having difficulty with attention, schedule a parent-teacher meeting to share information about the child. The following "talking points" can help structure the discussion.
Share observations about the child's profile of attention controls and discuss where the breakdown is occurring. How is the child exhibiting difficulty with attention? What attention control system seems to be problematic? Is the breakdown occurring with mental energy, processing, or production?
Remember to ask for and share information on problems in other areas, such as language or memory, since attention deficit often masks other learning difficulties.
Identify and discuss the child's strengths and interests. How can they be used to enhance his or her attention abilities? Can reading a book, writing a report, or creating a drawing on a topic of interest help a child sustain attention? Have children monitor their own alertness to topics of interest.
Discuss possible strategies. What have you tried that has been successful and not so successful? Are there other ideas that might work? Are there strategies that work both at school and at home, such as using eye contact and physical contact with a child to help sustain attention?
Acknowledge emotional reactions to the situation. Discuss how children who struggle with attention can become frustrated. Unable to sustain mental energy required for schoolwork, children may become disinterested or even disruptive. Share strategies that might help children become more efficient at monitoring their attention and behavior.
Discuss appropriate next steps. Establish a plan for ongoing discussion and problem solving. How will expectations and progress be shared? How can you best advocate for the child?
Talking with Children about Attention
Children are expected to use their attention skills to succeed with schoolwork, control behavior, and relate well to others. Some children who have difficulties with attention give up and see themselves as failures; others exhibit behavior complications that relate to their difficulties with attention.
Dr. Mel Levine suggests using a process called demystification, which, through open discussion with supportive adults, helps children learn to clarify and specify their differences and understand that, like everyone else, they have strengths and weaknesses. This process creates a shared sense of optimism that the child and adult are working toward a common goal, and that learning problems can be successfully managed. The following suggestions can help as parents, teachers, and learning specialists work together to demystify children's difficulties with attention.
Eliminate any stigma. Empathy can reduce children's frustration and anxiety about their attention difficulties. Emphasize that no one is to blame and that you know that they often need to work harder than others to concentrate and monitor their attention. Explain that children differ in their attention skills. Reassure children that you will help them find ways that work for them. Share an anecdote about how you handled a learning problem or an embarrassing mistake in which your attention abilities broke down.
Discuss strengths and interests. Help children find their strengths. Use concrete examples but avoid false praise. You might say to a child who can devote total attention to an area of strong interest, "You are really able to concentrate on your video games." Identify books, videos, Web sites, or places in the community that can help children build on their strengths and interests.
Discuss areas of weakness. Use plain language to explain what aspect of attention needs to be developed or monitored. Contrast breakdowns with areas of attention that are intact, and explain the difference. You might say, "You might have difficulty paying attention to what the teacher says because you are not filtering out the other noise around you, yet your attention when working on the computer is great."
Emphasize optimism. Help children realize that they can improve -- they can work on their weaknesses and make their strengths stronger. Point out future possibilities for success given their current strengths. Help children build a sense of control over their learning by encouraging them to feel accountable for their own progress. A child with attention difficulties can become responsible over time for remembering to take frequent breaks, keep checklists, and set short-term goals.
Identify an ally. Help children locate a mentor -- a favorite teacher, an adolescent, or a neighbor -- who will work with and support them. Explain that children can help themselves by sharing with others how they learn best. Older children can explain the strategies that work for them, while younger ones may need adult support. Encourage children to be active partners with their allies.
Protect from humiliation. Help children strengthen self-esteem and maintain pride by protecting them from public humiliation related to their learning differences. Always avoid criticizing children in public and protect them from embarrassment in front of siblings and classmates. Don't require a child with attention difficulties to sit still and concentrate on a task for an extended period of time.