Basics of Attention

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What Can I Do?

Suggestions and Strategies

You may use the following suggestions and strategies to help children who are experiencing difficulties with attention. Many of those listed are accommodations -- they work around a child's difficulty by offering alternative approaches. Slowing the speed of a presentation for someone who is not alert is one example. Strategies -- more research-based methods -- are designed to specifically strengthen a weakness. For example, a child with attention problems might benefit from a system of cues that helps her ability to stay focused. From the strategies suggested below, select those that you and your child think might work best.

General Suggestions

Allow longer breaks. Extending the amount of time given for breaks (such as recess) can be beneficial, especially for elementary-school children.

Use different methods of instruction. Use verbal, visual, and experiential methods to enhance attention. Make frequent shifts between discussion, reading, and hands-on group activities.

Accentuate important information. Let children know when important information is about to be presented. Slow the speed of oral delivery, include pauses, and accentuate by intonation and gesture what is most important. Preview, repeat, and summarize important points.

Have children discuss the lesson. Take time during a lesson for children to talk to each other about the facts or skills they are learning, such as what strategies they are using to complete an activity.

Be a coach or a mentor. Make statements about how you schedule your daily activities and the positive benefits of such planning and scheduling. Be a check-in person with whom the child can share what he's accomplished.

Specific Strategies (Mental Energy, Processing, and Production)

Mental Energy

Provide preferential seating. Seat children with attention difficulties close to the teacher. Make eye or physical contact to sustain attention. Tables grouped in clusters or staggered desks allow for an unobstructed view of signals and easy access for physical contact.

Provide frequent short breaks. Breaks can be especially helpful during and between tasks that require intense concentration -- and sometimes not just for one student but for the whole class. Throughout activities, intersperse brief breaks that allow children to move around. Encourage constructive movement tasks, such as collecting papers or erasing the chalkboard. At home, allow children to take a five- to ten-minute break to stretch or play with a pet after every thirty minutes of homework.

Encourage physical activity. Some type of physical activity helps children sustain their attention during classroom instruction. Doodling, squeezing a ball, rolling clay, tapping a pencil on one's thigh, or moving to a rocking chair can be helpful activities. Of course, these activities shouldn't be disruptive to other children in the class.
Find ways to make material less complex. Use outlines, color, or organizers to help make complex activities or ideas more easily understood. Warn children in advance about what will be presented. For example, tell the class that you will present five ideas. Then present the ideas in stages and check for understanding before moving on to each new next stage. Provide summary charts, partially completed outlines, or other aids to reduce the amount of mental energy required when working with complex concepts, ideas, or activities.

Prepare children before asking them to respond in class. Let children know in advance that they will be called on in class. Before the start of class say quietly to a child, "I'm going to call on you to answer the first question on the blackboard."

Keep a diary or log. Have children monitor their periods of effort and concentration with a diary or log. Children can create charts to track their improvement.

Provide opportunities for high-interest activities. Set up a space in the classroom where children can go to build on their strengths. Use their affinity areas, such as computers or art, to enhance their alertness while letting them gain more expertise in that area.

Use energy buddies. Pair children so they can work together by providing jump-starts for each other. Children can take turns starting math problems or reading the passages of a text.

Recommend a bedtime routine. Talk with children about the importance of having a consistent bedtime schedule to help them get a good night's sleep. The use of "white noise" or background noise (such as soft music) to help filter sounds that might interfere with relaxing can sometimes be helpful to children who have difficulty getting to sleep.

Monitor performance inconsistencies. Keep track of the factors that seem to affect a child's mental energy. Help children recognize the time of day and circumstances when they are most focused. Provide guidance on how to use, as well as compensate for, these highs and lows throughout the day.


Provide ongoing reference to information about an activity. Write important points or directions on the board so that children can refer to them whenever necessary.

Draw focus to important information. Have children practice underlining or highlighting key words. Use color-coding to organize key information (for example, green for main idea, red for details in reading, blue for essential information).

Use technology. Devices such as calculators, tape recorders, books on tape, word processors, and software programs may be helpful to children. These devices allow children to control how much information is presented at one time and how rapidly it is presented.

Provide outlines, maps, and graphs. Give children outlines to help them preview the most important information in a lesson or reading assignment. Have them complete a map or web of the main ideas presented in a lesson. Use graphs or graphics to draw attention to the relevancy of information, and help children understand why one piece of information may be more important than another.

Practice paraphrasing and summarizing. Ask children to write a summary of a lesson in their own words, then review that statement prior to beginning the next class session.

Promote listening strategies and build listening skills. Provide a strategy for listening actively, such as FACT (Focus attention, Ask yourself questions, Connect ideas, Try to picture important ideas).

Focus on cues for important information. Identify cues embedded in text or class lessons that children should look and listen for: for example, "In summary...", "The five reasons are...", and so on.

Promote both bottom-up and top-down thinking. Encourage children to start thinking about the details and work up to the big picture, as well as to start with the big picture and work down to the details.

Promote collaboration between children. Pair children who work well with details with children who prefer to think about the big picture. Encourage the children to talk to each other about the thought processes they employ when accomplishing a task or assignment.

Use subvocalization. After determining a key piece of information in a lesson, have children repeat it to themselves several times under their breath. Model the strategy for them.

Connect new information to prior knowledge. Pause during the presentation of new information and ask children how the new information relates to previously learned material or a personal experience.

Break tasks into smaller steps. Help children focus on important information by "chunking" assignments into smaller, more manageable segments. For example, have children highlight the symbol (+, -) in a math problem before calculating the answer.

Encourage eye contact and repetition. Have children practice making eye contact with speakers. Remind children by pointing to your eye or quietly stating, "Look at me." Ask children to repeat information, explanations, and instructions. For example, have a child repeat the directions that have been given for an assignment to check for understanding and retention.

Use memory strategies. Teach children to use strategies like imagery and elaboration to strengthen the depth of information processing. Attaching a mental image to an important piece of information, stating the reasons for its importance, and connecting the information to some prior knowledge or area of interest are all examples of memory strategies.

Review notes after instruction. Going back over newly learned information as soon as possible will enhance processing. Have children review their notes immediately after a lesson to make sure they got all the important points. Older children could tape record a class lecture, then listen to the tape after leaving class.

Teach self-testing strategies. Have children ask themselves questions they think might be on a quiz or test. When reading, have children frequently stop and ask themselves questions about information they have just read.

Structure time limits to monitor children's processing. Have children take notes on a reading passage for at least five minutes but no more than ten minutes. Impose time limits for children who are overactive processors; require them to stop or redirect them, even if they are in the middle of a task.

Use visual prompts. Attach brief notes or visual images on notebooks or desks to help children be aware of their own processing. For example, a note might say: "Am I being too passive or too active in my thinking right now?"

Teach children to prioritize. Have children complete the most difficult parts of a task when they are able to focus. Then allow them to take a break before beginning again.

Teach and model internal standards. Teach children how to use internal dialogue, or self-talk, to delay gratification when they are working on tasks that are not particularly interesting or gratifying to them. Ask them to brainstorm about rewards that will motivate them to work during periods of low interest and excitement.

Cue children to upcoming transitions. Let children know when a task is about to change and their focus will need to be adjusted. Say, for example, "In five minutes it will be time to put your social studies work away and get out your math books." Keep a schedule of activities on the board for the children to refer to.

Use computer software and games. Allow children to play subject-related computer games to extend attention, then ask them to spend the same amount of time focused on academic tasks.


Provide models of assignments and criteria for success. Give children a clear sense of how a final product might look by showing examples and sharing exemplary products (such as essays or drawings). You might make work from last year available and draw children's attention to specific qualities of the work (for example, "Notice that a good paper has a clear topic sentence."). Do not, however, compare children's work with that of peers or siblings.

Build in planning time. Give children five minutes of planning time before beginning an assignment. Provide guidance in effective planning when necessary.

Use stepwise approaches. Require children to break down tasks into parts and write down the steps or stages. Compile steps of frequent tasks into a notebook for easy reference during work assignments.

Provide guidelines for self-monitoring. Give children explicit guidelines for checking their progress along the way. For example, tell children that every five minutes they should stop and check to see if their plan is still working. Use a timer to signal when to start checking. Also encourage children to self-monitor following the completion of a task (ask themselves a series of questions such as, "What have I left out?").

Provide pathways to success. Let children who may not be able to articulate a plan draw a road map to their final product. Possibly include a fork in the road showing the path to success and the path to failure.

Teach proven strategies. Provide children with specific age-appropriate strategies to use in checking work. For example, use COPS (Capitalization-Organization-Punctuation-Spelling) for proofing written work. Children can create a reminder card to keep on their desk or in their assignment book for quick reference to the strategy.

Stress the importance of organization. Have children preview an assignment and collect the materials they will need before starting it. Guide children in keeping their materials and notebooks organized and easily accessible. Emphasize the positive impact that organization and preplanning will have on the completed project or assignment.

Let children wait to turn in work. Instruct children to allow a day or two to elapse between writing a report and rereading the report for quality. This will give children enough perspective to catch errors or add more details and produce better results in the end.

Encourage self-grading. Set a standard of work quality or criteria for success for children to follow, and allow them to self-assess the quality of their work before turning it in. If the grade matches the child's appraisal, give extra points for good self-assessment.

Set goals and record progress. Have children set a short-term goal, such as completing all homework for the week. Record their daily progress toward the goal for children to observe. Graphic recording, such as plotting their own line graphs, may be particularly reinforcing for some children.

Practice estimating. Children may benefit from estimating answers to math problems and science experiments. Stress the real-life benefits of estimating and understanding what the correct answer might look like.

Use assignment books. Teach children to use assignment books and "To Do" lists to keep track of their short- and long-term assignments, tests, and quizzes. Use peers to help monitor other children's assignment books.

Use a diary or tape recorder. Have children note what went well and where or when they went astray during the day. Encourage them to identify some techniques that can be used to improve their productivity and include them in the diary.

Eliminate incentives for frenetic pacing. Remove any positive reinforcement for finishing first. State the amount of time a task should take. This will slow down children who work too quickly and will speed up children who work too slowly.

Provide consistent feedback. Create a feedback system so children understand which behaviors, actions, or work products are acceptable and which are not. Use specifics to praise good work and recognize when children use strategies effectively. For example, "I like the way you elaborated in this description," or, "Asking to take a break really seemed to help you come back and focus."

Try a mentor. Some children may benefit from a mentor who will work with them to dissect the day, brainstorm alternative strategies, and provide recognition of progress. The mentor must be seen as credible and may be an individual from within the school or from outside the school.

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