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Attention Strategies

Home and School Collaboration
Parents and Teachers Communicating
Talking with Children about Attention

Home and School Collaboration

Attention difficulties can have a tremendous impact on all aspects of life. An open and consistent dialogue between parents and teachers can provide significant support to a child struggling with attention. 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

When you suspect your child is having difficulty with attention, schedule a parent-teacher meeting to share information about your child. The following “talking points” can help structure the discussion.

  • Share observations about your child’s strengths and weaknesses in the attention controls and discuss where the breakdown is occurring. How is your child exhibiting difficulty with attention? What attention control system seems to be problematic? Is the breakdown occurring with mental energy, processing, or production? It may be helpful to use the “Common Observations” list from the Difficulties section as a guide.
  • Remember to ask for and share information on issues in other areas, such as language or memory, since attention difficulties often masks other learning difficulties.
  • Identify and discuss your 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 your child sustain attention?
  • 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 your 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 your child 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 your child?

When a problem with attention has been specified:

> Learn more about attention from experts, reference books, and Web sites. See the Resources section of the Parent Toolkit to get started.
> Seek assistance from experienced parents, professional organizations, and support groups.
> Request that the school’s special education teacher or learning specialist observe your child and consult with you about strategies to use in the classroom and at home.
> Investigate the availability of professional help from pediatricians, learning specialists, school psychologists, and others.

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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.

To help children learn to clarify and specify their differences, All Kinds of Minds uses a process called demystification. Through open discussion with supportive adults, children understand that everyone has 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 your child’s frustration and anxiety about her attention difficulties. Emphasize that no one is to blame and that you know she often need to work harder than others to concentrate and monitor their attention. Explain that children differ in their attention skills. Reassure your child that you will help her find ways that work for them. Share a story about how you handled a learning difficulty or an embarrassing mistake in which your attention abilities broke down.
  • Discuss strengths and interests. Help your child find their strengths. Use concrete examples, but avoid false praise. You might say to your 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 your child 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. Explain the difference between areas of attention that are working appropriately and those that are not. 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 you’re working on the computer is great.”
  • Emphasize optimism. Help your child realize that he can improve – he can work on his weaknesses and make his strengths stronger. Point out future possibilities for success given his current strengths. Help your child build a sense of control over his learning by encouraging him to feel accountable for his 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 your child locate a mentor – a favorite teacher, an older student, or a neighbor – who will work with and support her. 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 your child to be active partners with her allies.
  • Protect from humiliation. Help your child strengthen self-esteem and maintain pride by protecting him from public humiliation, especially in relation to his learning differences. Always avoid criticizing your child in public and protect him from embarrassment in front of siblings and classmates. Don’t require your child with attention difficulties to sit still and concentrate on a task for an extended period of time.

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General Tips:

  • Decide which strategies to try by observing your child and identifying the ways in which he or she learns best.
  • Limit yourself to 1-3 strategies to try first.
  • It may take several attempts to see positive results from one strategy. Don’t give up too soon.
  • If the first few strategies you try do not improve the child’s skills, try others.
  • Most of these strategies can be adapted for use with different age groups.

Mental Energy

Mental Energy Strategies

(For an explanation of Mental Energy, see the Attention: Difficulties section.)

  • Praise attention efforts. Praise and/or reward your child anytime you “catch” her attending during times when it may be hard to concentrate, such as when she is reading a book in a noisy environment.
  • Encourage physical activity. Physical activity helps children sustain their attention during homework and quiet times. Doodling, squeezing a ball, rolling clay, tapping a pencil, or moving to a rocking chair can be helpful activities.
  • Give advance notice. Tell your child in advance how long he needs to pay close attention. For instance, say to him, “during the next five minutes I want to talk to you about something really important. Then you can go back to what you were doing.
  • Break up studying into manageable chunks. For example, studying for 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening may be more effective than studying for one hour in the evening when your child is tired.
  • Recommend a bedtime routine. Talk with your child about the importance of having a consistent bedtime schedule to help her get a good night’s sleep. The use of “white noise” or background noise (such as soft music) to help filters sounds that might interfere with relaxing can sometimes be helpful to children who have difficulty getting to sleep.
  • Provide intermittent breaks that involve physical activity during a structured homework schedule. For example, your child could be allowed a 15-30 minute break after arriving home from school, followed by 30 minutes of homework, then 15-30 minute exercise break, etc.
  • Help your child get started on homework. Support could include: providing the first sentence of a paragraph, starting one or more math problems, reading the first paragraph of text, and/or checking for understanding of directions.
  • Identify your child’s high mental effort periods. Schedule important or difficult homework tasks during these periods.
  • Monitor performance inconsistencies. Keep track of the factors that seem to affect your child’s mental energy. Help your child recognize the time of day and circumstances when he is most focused. Provide guidelines on how to use, as well as compensate for, these highs and lows through the day.
  • Use a dry-erase board to organize homework time. Help your child make a list of all the tasks she needs to complete each evening in the order she plans to complete them. She should also list the amount of time she expects each task to take and any breaks she plans to take.


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Processing Stretegies

(For an explanation of Processing, see the Attention: Difficulties section.)

  • Teach scanning or skimming techniques to pull out important information efficiently. For example, first scan to get the gist. Next read carefully for detail understanding. Then skim as a quick review.
  • Draw focus to important information. Have your child 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).
  • Provide a clear ruler to help your child keep her place while reading. If she skips a line, help her to notice that what she is reading does not make sense.
  • Use subvocalization. After determining a key piece of information in a lesson, have your child repeat it to himself several times under his breath. Model the strategy for him.
  • Connect new information to prior knowledge. Pause during the presentation of new information and ask your child how the new information relates to previously learned material or a personal experience.
  • Make new information relevant. Discuss how the particular topic at hand relates to real world events and how it might apply to your child.
  • Encourage eye contact and repetition. Have your child practice making eye contact with speakers. Remind her by pointing to your eye or quietly stating, “Look at me.” Ask your child to repeat information, explanations, and instructions. For example, have her repeat the directions that have been given for an assignment to check for understanding and retention.
  • Teach your child to prioritize. Have your child complete the most difficult parts of a task. Then allow him to take a break before beginning again.
  • Teach and model internal standards. Teach your child how to use internal dialogue, or self-talk, when she is working on tasks that are not particularly interesting or gratifying to her. Ask her to brainstorm about rewards that will motivate her to work during periods of low interest and excitement.
  • Reflect on successes. When your child performs well on a test or assignment, have him reflect on how he feels about his performance and the effort that he put into the preparation.
  • Cue children to upcoming transitions. Let your child know when a task is about to change and his focus will need to be adjusted. Say, for example, “In five minutes it will be time to put your game away and set the table for dinner.” Keep a schedule of activities for your children to refer to.


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Production Strategies

(For an explanation of Production, see the Attention: Difficulties section.)

  • Engage in “what if” exercises in various academic, behavioral, and social situations. An adult can provide sample questions initially, such as: “What if I only skim the chapters when I study for the test; then I …,” or “What if my best friend does not want to play with me during recess; then I …,” or “What if I called my friend (or the new kid) a mean name; then I …”
  • Build in planning time. Give your child five minutes of planning time before beginning an assignment. Provide guidance in effective planning when necessary.
  • Model planning techniques for your child by “thinking aloud” while performing a task. For example, say “First I am going to circle words like ‘how many more’ or ‘are remaining’ that give me clues about the problem.” “Now I’m going to draw a picture of what’s going on in this problem to help me see the best operation I should choose.”
  • Use stepwise approaches. Require your child to break down tasks into parts and to write down the steps or stages. Compile steps of frequent tasks into a notebook for easy reference during work assignments.
  • Stress the importance of organization. Have your child preview an assignment and collect the materials she will need before starting it. Guide your child in keeping her materials and notebooks organized and easily accessible. Emphasize the positive impact that organization and preplanning will have on the completed project or assignment.
  • Encourage self-grading. Set a standard of work quality or criteria for success for your child to follow, and allow him to self-assess the quality of his work before turning it in. If the grade matches your child’s appraisal, give extra incentive or a reward for good self-assessment.
  • Provide consistent feedback. Create a feedback system so your child understands which behaviors, actions, or work products are acceptable and which are not. Use specifics to praise good work and recognize when your child uses 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.”
  • Create a visual reminder to “hold that thought.” For instance, your child might draw a bulls-eye to remind her to “stay on target” or a stoplight to represent “putting on the brakes.” This strategy might keep her from commenting on the many thoughts that flow through her mind.
  • Discuss the lesson or assignment. Take time for your child to talk to you about the facts or skills he is learning, such as what strategies he is using to complete an activity.


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