Helping students to develop the ability to sustain attention is a goal for all parents and educators. That task is especially difficult when the student has ADHD and it is often easy to become exasperated when helping these kids. In this week’s blog post, Mark Carey, QWERTY’s founder, suggests various strategies and orienting reminders which can help in managing your student’s challenges with attention. Consistent application of these principles can lead to a more productive and positive outcome for both the student and parent/educator.
Neutral and Positive Responses to Attention Difficulties
Find a balance in how often you make an issue of attention:
The problem cannot be completely ignored, but it should not become the primary focus of your interaction for any length of time.
Make your own distinction between situations where obtaining focus is critical, such as when asking a question or when giving directions, versus other situations in which focus is slightly less essential or can be drawn in more slowly.
Get attention first:
“Mary . . . “ Use the person’s name before giving specific directions or requests. Do not use her name constantly, however, as this will wear thin.
“Hey! Check this out.” You are asking for immediate attention because it is especially important.
“Did you notice . . . ?” or “I was just thinking about . . .” You are attempting to draw in his interest more slowly. We don’t necessarily want to reinforce rapid shifts of attention.
Check for understanding:
“Can you tell those directions back to me?”
“What exactly do we have to remember about . . .?”
“I wonder if you’re sure about . . .” You can ask for verbal evidence or simply look for body language clues.
Comment rather than criticize or direct:
“I notice you are looking out the window a lot.” Follow this by an immediate and obvious switch of your own attention back to the task at hand. The student can draw his own conclusion that he needs to redirect his attention, and you are providing a model of doing so. He is not being “accused” or blamed. It is often more effective to comment on a behavior in a neutral tone than to direct a child to change that behavior.
“It looks like you’ve got a pretty busy brain today.” Said with a smile, this may clue the student that he or she needs to make a special effort to focus in this situation.
“It might be hard to think about math right now [with all that noise in the hall] [when the TV is on in the other room] [after having been running around out there].” You can model your own “shift of attention” to the task or comment in a way that shows empathy with this challenge.
Some students are slow to come to attention but remain engaged once they have been “hooked.” There can be different reasons for this; some simply need time to mentally “finish up” what their mind has been doing previously.
Consider taking a specific, short break before starting a new task to allow some time to change gears.
Avoid giving essential information in your initial statements following a transition. Allow for different paces that children may have in making the transition.
“Put your finger on the first word in this paragraph.” Giving the child a physical task can shift her attention or can indicate that her attention is not yet redirected.
Empathy and modeling are more effective than direction:
“Some people have very busy brains. I like people like that; they are interested in so many things.”
“I’ve got a busy brain, too. Sometimes it’s so hard to just think about one main thing at a time.”
“I love having a busy brain. But gets in the way sometimes because it wants to do something else when I have to do [whatever]. Sometimes I have to tell it to stop.”
“It looks like you are thinking about [something else].” You are not saying something negative, as opposed to, “You are not thinking about [what we’re doing].”
“Oops. I just noticed that I was thinking about [something else]. Sorry. We’re doing math right now.” It is good to show that we all share the problem of distraction.
While it is often good to reinforce desired behaviors with immediate positive feedback, this can be counterproductive in the case of redirecting attention.
If he just tuned back into the math textbook after a period of distraction, to comment on that, even positively, would take a student’s attention away from the math book. It is better to increase your positive “energy” in relation to the math task so that the math task itself feels reinforcing. When the task is complete, then you can comment on what a great job he did in getting back on task.
Use vicarious reinforcement in a group:
“Cathy and Sara look ready.” Debbie may get herself ready upon hearing this, and you did not have to give her direct attention.
“Is everybody ready?” allows you not to single out a particular person.
Humor can be an effective tool:
For some, a humorous response can tend to reinforce getting off task, especially at first. However, it can be worthwhile to work through that initial tendency in order to establish a neutral verbal cue for redirecting attention or increasing focus. For example:
We established the phrase, “off-island excursion” to refer to one teen’s internal distraction. We are able to use this phrase and related phrases (“So, how was it out there?” “Hmmm . . . I wonder if they have cell service that far away?”) to redirect attention with a smile.
In the movie Up, the hyperactive dog’s attention instantly and fully crumbles when he sees a squirrel. With one teen, we “count squirrels” during a task, meaning I take note of each time he gets distracted. Sometimes we will make tally marks under the heading “Squirrels,” with no particular consequence other than to increase his awareness that he is being distracted. Sometimes I encourage him to count my squirrels. At other times, we use the reference in anticipation: “I wonder how many squirrels you’ll get today?” “Feeling like hunting today? We could make squirrel stew tonight.” This essentially says, “Focus!” without sounding critical.