When you have a child with special needs, especially one who has problems with paying attention, parenting and teaching can seem to be insurmountable tasks. You worry that your child will not be able to learn or even hold a conversation. I have been there with my own child sometimes wondering aloud, “How do I get through to this kid?” I have spent many hours, days, and years helping my son who has severe attention deficits. In all this time, I have found some ideas which work for us in helping him to attend that I will share with you here. Know that these ideas will not work for all children. Every child is different and it is best that you tailor your therapy, teaching, and guidance according to your child’s unique learning needs.
Here are ten methods and techniques which have helped my son to increase his attention:
This tip was given by one of my son’s speech teachers. If you want the child to pay attention to what you are saying place the child’s hand on your throat so that they can feel the vibrations as you are speaking. Anything which increases the number of sensory modalities to receive incoming information the better.
Use different voice inflections, tones, and volume to gain attention. Try whispering as it makes the child lean forward to hear you. Try out silly voices with varying tones to make your child take notice. Think of how actors get the attention of their audience. Another tick is to use songs or music. Remember school house rock? If you are a certain age you will surely remember “Conjunction Junction What’s Your Function?” It was easy to remember because the material was presented in a song.
If your child likes to fidget, buy some sensory toys for him or her to play with in between times that you want their attention. You can find such toys in the dollar store or on-line at companies such as Oriental Trading Company. My son has squishy balls, light up balls, modeling clay to squeeze, bubble wrap, tubes with sparkles, small slinkys and more. We keep these toys in a container for his breaks. Having these breaks to fidget really helps him to concentrate when he needs to.
There is much research to show that exercise has many mental and physical benefits. I find that my son is better able to pay attention after spending time exerting energy. Take your child to the park and let them run , play a sport or do whatever they enjoy as a form of physical exercise. We have both a small indoor trampoline and a big therapy ball for him to roll on for when the weather is not good for going outside.
Use the child’s natural interests to gain their attention. My child is very interested in trains. We find things which appeal to this interest as in worksheets with trains, reading stories about trains, and building vocabulary around this theme. Make learning fun if you can by utilizing your child’s passions.
Use a cue to gain their attention whether it is visual or auditory. Ring a bell, blow a horn, or beat on a gong to let your child know that it is time to learn. You can also use a visual cue you probably remember from your grade school days. Flicker the lights off and on to gain his or her attention.
Try to use as many senses as you can to reach your child including the sense of touch. If you want to teach your child to write the letters of the alphabet for example, use modeling clay, have them bake cookies in the shape of the letters, use magnetic letters, trace letters in sand, and use glue and string to form letters.
I have always believed that my child learns best when he is moving. I know this is probably not possible in school where they promote sitting and being still. But when you are home with your child, you can truly adapt to his or her learning style. Early on when my son was less able to sit for any extended period of time, I used movement to teach him. For example, we had big wheels for both of my boys and I would let them do laps and flash them a stop and go sign. When I made them stop, I would have questions or flashcards ready to ask them before I flashed the “GO” sign. They didn’t even realize that they were learning as they were having too much fun.
I have also incorporated lessons in between swinging my child. One person would grab his feet and one would grab his hands and swing him onto the couch on a count of five. In between swings I would teach him using colorful flashcards. We have also utilized a big therapy ball in this way. In between bounces I would teach him. As my son has gotten older he is now more able to sit and pay attention without using these strategies. We still use a mini trampoline for him to jump on between his learning sessions. We might also throw a ball back and forth while practicing spelling or math facts.
Have a structured routine with clear instructions of when the child will begin and finish. If you are helping your child with homework for example, tell your child how many math problems he or she will be doing. Or if it is an open ended project that will take more than one day to complete, help the child to set limits of time and task to be accomplished. For example, if the homework includes writing a book report, ask that he or she complete so many pages within a set time period. I find that children will more readily attend to a task if they know there is an end in sight. For a child with more limitations, you can use cut out colorful numbers to denote tasks to be completed. For my son I have learning tasks in plastic bins which I label with numbers as to what he does first, second, and so forth. The last bin is labeled as “FINISHED” and he knows to put all his finished work in that container. He is better able to attend because he knows exactly what is expected.
Take breaks as necessary. Everyone has a point where they are not able to pay attention any longer. You start to fidget, yawn, and your mind wanders. What you want to figure out is how long your child, on average, is able to pay attention. Then you want to try to increase this time in small increments. If you want your child to pay attention for a half an hour, you may have to break up that time into three ten minute increments. In between those times you may include a small break of several minutes. As your child’s attention increases, then you can decrease the number or duration of those breaks until you are getting a good solid chunk of time where he or she is attending to the task given.
These are but some techniques I have used over the years to gain my son’s attention. How about you? What methods have you tried which have proven to be successful in getting your child to pay attention? Please share your experiences here. You just might help someone in the process.
I am a mother, a writer, and now an MS patient