Even the most able children have difficulty focusing in some environments. If you are trying to work on communication with your child, it’s really important to bear in mind the surroundings you are working in. To get the most out of a learning experience, any child needs to have the best opportunity to concentrate easily. This might sound obvious, but the first thing to check is that the child’s basic needs are met. That means making sure that he or she is warm enough, isn’t hungry and doesn’t need the toilet. The next questions to ask yourself are:
- Is the child able to hear the sounds and words they are being asked to listen to?
- Can the child focus on the target task without being distracted by irrelevant distractions?
- Can the child maintain a comfortable body position without wasting too much mental effort?
How do communication difficulties affect concentration?
Many children who have communication difficulties have additional problems concentrating due to difficulty with one or more of the following factors:
- Maintaining attention to an activity they haven’t chosen and following adult direction.
- Auditory processing – discriminating speech from background noise and making sense of the sounds they hear. They may not be able to filter out what is important from a background of other sounds.
- Ignoring irrelevant activity and visual stimulation around them – weak sensory processing of information coming from all of the senses can lead to problems filtering out what is relevant.
- Maintaining a stable posture – maintaining posture is a developmental skill like any other so you can expect that children won’t be as good at it as adults are. Also, children who have co-ordination difficulties like dyspraxia or other conditions affecting movement are more likely to need support to maintain a stable posture. They will expend a significant amount of mental effort doing so if the seating they are given doesn’t provide adequate physical support in the right places.
- Understanding language – often children who have problems understanding language have a higher tendency to ‘switch off’ when faced with a barrage of language. This is particularly noticeable in noisy, busy situations with lots of distractions.
How can we make it easier for children to pay attention?
The good news is that a few simple tweaks can make your living room, kitchen, classroom quiet area or other work area into an environment that supports concentration. Bearing in mind that we all live in the real world and you can’t always have the ideal situation, here are a few key tips that are eminently do-able:
- Try to keep your work area as quiet as possible. Turn off the TV, turn off the computer, turn off the radio/stereo and, if you need to, close the door to the rest of the house. Turning off the TV is particularly important as it is not just a source of noise but also visual stimulation.
- Try to remove as many distractions as you can – I know this is not always easy! Try to put any ‘fiddly’ or interesting objects out of the way and try to work away from other people. If there are a lot of pictures/posters/displays on the wall, have a think about taking some down or moving them.
- Think about the lighting in your work area. Fluorescent lighting tubes can be a source of visual and sound stimulation because they flicker and hum when they’re on. Make sure that your area has enough light so that you can easily see the materials you are working with. If the child you’re working with wears glasses, make sure they have them on and that the lenses are clean.
- Think about the seat your child is sitting in – try to choose one that supports their upper body well, and if possible, allows their feet to be on the floor to give them a stable base for their posture. Working at a table is often more effective than working on the floor as it provides extra support and you don’t end up with a ‘liquid child’ lolling all over the floor!
- Use games that your child is familiar with and keep it simple so that your child focuses on the communication task you are helping them to learn. This avoids your child having to waste mental effort learning a new or complicated game before they can engage with the communication activity.
- Be prepared! Have all your materials ready to go before you start so that you’re not faffing about trying to find things while you’re working. For example, Ikea make a wide range of useful storage boxes which are great for keeping your resources together, easy to get out and also easily hidden if necessary!
- Think about how many resources you present at a time. Try to have only the materials you are using for the current task on display. That’s another reason to keep all your materials in a box or a bag. You can then hide things easily when you’re not using them.
- Think about timing – as a general rule, children find it easier to focus when they’re not tired. If a child has difficulty maintaining attention at the best of times, you will most likely find that you have more successful sessions with them earlier in the day.
This list is not exhaustive but I think that it covers the key points. Hopefully, with these few simple tips, you’ll get the best from your communication sessions. That said, no child is perfect and no strategy is perfect. There will be times when you do all of these things and your child still can’t maintain attention to what you are doing. If you’ve given it a good try and it’s still not working, I’d say abandon the activity for the time being. You can always try again later. If your session isn’t holding the child’s attention, it’s worth having a think about the activities you have presented just to check whether there’s anything you need to change to make the activity work better. Can you tweak the materials to make them more motivating for the child? Is there some extra factor impacting on their attention today like illness, a late night or excitement? Sometimes a good deal of lateral thinking is required and self-reflection is always worthwhile!