The ability to focus or to sustain attention involves ignoring distractions and continuing to work even though the task may be boring, tiring or frustrating. This executive function, often called sustained attention, may be impacted by other challenges such as auditory or visual processing problems, working memory challenges or the inability to shift current thought processes when becoming stuck on something. Adults are constantly monitoring themselves and even if distracted by some external cause are often able to get themselves back on track and get the task completed (if it is important to them). Children have much shorter attention spans (they develop as the child grows) and may find it difficult to “push” through to completion.
In children and teens, sustained attention challenges may look like:
- Taking hours to complete simple homework assignments
- Incomplete assignments (skipped problems, hurried work, etc.)
- Jumping from one thing to another
- Problems with friends due to misunderstandings from not really “hearing” what was said
- Failure to notice when what they are doing isn’t working and an inability to switch their approach
- Unfinished projects, missed deadlines, incomplete work
- Extra time needed for tasks (due to distractibility)
- Multitasking without actually completing anything or completing the less important but more interesting task
- Difficulty getting through a multistep process
Removing the roadblocks:
1. Distractions can be visual, auditory or cognitive:
- Clear the clutter or move to another space and be sure to have everything you need before beginning.
- Work at the library.
- Use a tri fold foam board that has been cut in half to create a “focus place” for your child. Add visual reminders.
- Use noise cancelling headphones or play “focus” music or classical music or white noise. Create a 30 minute play list and allow breaks if they work until the music ends.
- Keep a notepad nearby and write down any thoughts that interrupt.
- Keep a beverage and snacks within reach so your body won’t interrupt you.
- If you still notice difficulty in focusing, set your phone to vibrate or use a motivaider to periodically force you to check that you are on task
2. Start with the end in mind:
- Picture the end product and then work backwards to determine the steps involved.
- Have students create a schedule with time estimates for homework and visualize (or sketch out) the finished product.
- Help your child use their preferred learning style whenever possible.
- What will be the reward for finishing? Make it motivating!
3. Break it down into smaller parts:
- Divide the task or homework into bite sized steps so that at least one step can be completed before taking a short break.
- If you leave a task unfinished, write a note that reminds you of the next step so you can get quickly back to it.
- Try to determine the length of your child’s attention span and slowly push them to increase it – do the same for yourself.
- Start with the most challenging piece first and get it over with unless your child needs time to “warm up” to working.
4. Provide incentives:
- Check in frequently with a positive comment or words of encouragement (no nagging allowed)
- Use a reward system that motivates.
- Make the task interesting by making it a game or fun challenge.
- Provide active breaks
5. Make time visual:
- Use a visual time timer or have an analog clock within sight.
- Use a clock with a glass face to highlight with dry erase markers, the homework schedule. Sarah Ward suggests using different colors to block off each subject (great for an hour or less at a time).
- Online timers work for those using computers. Try Cinnamon software for a talking alarm clock or ifocusonwork.com to keep you on track and off of Facebook.
The ability to maintain attention long enough to get information, or complete a task is important whether you are a student or an adult. Noticing what is getting in the way and dealing with it will go a long way towards increasing your attention and getting things done.