Attention 101

October is ADHD Awareness Month, so let’s talk about attention. Does your child take a long time to complete their homework? Have you heard things from the teacher like, “your child needs to pay more attention in class,” or “he/she is distracted and needs to focus more?”  Well, it turns out that it is not as simple as “paying more attention.” There are actually three different kinds of attention (according to the all kinds of minds website). I’ve summarized the three types below and added some strategies that might be helpful below that. (I used the pronoun, “they” rather than “he/she” to simplify.)

1. Mental Energy is really about how awake the brain is and how consistent the energy level stays.

  • Alertness –can they concentrate when necessary?
  • Sleep habits – do they get a good night’s sleep and wake rested?
  • Mental effort- do they have enough energy to finish what they start
  • Performance consistency-is their work of the same quality from day to day?

2. Processing Energy is about how well your child can put the pieces together.

  • Can they separate important from unimportant?
  • Do they connect new information to what they already know?
  • How deep do they concentrate?
  • Can they concentrate until they get through the task?
  • Can they put the pieces together even when not interested in the topic?

3. Production Energy is about the consistency and quality of their work.

  • Do they think ahead to what the end result should be?
  • Do they consider different options before proceeding?
  • Is the quality of their work consistent?
  • Do they work fast, slow or just right?
  • Do they learn from previous mistakes?

Mental Strategies:

  • Clear their working memory (use our “brain dump” technique)
  • Get some exercise
  • Create a sleep routine
  • Have them do their homework at the same time daily
  • Help them find what is interesting about their work
  • Let them get creative

Processing Strategies:

  • Use different colored highlighters to separate multistep directions or to highlight important details
  • Use graphic organizers with topic headings so facts can be written in easily
  • Actively preview before getting started and ask why is this important?
  • Work in short blocks of time
  • Discuss what they already know about a topic before beginning (Use kwl charts)

Production Strategies:

  • Start with the end in mind. Have them sketch out what the finished product will look like and work backwards (consider at least two approaches)
  • Design a rubric for homework together and use it to review (students should rate and then explain their scores)
  • Create “strategy sheets” that show the steps of the process to free up working memory space
  • Use graphic organizers to plan
  • Review all work for errors and omissions (work from top down, don’t skip around)

If you’ve had success at using a different strategy and would like to help others struggling with the same challenges, please let me know below so we can learn from each other.

Hocus Pocus Focus!

fairyThe 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

In adults:

  • 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 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.