When school-age children have attentional difficulties, early intervention is key.
Without timely support, they may struggle to fulfil their academic potential, and may even start to become labelled as “naughty” or defiant.
As a clinical psychologist specialising in child and adolescent mental health, I understand these challenges intimately and work with families experiencing them every day.
In this article, my aim is to empower you with seven effective strategies to manage attentional difficulties in your child. Help your child harness their unique abilities, by creating an environment where they can thrive academically and personally.
Child Psychologist Insights on Attentional Difficulties in Children
Understanding the possible causes of your child’s attention problems is the first step towards finding a solution. I have worked with children with attention and concentration difficulties for more than 20 years as a clinical psychologist. Too often I find that the adults around the child forget to look at the possible root causes. Understanding these risk factors is crucial to finding the most effective strategies.
Here are ten potential reasons why your child might be struggling with focus and concentration:
- Sensory Issues: Overstimulation can overwhelm a child, hindering their ability to concentrate. Children with a diagnosis of autism (autism spectrum disorder) often experience attention deficits caused by their overwhelmed sensory system.
- Boredom: A lack of challenge or engagement can lead to distraction and inattention.
- Lack of Sleep: Insufficient rest can significantly impact a child’s focus and cognitive function.
- Anxiety: Worries or stress can preoccupy a child’s mind, impairing their ability to focus. Children suffering from an anxiety disorder are likely to spend significant periods of time in “fight or flight”, meaning that their body can only focus on survival and any academic learning is prevented.
- ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a common cause of concentration difficulties. Attentional problems are core/central ADHD symptoms.
- Learning Difficulties: Children with learning difficulties, like dyslexia, often process information differently. Traditional learning methods may not align with their unique learning styles, making comprehension and concentration more challenging.
- Hunger: Poor nutrition or skipped meals can lead to decreased focus and energy. A child’s brain requires a steady supply of nutrients to function properly. Nutrients such as glucose, fatty acids, and various vitamins and minerals are all essential for various brain functions, including concentration, memory, and decision-making. Glucose, in particular, is the primary source of energy for the brain. It’s like the fuel that keeps a car running. When a child skips meals or eats poorly, their blood sugar levels can drop. This deprives the brain of the energy it needs to function effectively, resulting in a decrease in cognitive performance, such as poor concentration, difficulty making decisions, and even mood changes.
- Too Much Screen Time: Excessive digital exposure can reduce a child’s attention span. Excessive screen time, whether on televisions, computers, or mobile devices, can bombard a child with rapid-fire, high-intensity stimuli. Over time, this conditions their brains to require constant stimulation and make it more difficult for them to focus and engage in slower-paced, real-world activities.
- Environmental Factors: Noisy or chaotic environments can disrupt a child’s ability to concentrate.
- Emotional Issues: Unresolved feelings or emotional distress can divert a child’s attention. When a child is dealing with unresolved emotions or emotional distress, their mental energy can be consumed by these feelings, making it difficult for them to concentrate on other tasks or activities, as their focus is constantly drawn back to their inner turmoil.
My 7 Core Strategies
The strategies you choose to focus on the most will depend on the underlying causes that you identify. For example, if sensory issues are a factor then strategy 6 (adapting the environment) is going to be the most important, but strategies 2,3 and 4 will also be very helpful.
Strategy 1: Structure the Environment
The Importance of Structure in a Child’s Life
Structure is pivotal for children, especially those facing attention difficulties. It provides a clear pattern of daily activities, reducing unpredictability that can cause stress and distractibility. Children thrive on predictability; they like knowing what to expect next.
A structured environment also minimises distractions, helping children to focus. By knowing what’s ahead, a child can mentally prepare, aiding their concentration on the task at hand. It can also make them feel more in control and less overwhelmed, enhancing their focus and performance.
Practical Ways to Incorporate Routine (Home and School)
A routine for sleep and meals is the first step at home. Regular sleep times ensure your child is well-rested, and well-rested kids concentrate better. Scheduled mealtimes maintain a steady energy level, helping to maintain focus throughout the day.
Next, carve out distinct time periods for homework and relaxation. The certainty of knowing when to focus on work and when to relax can improve a child’s attention span during study time. I like to use a colour coded planner to show rough blocks of time, rather than being too precise. For example, the hour after school will be colour coded as purple and this denotes rest and relaxation time. The hours between 6 and 7pm might be orange, denoting study time.
In school, maintaining a consistent routine that aligns with the home routine can help with attention issues. If the school day has a predictable rhythm similar to home, it creates a comforting familiarity, and this will help your child’s concentration.
Strategy 2: Simplify Tasks
Dealing with complex tasks can be challenging for a child with attention difficulties. However, by breaking these tasks down, we can help them feel more capable and less overwhelmed.
The Concept of “Chunking” Explained
“Chunking” is a strategy where we divide a big task into smaller, more manageable parts or ‘chunks’. This approach is beneficial because it lessens the mental burden on a child.
Instead of seeing a task as one big mountain to climb, they view it as a series of smaller hills, which are less intimidating.
For example, a book report isn’t just one task. It involves reading the book, taking notes, creating an outline, writing the report, and proofreading it. Each part is a ‘chunk’ of the overall task.
Examples of Task Segmentation for Children
Consider a typical homework session. Instead of asking your child to finish all their homework in one go, break it down. For instance: Get them started by supporting them to engage in just 10 maths problems, then take a short break. Next, read a chapter of the required English text, then have another break. Finally, they will write the first paragraph of their essay. This way, they’re tackling one ‘chunk’ of work at a time, making the whole task less overwhelming.
Or take tidying up their room. Instead of cleaning everything all at once, it could be segmented. First, they could pick up all their clothes from the floor and put them away or into the dirty washing basket. Once that’s done, they can move on to organizing the books, and so on. Even with older teens, you will need to help them break the task down into segments and get started on sub-tasks.
In this way, each ‘chunk’ becomes a small victory, making the task more manageable and less daunting. This will not only help your child concentrate better but will also build their confidence and promote a sense of accomplishment.
Strategy 3: Use Visual Aids and Reminders
Visual aids are highly effective for children with attention difficulties, providing a concrete reference to keep them on task.
Enhancing Focus through Visual Stimulation
Visual aids stimulate the brain differently than auditory or text-based information. Our brain processes visual information faster and tends to retain it for longer. For children with attention difficulties, visual cues can provide a constant reminder of tasks, thereby maintaining their focus. Such cues also engage their visual-spatial intelligence, fostering a more holistic learning experience and enhancing their cognitive abilities.
Tried and Tested Visual Aid Suggestions
Visual schedules are a powerful tool. They provide a clear layout of the day’s tasks. Your child can cross out completed tasks, giving a sense of accomplishment and clear progress.
Colour-coding is another effective method. Assign different colours for different activities. For example, green for homework, blue for playtime, red for meal times. This makes it easy for your child to identify what’s next.
Visual timers, such as hourglass sand timers or digital countdown timers, give a clear representation of time. This helps children understand how long they have to focus on a particular task and when it’s time to move on to the next.
Lastly, use symbols or pictograms to represent various tasks. These can be especially useful for younger children who may not be strong readers yet. A small drawing of a toothbrush, for instance, can remind them to brush their teeth.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Strategy 4: Increase Physical Activity
Physical activity is a vital tool for enhancing a child’s ability to focus. For example, a 2020 study found that both children with ADHD and those without performed better in a reading comprehension and a maths task following 20 minutes of moderate aerobic activity.
Exercise and Attention: The Connection
Physical exercise stimulates the release of chemicals in the brain, like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. Endorphins are mood elevators and natural painkillers. Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters related to focus, memory, and mood. Exercise helps increase the production of these chemicals, thereby improving mood and cognitive function. This is particularly beneficial for children struggling with attentional difficulties as it aids in sharpening focus and memory retention.
In the last few years scientists have also uncovered the importance of a crucial substance called BDNF. BDNF, or Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, is a protein produced inside nerve cells. It acts like fertilizer for the brain, supporting the survival of existing neurons and promoting the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses.
When we exercise, our bodies produce more BDNF. This increased production leads to improved brain health, including enhanced memory and cognitive function. BDNF also enhances the function of the brain’s attention systems.
Kid-Friendly Physical Activities for Enhanced Focus
Making physical activity fun and enjoyable for kids is essential. Here are a few suggestions:
- Organized Sports: Activities like football, basketball, or hockey not only provide a good workout but also teach teamwork, discipline and time management.
- “Complex” movement activities like dance or martial arts: An indoor dance party or structured dance classes can be a fun way to get moving and boost mood. In complex exercise, your child will be strengthening their executive functioning pathways in the brain at the same time as exercising, so it’s a “double whammy” in terms of improving their concentration! Executive functioning refers to the mental skills that help us plan, focus, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.
- Cycling or Scootering: This can be a family activity, promoting both exercise and quality time.
- Nature Walks: They are calming and provide a great way to exercise while exploring.
- Yoga for Kids: Yoga can help improve concentration, promote relaxation and body awareness.
The key is regularity and enjoyment. By incorporating physical activities that they enjoy, children are more likely to engage consistently, reaping the benefits for focus and overall well-being.
Make sure your child isn’t exercising late in the evening as this can be overstimulating and can interfere with sleep.
Fidgeting and Attention Issues
A recent study found that children with ADHD perform better on a complex attention task when they are fidgeting. This is certainly supported by my own observations over the years and the children I have worked with. I always allow children to fidget in my clinic room. It helps them sustain the mental effort of talking to me for an hour. They can choose a fidget toy from the shelf in the waiting room or bring one from home.
Fidgeting should be allowed during school work and should be encouraged at home.
Although views are changing, in the past children were expected to sit still in class. If your child has trouble focusing in class, chat with your child’s teacher(s) and find out if they are up to speed with latest research. The ultimate goal is to allow fiddling that does not distract other children, so avoid noisy fidget toys.
Strategy 5: Mindfulness for Children
Mindfulness can be an important tool in improving attention in children. Mindfulness is simply the practice of intentionally focusing our attention on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting all feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations without judgment. It is grounded in ancient wisdom and now supported by modern science.
Mindfulness allows us to become aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. It can help children better manage their thoughts, feelings, and focus.
Mindfulness is much misunderstood and has a mixed reputation, which I think is unfair. I used to teach mindfulness in schools and it is an important part of my daily routine and healthy lifestyle. Many people think mindfulness is about sitting still and breathing, but it is so much more than this. If your child finds it difficult to sit still there are many “active” forms of mindfulness, such as mindful walking.
The Impact of Mindfulness on Attention Regulation
Current research has found a huge array of benefits of mindfulness for children including concentration and wellbeing. Mindfulness teaches children to focus their attention on the present moment. This can lead to improved concentration, as the child learns to pay attention intentionally and redirect their focus when their mind wanders.
Research has shown that mindfulness can actually change the physical structure of the brain, strengthening areas associated with attention and impulse control.
Easy-to-Follow Mindfulness Exercises for Children
It doesn’t matter if these exercises only last a minute or two. Little and often is perfect!
- Breathing Buddies: In this exercise, have your child lie down and place a small toy on their belly. As they breathe in and out, the toy will move up and down. Ask them to tune into this. The visual and tactile feedback helps children learn to focus on their breath, a central element of mindfulness, and to become more aware of their physical presence in the world.
- Listening to Bells: Using a bell or a chime, ask your child to listen to the sound until they can no longer hear it. This encourages your child to concentrate on a single sensory input, which helps improve their ability to focus.
- The Spiderman Exercise: Encourage your child to activate their ‘spidey senses’. This means they should focus on what they can hear, smell, and feel. This game helps children become more aware of their environment, bringing their focus into the present moment.
- Guided Imagery: Take your child on an imaginary journey to a place they love such as a favorite beach. Encourage them to close their eyes and imagine the warm sand beneath their feet, the sound of gentle waves, and the salty scent of the ocean. Guide them to explore this imagined environment, noticing details and engaging their senses.
- Mindful Eating: Ask your child to eat something slowly, paying attention to its taste, texture, and smell. This can help your child learn to use mindfulness in daily activities, improving their ability to focus and be present.
- Body Scan: Guide your child to lie down in a quiet space and slowly bring their attention to various parts of their body, starting from their toes and moving upwards. The goal is for them to notice sensations in each part without judgment, enhancing their self-awareness and attention regulation skills.
Consistency is a key factor. Regular practice of these exercises cultivates mindfulness as a way of life for your child, enhancing their attention regulation skills over time.
Strategy 6: Create a Positive Learning Environment
A positive learning environment is vital for children with attentional difficulties to flourish academically and emotionally. It sets the stage for their engagement, motivation, and overall well-being.
The Relationship Between Emotional Wellbeing and Attention
Emotional well-being profoundly influences attention. When children feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, their fight-or-flight response may be triggered. This response releases stress hormones, impacting their ability to concentrate and learn effectively.
Feeling low or depressed can dampen motivation and attention in children, leading to decreased engagement, reduced energy, and difficulty sustaining focus on tasks and learning activities.
Addressing emotional wellbeing is vital to create an environment where children can thrive academically.
Building a Nurturing, Positive Atmosphere at Home
Encourage open communication and active listening. Create a safe space where your child feels heard and understood.
Offer praise and encouragement for their efforts and progress. Celebrate their achievements, no matter how small.
Establish consistent routines that provide a sense of security and stability. Predictability helps children feel grounded and focused.
Encourage a growth mindset, emphasizing that mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow.
Create a clutter-free and organized study area, promoting focus and reducing distractions.
Promote self-care and relaxation activities to help your child manage stress and maintain emotional balance.
Strategy 7: Know When to Seek Professional Support
Recognizing when to seek professional support is crucial for addressing your child’s attentional difficulties effectively.
Seeking professional support is crucial because trained professionals have the expertise to assess, diagnose, and provide specialized interventions tailored to your child’s attentional difficulties. This will maximise their chances for improvement and success.
Indicators Your Child May Require Professional Support
Does your child struggle with sustained attention? Perhaps they find it hard to concentrate enough to actually process instructions or new information in the first place? Maybe they can’t retain the important information?
Consider seeking professional help if your child’s attentional difficulties significantly impact their functioning in daily life, academic performance, emotional well-being, or if they display persistent challenges despite your efforts to support them.
In particular if you suspect your child has symptoms of ADHD or other neurodevelopmental disorders, it’s best to have it identified early so that adults working with your child can understand them better and adapt the environment to meet their needs. An accurate diagnosis of ADHD can be extremely helpful in increasing the chances that your child will get the support they need. ADHD is often diagnosed by a child psychiatrist or paediatrician but very often psychologists or other therapists are part of the multidisciplinary diagnostic team.
If your child’s attentional difficulties aren’t supported, there is a risk of developing (or exacerbating) behavioral problems and mental health problems. For example, if they’re unable to follow instructions, instead of getting on with the task at hand in class they may become bored and distract others. Ultimately they may start to get in trouble.
Your child’s self-esteem may decline. They may start to assume that there is something wrong with them or that they are incapable of the academic standards required.
Therapists, Psychologists, and Educational Consultants
- Therapists: Occupational therapists or speech therapists (known as speech and language pathologists in the UK), focus on specific areas of development. Occupational therapists can assist with sensory integration, self-regulation, and organizational skills. Speech therapists can address language and communication difficulties that may affect attention and learning.
- Psychologists: Psychologists – like me – specialize in assessing and understanding cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of attention difficulties. They can provide a comprehensive assessment and develop an individualized treatment plan. They offer therapeutic interventions to address specific challenges. For example, the psychologist may collaborate with the school to ensure appropriate adaptations and accommodations are made to support the child’s needs. They may also provide therapeutic support to address any issues related to low self-esteem stemming from the child’s difficulties.
- Educational Consultants: Educational consultants provide expertise in educational settings. They can collaborate with schools and parents to develop tailored strategies and accommodations to support a child’s attentional needs. They can also assist in navigating Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and advocating for increased educational resources.
Medication for Attentional Difficulties
Certainly in the UK, medication is not the first line of treatment for inattentive symptoms in children and young adults.
Very often, understanding and addressing the root causes will improve even significant symptoms and medication isn’t required. However, if your child has ADHD and the strategies in this article have only had limited impact, it’s worth meeting with a prescribing physician to explore the potential benefits of trialing medication.
When you’re considering professional support, start by consulting with your child’s doctor, school, or healthcare providers to discuss the specific challenges your child is facing. They can provide guidance and help you determine the most appropriate professionals to involve in your child’s care.
Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential by Peg Dawson & Richard Guare
Smart but Scattered Teens: The “Executive Skills” Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential by Richard Guare, Peg Dawson & Colin Guare
Still Quiet Place: Mindfulness for Young Children by Amy Saltzman (I loved this – in CD format! – when my own children were little)
Addressing attentional difficulties in children requires patience, understanding, and a multi-faceted approach. By implementing the strategies outlined in this article, you can empower your child to thrive and reach their full potential.
Patience and Consistency in Managing Attentional Difficulties
Managing attentional difficulties in children requires patience, as progress may take time. Consistency in applying strategies, providing support, and seeking professional guidance when needed is key to helping children overcome challenges and develop the necessary skills for success.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting school-aged children with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.