How do you teach children to pay attention?

If we really couldn’t pay attention, we wouldn’t be able to learn anything.  Attention and self-regulation are the foundations of all learning.  They are also seemingly an increasing problem in today’s society, with difficulties in attention being the reason for numbers of children referred as having a psychiatric disorder such as ADHD.


The question of ADHD is controversial.  Definitions and testing procedures are vague and vary among different communities and professionals.  You’ll probably have heard that French children are seldom diagnosed with an attentional disorder, while other countries, including South Africa seem to be experiencing a virtual epidemic with large numbers of children receiving psychotropic medications such as Ritalin, Concerta or Strattera.  These drugs clearly help some children control their behaviour and attend better in the short term.   They also can cause distressing side effects and effects on the brain of long-term use remains uncertain.  So they can’t be considered a ‘cure’ for the behaviours causing problems at school and at home.  What can we do?


Some children with poor concentration and related issues show improvement at adolescence; others don’t.   We are recently reading more about adults being diagnosed with ADHD and struggling to cope with the challenges of inattentiveness, disorganization and so on.  There seems to be evidence that attention difficulties are hereditary and that the brain’s chemical balance can be changed by environmental factors like stress.  On the other hand, many studies show that learning to keep one’s brain quiet, as in practicing Mindfulness or meditation, helps attention.  So even though a child may have inherited the genes for attention problems, the way these affect him will be influenced by the home and the school


Attention changes with age.  A normal lack of inhibition in a four-year-old is considered a problem in a ten-year-old.  A vigorous, highly active young boy seems out of place in a desk in a crowded classroom.  There is no doubt that changes in school routines are adding to the high numbers of so-called inattentive and hyperactive youngsters because it is not normal for children to be condemned to desks and routine pen-and-paper tasks all day.  Playtime is getting less too, which is bad news for children with a strong need to work off physical activity.


Society’s obsession with screens and technology is very likely exacerbating the problem too.  Rapidly shifting TV programmes and fast-paced video games are training brains in a different way to yesterday’s education. What modern child can bear to read the books so beloved of yesterday, with great detail, characterisation and carefully hewed storylines?


What we can do is to intervene at an early age, to build positive habits of attention-giving in young brains well before school-going age.  Here are some ideas:[1]


  1. Homes with a positive emotional climate help promote the development of an attentive brain.  Overly permissive or overly bossy parents tend to have problematic children.  The best type of parenting seems to be ‘authoritative’, and produces children who are able to manage their own behaviour (self-regulation), stay out of trouble at school and develop good attention and motivation.  Such parents are firm, loving, reasonably patient, empathetic, willing to listen, negotiate rules and available to give emotional support.  Emotion, motivation and attention are intricately linked.
  2. Establish reasonable expectations for behaviour, set clear rules and discuss or negotiate them with your child.  Also talk over what the consequences will be for breaking rules.  Note the emphasis on ‘reasonable’.  No child of five or six should be spending an hour or more on schoolwork every evening. Understand the real limitations that immaturity places on the ability to stay with one task, especially one the child didn’t choose.  On the other hand, some parents never learn to say ‘no’. A parental control system should be reasonable and kind.
  3. Try really hard to establish a well-regulated household environment. Uncontrolled households, where routines are never made clear, blast young brains with too many stimuli and too little structure.  They cause stress on the growing brain which in turn will negatively affect the development of internal control systems, needed for eventual self-regulation.  Watch your child to learn to gauge their tolerance for amounts of stimulation – auditory, visual and tactile.  Children show distress through unusual behaviours, overexcitedness, wildness or withdrawal, all of which may be signals of a need for protection from sensory bombardment.  Don’t expect children to know their limits for excitement.  As with TV or computer screen watching, children find it very hard to turn away from excitement even when they have reached their tolerance limits.
  4. Teach your child to use words to plan and control behaviour.   Talking to ourselves, or using ‘inner language’ can help us work through problems or plans.  Parents can help a toddler, for example, by describing what she is doing and encouraging her to use words.  (“You are hammering the pegs into the board. Let’s say ‘hit’ every time you hammer one”).  Household activities such as cooking present many opportunities. (“Let’s go over the steps before we start.”  “What ingredients do we need?” “Did I do it right?” “What’s the next step?”)  With forgetful youngsters, help establish inner language as a habit.  Every day say: “What will you need for school today?”  “Now ask yourself, ‘Do I have my book? My swimming costume?”   Repeat this regularly, until it becomes part of the child’s routine.
  5. If you think your child has a problem with attention that is inconsistent with age and has persisted for six months or more, you may decide to consult with a professional.  Try to resist a diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder or drug treatment.  Instead, perhaps start with a neurodevelopmental evaluation to clarify whether or not the cause of the problem could be rooted in early development, traumas, environmental offenders or nutrition.  ILT is one such approach that proves valuable both in recognising the cause and addressing the symptoms.


In summary, here are ways of helping the development of good attention:

  • Establish firm limits and predictable routines.  Teach your child the meaning of ‘no’.
  • Insist on a regular bedtime and adequate rest
  • As the child grows, let her have more say in setting and negotiating rules
  • Insist on acceptable levels of noise in your home.  Use ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ voices.
  • Make sure your child has her own quiet space to go to – even if it is table covered with a blanket. Avoid frantic scheduling.  All children need downtime.
  • Keep adult-type stimulation to a minimum (inadequate movies, TV,  alarming adult conversation, etc.)
  • Limit TV viewing.  Be tough about this.
  • Supervise and restrict the amount of time spent on computers.
  • Insist on a good measure of physical activity every day, preferably outdoors
  • Training in sports requiring sequencing and focus, such as the martial arts, swimming, yoga and so on, can be more useful than team sports.
  • Spend time working with your child and showing her how to solve problems systematically.  Play a game, start a project, build models, cook together.  Talk about the steps you take to attack each problem.
  • Let attention span develop naturally by also allowing time for a child to become actively engaged in a task without interruption
  • Get the child’s attention with eye contact, before you give a direction.  Check understanding by asking him what he heard
  • Teach children to shift focus from one activity to another by paving the way in advance (“When you finish building that lego part, I’m going to ask you to wash your hands for dinner.”)
  • Be aware that attention can be affected by allergies or sensitivities to environmental substances
  • Pay attention to nutrition.  The health of a child’s gut affects brain function.
  • Some attention problems show up as a lethargy or ‘spaciness’.   This may be due to physical imbalances or ill-health, needing a medical checkup.



[1] With thanks to Jane Healy, author of ‘Your child’s growing mind’.

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