teachable moments

5 Ways to Teach Your Child to Pay Attention

When a child has a short attention span, it affects many areas of learning.  Children are often easily distracted and inattentive, so as teachers we find ourselves having to repeat instructions and redirect our student’s attention to the task at hand.  At times, pursuing those tangents our kids lead us on can actually be both fun and educational.  For those times when you really need to get something specific accomplished, those “rabbit trails” can be a source of frustration.
My dog, Daisy, has demonstrated to me in a very visual way just how many twists and turns a rabbit trail can take.  With her nose to the ground, she tracks the path the neighborhood cottontail has taken through our backyard.  Every little bit Daisy suddenly changes direction in seemingly random moves, sniffing away, moving rapidly but ultimately going nowhere.  This paints a mental picture of how it has been on those days when I’m trying to teach my distractible kids.  I exert a lot of energy, but getting pulled off course in so many directions leaves me feeling like I’m getting nowhere just like Daisy as she dashes around my back yard following the rabbit’s scent but never catching up to it.
I’d like to share with you some practical ways to stretch your child’s attention span using materials and daily activities that are already part of your routine.  Remember, children with attention challenges like novelty, interaction, and brevity.  It is counter-productive to plan a lengthy activity to work on attention span development.  Instead, try activities like these:
1. Do the unexpected.  When a child’s mind starts to wander, pull their attention back by introducing something unanticipated.  Try changing up a familiar story to catch your child off guard.  For example, when telling the story of the three bears discovering Goldilocks in Baby Bear’s bed, instead of having her run off, have Goldilocks say, “I’m going to turn you all into bear rugs!”  When your startled child reacts and tells you that’s not how the story goes, have him tell you the proper version.  Now you’ve got your child’s attention, he is engaging in on-task behavior, and developing his language skills and attention to details.
2. Take “one more turn”.  When a child tires of playing a game or reading a book have her remain with the activity for one more turn or one more page than she would choose.  In this way, you are gradually stretching her attention span with a little bit of a challenge but not to the point of absolute frustration.
3. Use humor.  Humor is memorable, and can help a child maintain interest when he begins to feel restless.  Break up those longer sessions by sharing a good joke or telling an amusing anecdote related to the lesson.   Just make sure the joke is not at anyone’s expense, or the attention span may last longer but shift to the subject of the joke instead of your teaching topic.
4. Tap in to your child’s imagination.  Many of our children who struggle to pay attention have an amazing capacity for creative endeavors.  My highly inattentive son could recall minute details about inventions he wanted to create or stories he planned to write.  Ask your child to picture what you are talking about.  The more details they can envision, the better they will be able to recall the information later.  Giving a child the task of imagining what something looks, sounds, smells, feels, or tastes like keeps him actively engaged in the learning process and helps him attend for longer periods of time.  I would prompt my son to “make a movie in your head” when giving him a multi-step direction.  If he got upstairs and forgot all or part of what I had asked him to do, he knew to watch that movie in his head to help him remember the tasks.  This is also a helpful strategy to increase reading comprehension and recall of auditory information.  Picture it!
5. Stay active and interactive.  If you have a child with a short attention span, be aware that this child needs time to mature and will not do well when required to sit passively for long periods of time.  Incorporate movement when you can, because a child in motion is more alert and some kids need an outlet for excess energy.  Involve your child in the lesson as frequently as you can, making it interactive even if you are just having her answer a question or retell something in her own words.  My children could pay attention for longer periods of time when I had them write or draw on a white board with dry erase markers.  When the lesson itself is not really conducive to physical activity or interaction, you may be surprised at how much longer your child can attend if you provide small and quiet fidget toys.
With maturity, attention spans lengthen.  Some children take longer than others to develop but most improve their ability to pay attention dramatically over time.  If your child is not there yet, try the ideas above.  You cannot force physical maturity, but you can incorporate these strategies to nudge and stretch the attention span to lengthen it just a little bit more.  Gradually, you will see your child attending for longer and longer periods of time.  As with so many things, you will have helped them on their way to growing up.

Child Discipline

Let me start with a disclaimer. I am not a child expert, nor a parenting expert. The things that I share on this blog are intended to be helpful and the reader has the responsibility to apply what they find useful and ignore the rest. With that said, I want to share with you an experience I had years ago with my AD/HD daughter. Beckie was a very active girl with a lot of energy. With her sensory processing issues, she exhibited low body awareness and regulation was a challenge for her. My exuberant, active, and sensory seeking child had trouble sitting through a meal. She wasn’t a picky eater, so food aversions were not to blame. She just had a need to move around. A lot. And it didn’t matter if we were doing school during the homeschooling day, or if we were having a meal together. That girl had to move. Having been down this path previously with her older brother, I had learned to be more flexible and accommodating. Even so, it’s distracting to have a distractible child and it can be disruptive even when that is not the child’s intent. I honestly don’t believe that Beckie was trying to cause problems, and in fact I don’t think she was even aware of her movements sometimes. I would remind her to sit down, and she would look down at her legs with a surprised expression on her face as if to say, “What? I’m up again? How did that happen?” One night during dinner, my sweet Beckie was having more difficulty than usual sitting still. Her father, Scott, decided it was high time Beckie learn to remain seated during the meal. Beckie would promptly sit down as soon as she was reminded, but Scott was getting tired of having to repeatedly request that she return to her chair. After several reminders, Scott decided to kick it up a notch and be firmer with Beckie. The next time Beckie popped up out of her chair, Scott leaned over the table and pointed an index finger at Beckie. Then he used her full name, which every child knows is a serious warning sign. “Rebecca Michelle, you need to SIT DOWN!” At this point, Beckie became very still as she stared at the finger in front of her face. It was so close to her that she went cross eyed. She then looked up at her Father, eyes still crossed, and with amazement in her voice pronounced “Two Daddies!” Totally missing the point, Beckie happily discovered that crossing her eyes made things look interesting and incredibly she was now seeing double with two Daddies in place of one. I was trying so hard not to laugh that I had to leave the room. My husband wasn’t far behind me. We looked at each other and Scott said, “Well THAT didn’t work!” We continued to work with Beckie on sitting still when it was called for, with the understanding that she needed to mature and eventually would. I was crazy about Beckie, even when her zest for life couldn’t be contained. She grew, and was able to sit still when she needed to. Maturation takes time, and refuses to be rushed. We do what we can to promote and facilitate it, and then we get to practice patience. It’s so important to keep your sense of humor when you are a teacher and/or parent. Your kids will give you a plethora of opportunities to see the humor even in challenging circumstances.

Learning in Waiting Rooms

As long as I’ve been a homeschooler, I always seemed to have some very portable items I could grab as we headed out the door so we could work on something in waiting rooms. For one thing, my kids were NOT good at the waiting part whether it was a doctor’s office or a grocery store line. For another thing, I thought they might as well be learning or reviewing rather than complaining or getting into things. Now that I have an IPhone I have downloaded all kinds of educational aps so I always have something to do while I wait. Yesterday I had an appointment with my allergist, and while waiting for him in the examining room I pulled out my phone to work on my Spanish skills. I especially appreciate being able to push the speaker icon and hear the Spanish phrases spoken aloud. I was diligently concentrating on learning the phrases when my allergist walked in. He said, “Hi. How are you?” just as I pushed the speaker icon and my phone loudly pronounced, “Tengo hambre” which means “I am hungry”. I sheepishly looked up from my phone and told my doctor, “I guess I’m a little hungry?” He laughed and said a few Spanish words to me so that we could further our rapport before getting down to business – in English, so I’d actually understand what he was saying besides discussing our hunger. That was not the only part of the visit that amused me, however, as I had earlier been reviewing my information with the nurse. This office has transferred all of the patient information to computers and it was all typed in by hand. The resulting file on me indicated that I get vitamin B injections (I never have) and that apparently I use my asthma inhaler as a nasal spray. Interesting picture. I do have an asthma inhaler, but since it’s for my lungs I use it as, well, an asthma inhaler. I have two nasal sprays for my allergies, so it really never occurred to me to also sniff my asthma inhaler. I think I set the record straight, but now I really want to see what my primary care physician record says that I’m up to! Waiting rooms are a great place to learn all kinds of things.

Fun with the endocrine system

My daughter, Beckie, has been learning about the endocrine system. I explained that the endocrine system includes hormone-producing glands, which as a teenage she has in abundance. Without missing a beat, Beckie responded in a hostile tone with “What do you mean by THAT?”. This was immediately followed by “I’m sorry!” spoken in a weepy tone. Just her little way of letting me know she was following the discussion on the influence of hormones, cracking me up as usual. When we finished the lesson and were on the review portion, I asked Beckie if she could tell me the names of three glands in the endocrine system. After a pause she replied, “Sure! P…M…S!” I told her I needed something a bit more specific (and accurate!) than that, but it was a nice try. And it did convey the idea that the endocrine system is related to hormonal influences, so maybe I should have given just a tiny bit of extra credit for the response.

Election Education

Two of my children are now old enough to be voting in their first presidential election this year. I have taught them since they were young that they needed to know their rights, because if they didn’t it would be easy for someone to take those rights away. The right to vote is hugely important, and my husband Scott and I both wanted to support Josh and Beth as they learned to exercise their right to vote. We decided the best way was to vote early on a day that Beth didn’t have to be at class and Josh didn’t have to be at work early. We went to the early voting site and stood in line for two hours waiting to vote. Scott and I tried to explain what to expect, but neither of us had ever voted early before so we described our usual electronic voting booths. Then we found out it was a paper ballot, so we told them to tuck the electronic voting information away in their memories for a future voting time! Since the paper ballot involves filling in the ovals, and Josh and Beth have been students long enough to recall that process from standardized testing, filling out the forms was simple to do. (I had the urge to tell them “Fill in the circle completely and make your mark heavy and dark” just like when I administer the California achievement test.) The actual process of voting didn’t take that long, and then we had the opportunity for further education about the process. Josh noticed that his name “Joshua” was printed out as “Joshud”, but was assured that it wouldn’t affect his vote and his ballot was still valid. Beth discovered that her middle initial was incorrect, as was her address on the pre-printed sticker. When this was brought to the attention of voting officials, we found out that there is another person living in our county with the same first and last name as Beth, but fortunately with a different middle initial. The ballot Beth filled out was voided (the other person had already voted early, too) and Beth got to fill out a new ballot with her correct information. Beth was faster at voting the second time around, and it was a learning experience for us all and a good reminder to pay attention to the small details. If Beth hadn’t done so, her vote would not have been counted because her information that she wrote would not have matched that of the other person who shares her name.

Be Specific

When you have a child with a learning challenge, it is important that you be very specific in your directions. In general, struggling learners are not strong at making inferences and generalizing what they’ve learned. They tend to take things literally and have to be taught the meanings of figures of speech, idioms, and proverbial statements. In my family, they tend to take the path of least resistance and do the easiest and least time-consuming way to complete an assigned task. This is why you have to stay with them in the training phase and not leave them alone if you expect the job to be done the way you intended. For example, I asked Josh to remove some books that we don’t need from the top shelf of a bookcase. I also showed him another high shelf in a different room and a large box of books. I explained that I wanted to replace the books he would be removing with books from the box, and put other books from the box on the other shelf. The idea is to eliminate the box of books by finding spots on the shelves for them. Josh agreed to do it, and I left to run an errand with my daughter. When I got back home, there were fewer books in the box, but the books I wanted removed were still in their location. The shelf in the other room did have new books on it, but instead of sliding the current books over to fit the new ones in Josh had just dumped them on top. He didn’t leave himself enough time to do the rest of the books because he had to get to work. I did not specifically tell him how I wanted the books to be put on the shelf, so he plopped them up on top because that was fastest and easiest. When he gets home from work, I will be very specific about what I need done, and I will stay and coach Josh until the work is complete. My hope is that someday he will begin to infer more, based on what he knows of me or how I have had him do tasks in the past. In the meantime, things like this show me where the gaps are and what supports are still needed.

I’m Trying!

Beckie and I are working to learn Spanish together. We are using one main program, and supplementing by using more right brain strategies to include visual images and make colorful flashcards to help us with vocabulary words. For example, one of our chosen vocabulary words for today was “el bano” for “the bathroom”. With a little help from my artistic Beckie to help with the drawing part, my flashcard has both the Spanish and English written words on it along with a picture of a man sitting on the toilet playing the banjo. The banjo keeps him modestly covered, and since “banjo” and “bano” (pronounced “bahn-yo”) sound similar it will help me make a connection between the word and the meaning by using that auditory similarity and the visual cue of the picture of the man in a bathroom. Beckie has a good ear for languages, it seems, and she picks it up quickly. For some reason today, she had a hard time pronouncing the Spanish word for “brings”, which is “trae” and is pronounced “trah-ay”. After several models and some struggling, she finally turned to me and said “I’m trah-ing!” instead of “I’m trying!” It’s good that she has a sense of humor as we hammer away at our practice.

Cooking the AD/HD Way

I’ve been working with my kids to teach them the basics of food preparation and simple cooking skills. Their impulsivity makes the dialog entertaining (Mom: Beckie, the next thing to do is add one egg. Beckie: Crack it first?) Okay, I had to laugh at that, and eventually Beckie joined me. She knew, of course, that we don’t use the eggs with the shells included. She just asks questions and makes comments without thinking sometimes. Scott decided to teach them how to make grilled cheese sandwiches, which is one of his favorites. Unfortunately, there is some waiting involved before you can flip the sandwich in the pan, and waiting is BORING especially when you have AD/HD. When I am cooking I spend the waiting time preparing additional ingredients I know I’ll need or by cleaning up as I go. When my AD/HD family members have to wait, they leave the room to find something else to do. This risks them getting involved in something and not remembering that they were cooking until the smoke alarm goes off and they are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to take time to save their game before dealing with the burning food. (Hint: The AD/HD mind will say “The food’s already burnt, but this game can still be saved!”) Anyway, the strategy used for the grilled cheese was to set the stove timer. That way, they could leave the room but not lose track of time because the timer would beep to pull them back to the kitchen in time to flip the sandwich before it burned. Since they each wanted more than one sandwich, they got to practice this several times. I found it annoying to hear the timer going off every minute until they finished making a pile of grilled cheese sandwiches, but it was much less annoying than the burning smell and the smoke alarm would have been. I’m all about strategies, and this one seemed to work for them.

I have no regrets

A few days ago I was doing school with my Beckie, and she was her usual somewhat restless self. She tends to rush through school work, fearing that it will take forever, and wanting to get it over with as quickly as possible. I’d like her to develop a love of learning, but we’re still working on that. As we were going over some geography, I asked if a certain mountain range was along the eastern or western border of the state we were studying. Grinning at me, but without opening the book to look at the map, she confidently proclaimed “Eastern!” I told her that was incorrect, and that she needed to actually take the time to look at the book in order to answer the questions just as we always do when working on geography. Her response is typical of the impulsive, risk-taking kids I’ve worked with over the years. She smiled and said, “I have no regrets. I had a 50-50 chance of being right!” For me, it was about her truly learning something. For Beckie, it was about getting finished with the work. So the compromise? Beckie will learn how to find information, but doesn’t have to memorize facts she cares nothing about. That way, when it does become meaningful to her she will know how to find the information for herself. And I get to relearn all the information I’ve forgotten since it wasn’t meaningful to me when I was Beckie’s age. Beckie, I understand, but I will still work to equip you for your continuing education and any life skills I can pass along to you.