Behavioural Strategies for Attentional Difficulties

Posted: 30/01/2020 Author: Dr Kirren Schnack

Dr Kirren Schnack is our clinical psychologist here at the practice. She is highly experienced, working with children and adults, particularly focussing in areas of psychologically-based distress and dysfunction.

Dr Schnack works with parents and children of all ages. Over the years she has compiled this list of behavioural strategies for parents to use with children who experience attentional difficulties.

  1. Establish Solid Routines
    Your child’s distractibility and lack of focus means that he can get easily bored, and go off task. Establishing everyday routines for all the things that take place daily, like getting ready for school, doing homework, and going to bed. A routine doesn’t mean that everything has to happen at exactly the same time every day (there shouldn’t be big changes in times), but things need to be happen in exactly the same order. I suggest the website do2learn for downloadable routines using visual aids. I would also suggest compiling a visual timetable with your child, using resources from the site, to make his weekly timetable, which can schedule homework too, at the same time every day/week where possible, as well as the fun stuff. The aim is to create and sustain a predictable and solid structure in the home, so that they know exactly what to expect and when. Your child should also be supported in getting into the daily habit of checking his schedule 2/3 times a day, at set times, and sticking to what is on it.
  2. Checklists
    In order to support your child to move towards being able to autonomously follow routines in timely and efficient ways, he needs to be supported in developing his independence, and getting confident at independently managing himself. To start him off on this I suggest creating checklists for specific routines, there are again resources on the do2learn website to help with these. I would suggest creating checklist for all the routines you want your child to get better at, but do them one by one, when one is mastered, move on to the next. For instance doing a checklist for homework might be a good one to start with, it may take him a while, at least a month to get accustomed to using the checklist, once he is confident enough then another checklist for another routine can be introduced. The checklist can be laminated, this allows him to mark off the steps as they are completed. For the homework checklist, I suggest letting your child make his own lists with help from one parent, for a homework checklist he might be encouraged to include things like 1. Get work out, and books ready 2. Get a glass of water 3. Set a timer 4. Get writing 5. Pack things away etc. 6. Fun time. This type of checklist will be helpful in getting your child to be more responsible for his work, and he can be asked “Right, what’s next on your list?”.
  3. Using clocks & timers
    I recommend establishing times and durations for key activities, then using alarms/calendar alerts remind you of the scheduled task. For your child, again, I would suggest using clocks and timers during the phase in which you are aiming to support him in improving at the things that are difficult. Like getting ready in the morning, getting organised, or doing homework. The ultimate aim is to support your child at getting more time efficient, by being more focussed, and that way you don’t have to stand over him, feel like your nagging, which can perpetuate the difficulties. Again involving your child in this, engaging him in a way that is motivating will help, such as setting it up as a race, for instance he might be trying to beat his best time at getting ready.
  4. Feedback
    Due to your child’s level of distractibility he needs to be given immediate feedback for his positive behaviour, as well as his unwanted behaviour. The moment the positive behaviour occurs, it must be acknowledge with significant enthusiasm, and rewarded, and heavily reinforced.
  5. Distraction Free Environment
    Do your best to keep the environment neat and organised, especially when it comes to homework. For homework, my advice would be to set up an area where your child can sit at a table that faces a blank wall, with you sat next to him, and nothing else on the table, apart from his work, and a timer.
  6. Homework
    With homework tasks, before starting, I would suggest that there is a reminder, or even a short subset of rules on a card that are read/shown to your child before he is expected to start working. I would sit with your child to devise this short list of 3-5 rules, get him engaged in the process, ask him questions that help arrive at the rules you want, such as how long do you think you need to work, we know you can do it in 20 minutes, what would you say? Etc. This way he knows how long he needs to work for, what the expectations are of him, and what behaviour is unhelpful/unwanted, what will happen if he does it, and also what the rewards will be upon successful completion.
  7. Practice Multi-Part Tasks
    Another good way to help your child improve his self-regulating is to get him to practice doing multi-part tasks. Set him one multi-part task, let him have a say in it, and include three aspects. It could be something simple like, after dinner take your plate to the kitchen (1), rinse it (2), place it in the dishwasher (3). Once this is mastered successfully then introduce another one, keep building on them by adding more as you go alone. Praise your child for each step, if he can’t do it all at once, don’t focus on telling him off for not doing the entire thing, but praise him for the parts he does complete, remind him that you wanted him to do the other parts too, let him do them under supervision until all parts are complete, and keep trying daily. Another such task could be for your child to lay out clothes for the next morning before going to bed, and/or to make sure whatever he needs to take to school is in a particular place, ready to grab in the morning. Again I suggest breaking these things into three easy parts, write them down, let him do them with you watching a few times, maybe use a timer so he can get faster by ‘beating’ his record time.
  8. Building Self-Esteem & Self-Confidence
    Self-esteem is a crucial factor in motivation, so it’s important to devote extra time to focussing on improving it, particularly as your child may feel down about his difficulties. Either keep a daily log of the top three things, or every now and then talk about and make a written list of everything that is positive, valuable, and unique about your child. You can rotate this activity between family members, that way your child also gets to observe, and be modelled so that other’s around him believe in their abilities. Maybe, everyone can have turns in saying what is great about being ‘me’ and why.

We hope this has been helpful and informative!

Best wishes,

Dr Schnack and the Mayfield Clinic

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