It is vital for children to establish adequate focus and attention skills as it promotes the ability to disregard immaterial information and focus on what is important, and allows children to follow through with tasks. Attention is often related to one’s self-esteem and confidence, motivation, sensory processing and language development.

Being able keep focus involves various factors and skills, such as sensory modulation, organization (executive functioning) skills, receptive language, emotional and self-regulation, motivation, the physical environment, and hearing and auditory processing abilities.

What are some of the signs of attention deficits?

Children with difficulties in attention may display behaviours such as:

  • Being easily distracted and unable to focus on the task at head, or jumping from one task to another without completing the first task
  • Higher levels of arousal or activity
  • Restlessness or fidgeting regularly
  • Regular behavioural difficulties such as outbursts, tantrums or melt-downs
  • Poor or irregular sleeping patterns
  • Unable to identify what is relevant in the task
  • Poor control of impulses
  • Loses interest in activities quickly
  • Poor at following directions, or misses details in same
  • Repeating the same mistakes or not learning from past mistakes

Why is it important to develop adequate attention skills?

Fostering appropriate attention and focus is imperative for children to learn new skills as they mature. Other difficulties that might be present or develop if a child has poor attention include:

  • Inability or difficulty to develop new skills
  • Difficulty following directions or instructions
  • Poor social interaction and interpersonal skills, difficulty forming friendships
  • Poor auditory processing
  • Difficulties with receptive language skills
  • Hearing problems
  • Increased anxiety
  • Poor emotional regulation, leading to behavioural outbursts or meltdowns
  • Compromised academic performance

How can OT help children with attention problems?

How can OT help children with attention problems?

As with any therapy, an occupational therapist (OT) will first observe the child’s behaviour and gain information about the child from the child and his/her parents and/or family members. The OT will often ask questions exploring what specific tasks the child can and cannot focus on; what distracts them; what motivates them; if the time of day or environmental setting influences their concentration. The OT might also complete standardized assessments (e.g. sensory profile assessment) to achieve a better understanding of the child’s current level of functioning.

The OT can then begin to work with a child to develop their attention and focus, and will also work with the child’s parents/carers to consolidate skills and strategies into their everyday life and routine. Examples of strategies an OT may employ include:

  • Utilising clear and simple language
  • Sensory modulation therapies to improve deficits that are based in sensory processing problems
  • Promoting eye contact when engaging with the child – physically move down to their level
  • Change the physical environment to better foster attention, e.g. reduce noise or stimulus
  • Using a graded approach to improve auditory processing skills, e.g. performing tasks in a silent environment, then gradually increasing the amount of background noise
  • Using visual schedules to allow the child to better understand the steps involved in a process or activity
  • Asking the child verbally recalls instructions you give them, to assess their comprehension of directions
  • Engaging the child in exercises that have distinct start and end points, such as mazes and puzzles
  • Utilising visual timers to develop the child’s sense of timeframes and prompt them that a new instruction or activity is coming