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Helping your Student Build Sustained Attention (An Executive Function Skill)

Sustained attention is the ability to pay attention even when you are feeling distracted or bored. Focus helps us learn new skills and allows us to do what needs to be done. The ability to focus on demand is an important skill for a happy and productive adult life. Here are three ways that you can help your student grow this important skill.

Create an outline to complete a project or task. Students who lack focus often have a hard seeing a project through to completion. And those who do complete the task sometimes skip important steps along the way. Other students are flummoxed before they even start; unable to visualize what steps the task itself entails. To help ensure your student’s successful completion of a task or assignment, talk out the steps together beforehand. If possible have them create a checklist or outline for the project. “Okay, your room needs to be picked up today. This means you need to put all your clothes away in the dresser, make your bed, dust your room, and vacuum. Can you write those down so you don’t miss anything? Let me know if it would be helpful to discuss the best order to do each task.”

Discuss a time plan for the task. Part of your student’s overwhelm about starting a task, could be their confusion about how long the task will take. Often students perceive that an undesirable task will take longer than it actually will. If your student understands how long they will have to work on something, it can make focusing easier. It can also help if there is a reward at the end. “How about you spend 20 minutes on math and 20 minutes on history and then we can play an Xbox game together or take Rover for a walk.” If you do make a promise, make sure you follow through so your student knows they can count on their rewards. Another trick for a student who is having a hard time getting started on a task is to set a timer for 20 minutes and tell them, “Okay, I need you to work on this for 20 minutes and when the timer goes off you can have a break.” Sometimes the hardest part is just getting started, so there is a chance that when the time goes off, your student might be in a groove and keep on going. Exercises like this help build their stamina for focusing.

Notice when your student focuses well. Positive feedback can be a big motivator. And acknowledging our student’s efforts can help them grow an awareness of the positive habits they are building. Be sure to notice when your student has focused particularly well and note what they have accomplished. “Wow, you really went to town on that math homework and you didn’t even need a break before you started on your science project. If you keep going like this I bet you will be done in no time.”

Helping your student create a checklist, understand time commitments, and recognize their progress can help your student become calmer and more focused. Being more focused can lead to easier learning, greater self-confidence, and a happier existence.

For more tips on how to help your student focus, check out The Impulsive, Disorganized Child: Solutions for Parenting Kids with Executive Functioning Difficulties, by James W. Forgan, Ph.D. and Mary Anne Richey. c. 2015.

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