Paying attention: what is it?
When we pay attention, we focus on something and ignore other things. For example, we listen to what someone is saying while ignoring other conversations and background noise.
Paying attention also involves being aware of what we need to pay attention to. This allows us to sort out the right information from our surroundings and put this information together. And it involves maintaining attention and shifting attention to something else when we need to.
Paying attention is a key skill for learning. For example, children need to pay attention to a teacher’s instructions to be sure they’re doing things the right way. Children also need to be able to keep their attention on tasks to be able to learn.
Children develop their ability to pay attention as they get older.
Difficulties with paying attention
Many children find paying attention difficult sometimes, especially if they’re very young, tired, hot, not feeling well or not interested in the task. It can also be difficult if children feel they can’t do the task or have been sitting still for too long, or when there are distracting things going on around them.
Some autistic children can find it difficult to pay attention to and focus on things that don’t interest them. This includes activities that involve shared attention, like reading a book with a carer, doing a puzzle, or even walking safely across the road.
But autistic children might also be able to keep their attention on things they like for long periods of time. They can be very good at shutting out other things. For example, a child who’s keen on trains might be able to focus for a long time while setting up some train tracks. The child might also find it difficult to shift their attention to other tasks or miss cues that it’s time to pack up.
When autistic children work on their ability to pay attention, it can help them cooperate and avoid challenging behaviour.
Skills and strategies to help autistic children with paying attention
Autistic children can learn to pay attention, and they can get better at it with practice. These ideas and strategies can help you build your child’s skills for paying attention:
- Choose interesting activities with clear end points.
- Give effective instructions.
- Talk and play.
- Model tasks.
- Prepare your child for transitions.
Play is one of the best ways to help children learn and develop skills, including skills for paying attention. You can use the strategies below as part of everyday play with your child.
Choose interesting activities
You can build your child’s attention by choosing activities that your child finds interesting, like Lego or trains, or that use your child’s strengths.
It’s also important to choose activities that have definite end points, clear guidelines and goals. It’s best to avoid open-ended activities, because these can make it difficult for your child to know what they need to do and when to finish.
For example, if you have a younger child, you could try making a necklace using two beads and a piece of string. Put on the first bead together, and then let your child put on the second one. The task gets finished quickly, and you can praise your child for getting the task done. You can gradually increase your child’s attention by building up from a two-bead necklace to one with more beads.
If you have an older child or a teenage child, you might bake a cake together. You could use visual supports, checklists, timetables or social stories to show the activity’s beginning and end. These supports also help you with breaking down tasks into smaller, manageable steps. A visual timer that shows your child how long they have to keep focusing can be good too.
Noise, visual distractions and other people can make it difficult for your child to focus. It’s a good idea to minimise possible distractions before you start an activity – for example, turn off the radio and television.
Give effective instructions
You’ll often need to give instructions about what to do next. Here are some tips for giving effective instructions:
- Limit the number of words you use. For example, say ‘Match the shapes’ instead of ‘I want you to put the shapes together so that they match’.
- Repeat key words to help your child focus. For example, say ‘Ball’, ‘Roll the ball’, ‘Catch the ball’, ‘Kick the ball’.
- Break instructions down into smaller steps, and give the instructions one step at a time. Wait for your child to complete each step before moving on to the next step.
Talk and play
Talking and interacting with your child during play can help you get and keep your child’s attention. Try these tips:
- Copy your child’s actions and behaviour. Your child might be interested and look to see whether you copy them again next time.
- When your child makes a sound or says a word, repeat it back to your child. Back-and-forth interactions can spark and keep your child’s interest.
- Talk as you and your child are playing. When you talk about what your child is doing, ask questions. This can encourage your child to keep focused for longer.
To keep your child’s attention on the task, you can use modelling while doing the activity together.
For example, if you’re making a two-bead necklace, you could start by putting a bead on the string. Then take your child’s hand and help them put a bead on. Praise your child when they finish the activity.
Prepare for transitions
If you need your child to make a transition from one activity to another, these tips can help:
- Warn your child that there’s a change coming up. Children need time to shift their attention. A picture-based timetable of activities or a timer to show when a change is coming up might help.
- Use ‘First, then’ statements, plus clear, simple language or a visual support. For example, you could say ‘First shapes, then bubbles’ or use a visual support with pictures of shapes and bubbles. Or for older children you could say, ‘First, finish your maths homework and then you can go on the computer’.
- Start playtime with two favourite activities so your child doesn’t get upset and lose focus when you change activities – for example, ‘First bubbles, then trains’. It’s best if the first activity is easy to finish quickly. Once your child has completed it, give them plenty of praise – for example, ‘All finished, well done! Now trains’.
Look out for everyday moments when your child can practise attention and other skills. This is called incidental teaching.