What is it?
Attention and Listening refers to the child's ability to selectively 'tune in' or attend to a stimulus, to sustain that focus and to 'shift' that focus at will from one stimulus to another. Children can either be overly 'tuned in' to the world around them (easily distracted) or fail to 'tune in' and notice the world around them (lethargic and oblivious to their surroundings).
Attention and Listening Skills are important to:
'Attend to Task' is the ability to attend to task (be it puzzles, eating lunch or play with peers). It is a fundamental requirement for a child's broad development. Listening is the ability to tune into and attend to auditory information (e.g. speech/talking and environmental sounds, such as birds, planes, vacuum cleaners etc. and speech.
Building blocks necessary to develop Attention and Listening Skills include:
- Sensory Processing – 'tuning in' to the appropriate environmental information.
- Understanding the task at hand.
- Intrinsic motivation to engage in the task and persist when challenged.
- Visual attention to detail and ensuring they are the appropriate details.
Adequate hearing to be able to hear sounds and speech.
You can tell there are problems with Attention and Listening Skills if the child:
- Tends to be impulsive and acts before thinking things through.
- Struggles to concentrate in busy settings and is easily distracted by events around them.
- Has difficulty completing daily routines (e.g. starting and finishing getting dressed).
- Jumps between activities without completing them.
- Is disinterested in playing activities, preferring just to sit and watch the world around them without actively engaging in it.
- Is oblivious to the world around them.
- Fails to initiate play activities or to continue playing independently once play is set up for them (age dependent).
- Does not respond to sounds in the environment by looking/pointing, etc
- Does not look at the person who is speaking to them.
- Struggles to 'listen' to instructions and follow them through.
When Attention and Listening Skills are less than ideal, it can contribute to:
- Learning difficulties (influenced by limited attention to practice new skills or lack of interest in practicing the skills).
- Language difficulties (if listening skills are limited they have less opportunities to hear and process language leading to slower development).
- Less clear speech (influences by limited ability to listen to sounds and develop ability to hear differences in sounds necessary for speech development).
- Poor planning and organisation skills, which require considered forward thought, performance, as well as persistence in the face of a challenge.
- Inappropriate reactions to sensory stimulus in the environment.
- Inappropriate visual and auditory attention to details (either failing to notice details, or becoming overly fixated on insignificant details).
- Immature social development with both peers and adults.
What can be done to improve Attention and Listening Skills?
- Don't fill children's time every minute. Down time, sometimes called 'boredom', is a necessary part of developing intrinsic motivation.
- Slow down activities.
- Break tasks into smaller achievable tasks and encourage repeated practice.
- Encourage physical activity to help optimise attention.
- Choose rewarding (fun) activities which reinforce voluntary attention as an intrinsic motivator.
- Get face to face with the child when talking with them.
- Talk about what they are interested in looking at
- Use language which is at their level
Activities that can improve Attention and Listening Skills include:
- Using favoured activities and gradually increasing the demands of skill and persistence over time.
- Ensuring work spaces are clear of clutter for easily distracted children.
- Using activities with a definite end (e.g. puzzles) for flighty children, to encourage activity completion.
- Working in 'traffic-free' spaces for readily distracted children and high-traffic spaces for 'sleepy' children.
- Encouraging physical activity before sit-down tasks (to burn off excess energy or energize by 'waking up').
- Visual schedules/charts.
- Use specific praises when the child has started and finished an activity e.g. ÒWell done! You finished the puzzle!Ó
- Spend time listening to sounds that you can hear outside, inside, at the park, etc (e.g. Stop and listen when you hear a plane, etc.).
- Play fun games with instruments, listening to instruments and guessing what they are (e.g. drum vs. symbol etc), copy rhythms etc.
The more the activities follow the interest of the child, or the more self-directed these activities are, the greater the opportunities for attention span to develop.