Teaching Children and Teens with Attention Difficulties Skills for Success

kids, teens, attention difficulties

“Sit still!” “Don’t touch that!” “You lost your jacket again?” “How many times do I have to tell you to clean your room?”…Sound familiar? Unfortunately, children and teens with attention difficulties tend to attract more negative feedback than their peers.

On average, we are reprimanded ten times before we receive one message of praise. For children and teens with attention difficulties, their strengths are frequently overlooked due to behaviors that are incorrectly labeled as defiance and laziness. This creates a punitive cycle in which the adult’s attempts to control the child become more intense with each rule break, eventually leading to low self-worth as the child begins to internalize the constant reprimands.

Adults who interact with children and teens with attention difficulties need to understand that their brains process things in a different way. Specifically, the cerebellum and pre-frontal cortex must be able to communicate effectively for a child to perform everyday tasks. Children and teens with attention difficulties tend to have a slower maturation of these areas of the brain, leading to deficits in executive functioning, social and coping skills, which their peers may be managing with more success.

Examples of the challenges experienced:

  • keeping track of time – being chronically late with turning in assignments because a child does not have a working internal clock that helps him recognize how long a task will take
  • setting and achieving goals – a child who does not seem to maintain interest in earning a reward because the parts of his brain that should “light up” in response to a potential prize stay “dark” , since the prize is too far down the road to conceptualize
  • managing impulses – a child being able to censor comments to mom’s friend
  • sequencing events – a child being able to tell a parent about his day in the order in which it occurred
  • suppressing motor activity during goal directed tasks – a child who struggles to stay seated when the recess bell rings and the teacher is not done teaching a lesson
  • learning from mistakes – a teen who seems to repeat the same mistakes over and over despite upsetting consequences
  • following multiple step instructions – a teen who struggles to organize all of the steps it takes to clean her bedroom
  • understanding the perspectives of others – a child who has difficulty making and keeping friends because the part of the brain that needs to function to understand the perspectives of others is not connecting efficiently, causing him to present to his peers as uncaring and insensitive

Fortunately, parents and teachers can play a part in helping children and teens with attention difficulties learn executive functioning, social and coping skills through a variety of activities that are fun and engaging.

Executive functioning activities:

  • Make a shopping list and help find all of the items at the grocery store
  • Pack for a trip
  • Science experiments
  • Follow a recipe
  • Assemble a game or furniture
  • Manage money
  • Role playing/make believe

Emotion Regulation/Coping skill Activities:

  • Yoga
  • Exercise (20-30 minutes of continuous physical movement)
  • Guided imagery exercises
  • Meditation
  • Labeling emotions for young children
  • Adult role modeling of feelings and appropriate feelings expression

Social Skills Activities:

  • Reading social stories about life lessons such as friendship and problem solving
  • Teaching and practicing conversation starters with your child
  • “What happens next?” activities that help a child learn to predict the possible outcomes of a situation. This can be done by showing a child a picture in a series of images or a part of a video and asking him to guess the outcome.
  • “What’s missing?” activities
  • Modeling and processing social rules for your child (Many children with attention difficulties miss out on the cues for social rules given by their peers during play)

While your child or teen is working hard to complete tasks that his peers might find “easy” and “natural,” remember to also support his natural strengths. Children and teens with attention difficulties tend to be more creative, more persistent and resilient, and can think “outside of the box” easier than the rest of us. Help him to focus on his talents with encouragement and praise and watch him thrive!

It can sometimes be difficult to implement these strategies or to see significant change.  Contacting a professional who specializes in helping children and teens with attention difficulties may be a useful option to enhance their success.

Written by Heidi Kloss, Ph.D. for the Linden Blog. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Linden BP call 440/250-9880.