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Does your child struggle with attention? Here’s what you can do

Dr. Staci Person is providing parents with the right techniques to help their children focus.
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Dr. Staci Person, Ph.D., C.Psych. (supervised practice)

By Dr. Staci Person, Ph.D., C.Psych. (supervised practice)

Ignores details or makes careless mistakes, trouble focusing, does not seem to listen, does not follow through with instructions, fidgets with hands or feet, talks too much, interrupts others while they are speaking, cannot wait their turn, and always on the go...

If this sounds like your child, he or she may have trouble regulating their attention. In more severe cases, these symptoms may warrant a diagnosis of an attentional disorder, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), when seen in multiple settings (e.g., school, home) and when impairment is present (e.g., late to school, submitting rushed work, misplacing important items, trouble making friends).

With the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more children are struggling to regulate their attention. Hopefully, we’ve seen the end of virtual learning but nonetheless many parents are left wondering how they can help their child regulate their attention and function more efficiently at home.

Children benefit from clear, consistent expectations, directions, and limits. It can be helpful to display visual schedules of daily routines (e.g., getting ready for school or bedtime) and to establish a set of clearly defined family rules to be displayed on a whiteboard or chalkboard. Keep in mind that modeling effective self-control in your own behaviour provides a positive learning opportunity for children.

Pay attention to positive behaviour and provide plenty of positive reinforcement (e.g., praise, rewards) when you see that your child is on-task. It is also important to distinguish between defiance and distraction. In some cases, it may be clear that your child is being defiant (e.g., refusing to tidy their room), but in most cases, this misbehaviour may be a result of distraction (e.g., getting caught up in something else and forgetting that they were asked to put their toys away). Repeatedly punishing a child for behaviour that they cannot control only sets them up to fail and diminishes their self-esteem.

Using discipline, rather than punishment, is more effective. Instead of punishing every misbehaviour (e.g., yelling, lecturing, revoking privileges) stick to a consistent behaviour modification plan: define goals and reward each success until the behaviour becomes routine. Try allowing for natural consequences to occur (e.g., loss of free time) rather than punishment and help your child to make the connection between their behaviour and these consequences. In the end, a positive and supportive relationship will help to enable success.

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