Attention can be defined as the ability to focus on a task, both with and without distractions. Often a child can have a very short attention span, jumping from one activity to the next. The ability to focus and complete a task is important for children, as they are learning many new skills.   

When a child is struggling with attention, this can be seen through the manifestation of many less desirable behaviors that can include:

  • Being overly fidgety
  • Being squirmy
  • Being unable to sit still or be calm for activities
  • Throwing a fit in order to get their way or to change the situation or activity

Having a good attention span allows a child to learn new tasks more quickly. A good rule of thumb for attention span for children is 2-5 minutes per year of life. If a child is 4, he or she should be able to attend to a task or activity for about 8-20 minutes.

Attention Case Study

Courtney (an All About Therapy OT) began working with Tyler when he was 27 months old. 

Tyler had been diagnosed with Pontocerebellar Hypoplasia (PCH), which results in atrophy, or shrinking, of parts of the brain. Tyler presented with hearing loss and delayed development across all areas. 

Mom’s goals were to address communication difficulties and work on improving developmental skills. She also wanted Tyler to improve his attention span. He attended for about 2 minutes at a time on preferred activities.

Some strategies Courtney used to increase Tyler’s attention span included:

  • Offering him breaks in between activities
  • Breaking his tasks into smaller tasks that could be easily completed rather than a big task that can be overwhelming
  • Engaged him in activities she knew he would enjoy

Children do best when given many small tasks, instead of one big task.   Courtney worked with Tyler using various toys that had a defined end, such as a puzzle with 8 pieces. This allowed Tyler to identify how much of the task was left before he would receive a break.

As Tyler’s attention span grew, Courtney provided him with tasks that would take a longer amount of time. To Tyler, he was still only completing one task, which is what he was accustomed to,  however, because the task took more time, he was improving his attention span.  

Children often lose track of time when playing with a preferred toy. Tyler’s preferred toy was his tractor. He would push it around on the floor and he engaged with Courtney by pushing it back and forth with her.  

At the beginning of his treatment, Tyler engaged in reciprocal, or back and forth, play for 3-5 turns. Towards the end of his treatment, he was engaging in back and forth play for upwards of 20 minutes, usually with no breaks

Another activity that Tyler greatly improved on was a 10 piece shape sorter.  At the beginning of his treatment he could only do one shape independently, requiring moderate assistance for 5 others, and abandoning after 6 total shapes. At the end of his treatment, he was completing all 10 pieces with minimal assistance, requiring no cues for attention. He made huge strides towards increasing his attention span during his OT sessions.

Courtney worked with Tyler for 8 months before he turned 3 and started attending preschool. He would continue to receive OT services at school. Mom was happy with the progress he had made and provided this feedback:

“I highly recommend Courtney for OT! In the 8 months she worked with my son, he made amazing progress on his fine motor skills. I also noticed a huge improvement in his ability to focus on tasks, his determination to complete a task, and even increased communication (sign language). We will miss working with her!”

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