About attention

Attention describes being able to concentrate for a long time, being able to stay focussed on one task without being distracted, being able to divide your attention between multiple tasks (e.g. listening while completing an activity), and being able to switch your attention between different ideas (e.g. shifting your thinking to a new task or activity easily).

Many students with disabilities or developmental disorders have challenges with attention. This includes children with specific learning disabilities, intellectual disability, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and autism.

Each student is unique, and so they may have different levels of attention. For example, some students may be able to concentrate on a single activity for a long time, but may have difficulty dividing their attention between two tasks. Another may have difficulty concentrating for a long time and need frequent breaks or change of activities to keep them interested.

Evidence-based strategies

  • Get their attention before speaking. Eye contact, gestures, touch or verbal prompts can be used to get children’s attention before giving instructions or speaking to them.
  • Speak clearly. Clear and direct instructions about the task, the behaviour expected, and how much time children have to work in may be helpful. These instructions may need to be repeated at the start of each new task.
  • Simplify instructions and learning. Consider breaking down big tasks into smaller ones. For example, give step-by-step instructions or visual instructions (i.e. pictures). It may be helpful to check their understanding before moving on to the next step or activity. For example, ask them to repeat instructions or answer questions.
  • Vary teaching formats. Consider using pictures, videos, PowerPoint presentation, objects, or demonstrations to explain concepts and tasks. Hands-on lessons can be very engaging!
  • Use computer software. Multimedia educational software on the computer or tablet may help some students focus on complex lessons, such as mathematics or reading. Interactive software where students can answer questions and receive immediate feedback are good for practising these skills. Some software can help improve memory and attention.
  • Minimise potential distractions. It may be helpful to sit children with their backs facing windows, doors, corridors or other busy areas of the classroom. Distractions could be removed when not in use. Let students who are easily disrupted by sounds wear ear plugs or headphones while they work on individual tasks.
  • Select seating. Consider sitting children near friends who can model positive behaviours, or close to you so you can interact with them. Short seat breaks (e.g. run an errand, touch their toes), stability balls, cushions or study carrels may improve focus and restlessness. Similarly, holding blu-tack or a stress ball may help.
  • Create a consistent daily routine. Rules and routines help a child know what is planned for the day so that they know what to do if they have missed instructions. Consider using a daily visual schedule with a timer/clock that students can see at all times. Access AllPlay Learn’s class schedule.
  • Alternate activities. Consider giving tasks that require higher concentration earlier in the day. Mixing high- and low- interest activities throughout the day may help keep them interested. Breaks after finishing each small task may help with their attention.
  • Provide choices. Giving students choices in their work can increase engagement. Consider letting them write, draw, point to cue cards, demonstrate or talk to demonstrate their learning.
  • Match teaching to interests and abilities. Consider what students like and can do to keep things interesting or relevant and manageable for them. As they become more capable, the workload or difficulty can be slowly increased.
  • Help them. Some students may need help (e.g. prompts, demonstrations, praise) from teachers or other students when learning new skills. This help can be gradually reduced as they become more capable.
  • Work collaboratively in groups or with buddies. This will reduce distractions, making it easier for them to focus. Students can practise new skills, make friends, and learn by watching others. Buddies are also great for redirecting a distracted student.
  • Give praise and correction immediately. Children may respond well when their own and others’ efforts and achievements are praised frequently. Brief and direct correction may be more successful than repeating instructions lots of times or paying attention to disruptive behaviour.
  • Redirect rather than reprimand. Consider asking a child to check displayed rules or redirecting a child who is distracted without causing embarrassment.
  • Teach self-instruction skills. Consider guiding students to problem solve so they can persist with school work instead of getting frustrated. For example, they can follow these steps mentally or think out loud: “What is the problem?”, “What are my options?”, “I think this is the best option”, “Am I following my plan?” and “How did I do it?”
  • Teach students how to self-monitor. Consider giving children a checklist of behaviours that they would like to work on (e.g. raise hand to ask question). Prompt them to check off the list throughout the day. Access AllPlay Learn’s self-monitoring form.
  • Best practice tips

  • Some students may need extra time for reading or writing, or may need a scribe or reader.
  • Some students may need to take extra breaks.
  • Check in with students. Some children may need adjustments to the teaching pace, their goals or the level of support given.
  • Other considerations

  • Homework may be challenging for some students. When setting homework consider what types of activities they could complete within a set time or to a set standard.
  • It may be helpful to teach children how to use a homework planner, and to give them prompts when they need to write things down. Some children may need to be shown how to break down projects and study into smaller tasks, and to plan their time. Teachers can check and sign planners.
  • Consider asking parents to use a consistent homework routine at home. This may be doing homework in a distraction-free area at a fixed time. They can also check that tasks in the planner are finished and provide lots of encouragement.
  • A child who has challenges with attention may benefit from supports when moving across education settings.
  • It may be helpful to teach and practise organisation and homework skills, and time- and self-management skills.
  • For more information about supporting students with disabilities when transitioning to a primary or secondary school setting access AllPlay Learn's transition page.
  • For children transitioning to primary school access AllPlay Learn's Story A school day, and for children transitioning to secondary school access Access AllPlay Learn’s story How to be organised
  • Students with attention challenges may also experience attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), specific learning disability, autism, intellectual disability, or anxiety.
  • Refer to information about these areas to help support the student.
  • Relevant resources

    Visit our resources page for a range of resources that can help to create inclusive education environments for children with disabilities and developmental challenges. Some particularly relevant resources for children with attention issues include:

    Strengths and abilities communication checklist
    Class schedule
    Student self-monitoring form
    Problem solving guide
    Story - Going on an excursion
    Story - Waiting my turn

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