Children's Voice Sep/Oct 2009

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Teaching Concentration Skills

By Ellen Notbohm

As adults, one of the laziest verbal shortcuts we use is admonishing our children to "pay attention!" What we really mean is that we want them to focus on listening to information we are giving them verbally or demonstrating for them. There is no money exchanged, no pay involved, and for children with some language-based learning differences, the phrase can be completely meaningless. When the child then fails to "pay attention," we interpret it as non-compliance, rather than as our own failure to communicate in a meaningful manner.

"Paying attention" requires the ability to focus and concentrate on a finite task. This may not come naturally to a child, but the skills required to do so can be taught. When both you and the child understand how his brain processes language and sensory input, you will be able to help him implement strategies to improve his concentration skills. Use these steps in teaching children how to focus:

  • Talk to the child about focus and concentration, checking for comprehension. Explain that focus and concentration can be very hard for some children, but it has nothing to do with how smart a person is. It is something we can all learn to do with practice. You will be helping him learn to concentrate, and with his smart brain, you are sure he can do it!
  • Before asking the child to concentrate on a task or assignment, make sure he has all the necessary tools: a sharpened pencil, an adequate eraser, clean paper, and correct books. If he needs to see you during the task, ensure that his line of sight to you is unobstructed.
  • Our visual sense is the one that most greatly directs our concentration: What we see is what we think about first. For many children with learning differences, the visual sense is their strongest; reducing visual distractions is key to helping your student learn to concentrate.
  • Study carrels can be effective. Make a portable one with screens that can be placed on the student's desk as needed.
  • Teach your student to place his materials in front of him, and to direct his eyes to the book or paper on which he wants to focus. Teach him to put his hands up by the sides of his face so that he is only looking at that one thing.
  • Encourage him to notice how people use their visual concentration skills in their daily lives. Athletes always keep their eyes on the ball. Drivers keep their eyes on the road. Cooks keep their eyes on their knives and their fingers while they are chopping.
  • Auditory distractions can interfere with concentration. A set of headphones with the cord removed can be very helpful in muffling ancillary noise.
  • Start with short periods of concentration and work up from there. Five minutes can seem like a long time to a child at first. For every five minutes of concentration, build in a two-minute break wherein he gets up, moves around, and looks at something else. Gradually increase the focus time as his skill grows.
  • For older kids who have achieved some concentration ability, help them learn to determine the parameters of the task. Have them ask themselves, how many pages am I trying to read? How many math problems do I need to do?
  • Acknowledge that focus and concentration is hard work. The world is full of distractions. We can learn to ignore some of them and not let them interrupt our work.
  • Finally, encourage your student to encourage himself. "You can do it" is great, but "I can do it" is even greater.
© 2004, 2009 Ellen Notbohm,

Three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of four award-winning books on autism, including 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (with co-author Veronica Zysk), from which this column was adapted. For book excerpts or to explore her work, visit

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