Develop Attention Skills
Get Confirmation Your Child Has Heard You
You may notice your child frequently doesn’t listen to you because he’s distracted by or absorbed in TV, the iPad, or Xbox. Sometimes, you think he’s stalling or ignoring you. You have to repeat your request several times before he goes to bed or gets out the door. As a result, he doesn’t stick to routines or is late for obligations. He relies on his parents’ nudging rather than his own self-directed behavior.
Children occasionally ignore their parents if they’re absorbed in an exciting activity. They may not even hear their parents from time to time because they’re hyperfocused on an activity. But not listening on a daily basis could signal that your child is struggling to develop attention skills. His attention problem might result from hearing only one part of what you said, or nothing, because his attention was elsewhere. (When you say “clear the plates” and he is talking, he might only hear the word “plates” and not know what he’s supposed to do.)
Attention is one of our executive functions: the set of skills that let us effectively execute daily tasks.
Solution: Get an initial verbal confirmation that your child has heard you
Say the main directive — like, “We’re leaving in 5 minutes,” — and then stop and ask your child, “When are we leaving?” Wait until your child repeats your directive — “We’re leaving in 5 minutes,” — before proceeding with the rest of the instruction. This focuses his attention on the most important expectation. Then, gaining his verbal confirmation can help to keep his attention and get him invested in the instruction that follows.
Don’t do this: Say “It’s past your bedtime, you can play one more iPad game, then brush your teeth, and go to bed."
Do this instead: Say, “You get one more game on your iPad. Jimmy, what did I say?” (Wait for response.) “Good,” then brush your teeth before bed.
Remember: It might seem like your child is ignoring or disobeying you, but he is struggling with attentional control — which is difficult to manage. It’s best to start this new approach at the least stressful time of day. That might mean avoiding the morning routine and focusing on bedtime or dinnertime.
It is perfectly normal for children to experience some degree of difficulty and frustration as they learn to execute new tasks. Toddlers can tantrum, school-aged children can yell and argue, and teenagers can ignore instructions. When deciding if executive function weaknesses require intervention, ask yourself: “How frequently is this occurring? How intense is the experience/significant the impact?” If your answer to these questions is “too much,” “too often,” “I don’t know what to do to change this,” or “it’s only getting worse,” you may benefit from a face-to-face conversation to help problem-solve your concern. Effective problem solving will help you clearly identify the problem, goal, steps it will take to achieve your goal, possible barriers, and available supports.