Attention and Listening Skills

This month we are thinking about attention and listening skills.

You’ve probably met a child like this. The one who can’t sit at the table at lunchtime and keeps running off to play with toys. The one who wriggles around on the carpet at story time. The one who is so engrossed in making a Lego car that he doesn’t answer when you call his name. Children like this all have something in common: they have difficulties with attention and listening.

When we think of a child with attention difficulties, we often think of that wriggly child who can’t sit still. But there’s a bit more to it than that. Attention skills typically develop through certain stages. A child that is younger than 4 years old will typically have something called single-channelled attention. This means they can only attend to one thing at a time. If you ask them a question when they are doing something else, like playing with a toy, they will not be able to answer! A child that is between 4 and 5 will typically start to show integrated attention. This means they can play a game and listen to someone talking, without needing to look up. Beyond 5 years, children typically demonstrate integrated attention for longer and longer periods.

Why does all this matter? It matters a lot to a child’s speech and language development. If a child’s attention and listening is delayed, they may not tune in to speech as much as a typically developing child. This may mean they miss out on all the input that is so important for speech and language learning.  It also matters a lot to how a child gets on at school. If a child does not have integrated attention, they can’t hear the teacher call them to carpet time when they’re playing a game with friends. They can’t hear the teacher ask them a question when they’re reading a book. Children like this might look as though they’re being ‘naughty’, and not doing what they are told. This is not true. They simply didn’t hear.

So what can we do to help? You can’t teach a child to have integrated attention! But you can support them to make the most of the attention skills that they DO have.

  • If a child is having difficulty with their speech or language, then a referral to speech and language therapy can help figure out whether attention difficulties are at the root of the problem.
  • If you think a child is still at the single channelled stage, you can help them by using gentle touch, calling their name, or moving into their field of vision when you want to talk to them.
  • Keep your instructions simple, and break long instructions down into chunks, e.g. ‘Where are your shoes? OK, great. Now let’s put them on’.
  • Check that the child has heard you and understood, by saying ‘What did I just ask you to do?’
  • If a child finds it difficult to maintain attention for long periods of time, you can help them by giving them a movement break, e.g. ‘We’re going to sit at the table for 5 minutes, then you can get down and jump on the trampoline.’
  • You can also use visuals, such as the timer on your phone, e.g. ‘You can run around for 2 more minutes. When my phone makes a funny noise, it will be time to sit down.’

You may also have heard talk of the term joint attention. This is a bit different! We will talk about joint attention in a later blog, so keep checking in.

Lucy Pollard

Speech and Language Therapist