By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
In part two, I will detail some basic strategies that can be helpful at home if your child has attention and/or executive functioning difficulties. In fact, some of these can be useful with almost any child, given that their attentional and planning abilities are not as developed as those of adults (as anyone who’s taken a walk with a three year old who stops at every bug, leaf, and construction site can attest!)
Approach the behaviors that you are addressing in a neutral, practical way whenever you are able. This can to help minimize any negative emotional overlay that can make problems worse (such as anxiety, discussed in part one.)
Make tasks habitual when possible. When something becomes mostly automatic or second nature, factors like fatigue, illness, excitement etc. are less likely to be disruptive or distracting.
Having a routine does not mean being rigid or inflexible, it is simply a tool to help internalize some skills or tasks. It can be helpful to note when a usual routine is not followed, e.g. “You’re getting to have juice instead of milk because going out to dinner is a special occasion,” or “You don’t have to take a bath tonight because it’s so late that getting to bed is more important.” These kinds of explanations help reinforce the importance of the usual routine even when it is applied flexibly.
If your child is school age, you may want to experiment with the optimum time and working conditions for them. For instance, some children need to unwind and restore after school in order to be able to tackle homework, while others need to get their work done while still in “school mode” and before becoming too tired. Some children find background music or the sounds of the family soothing and helpful when working, while others find them distracting.
If your child has difficulty focusing for very long, break tasks up into short segments. You can try out both relaxing and physical activities during the break, to see which might be more helpful for your child.
Some children find it motivating to work with a timer, to get as much done as possible in a short period of time, knowing that they will get a break immediately after. Of course, individualize this if needed. Perhaps for your child, a timer is not fun but instead anxiety-producing.
Many children need help with organizing their materials, whether toys or school supplies. Consistent places for keeping things, and perhaps even color-coded drawers, boxes and folders with clear labels (in the form of pictures for younger children) all make it easier to learn good habits and avoid frustration.
When possible, check your child’s backpack for what comes home and what goes to school. Otherwise, unpleasant surprises are likely to happen, such as five pieces of homework that never made it to the teacher, an essential school form that didn’t get filled out, or a piece of fruit that moldered in the bottom. As your children get older, involve them in this activity as well. A simple check-list can be helpful, as well as packing the school bag the night before and placing it by the front door. This avoids last minute scrambling in the morning when everyone is in a hurry and possibly more stressed.
Finally, if you’re not sure whether your child’s behaviors or difficulties are typical for age, or if strategies you’ve tried have not helped, check with your doctor and/or a child psychologist. Further useful information can be found in the child development, psychology, and education sections of libraries and book stores. When finding information on the internet, pay particular attention to the source being legitimate and reputable.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist.
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