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Sustained attention is the ability to keep attention on a situation or task even when there are distractions, or you are tired or bored.

Children with weak sustained attention get easily distracted, which interferes with their ability to attend to and complete a task. They also find it difficult to return to an activity that has been interrupted.

Distractions such as mind-wandering and diverted focus significantly reduce performance. This includes reading, learning, comprehension, remembering, and even interpersonal relationships. Problems with sustained attention involve not only distractions, but a lack of motivation, goal setting, directed effort, and planning. Memory may also seem to be affected as the child is simply unable to focus adequately when instructions are communicated.

What do I do to help my child improve her/his sustained attention skill?

Select one or two issues that your teen have relating to sustained attention. It is possibly being easily distracted, not able to focus on a task long enough to complete it, not paying attention to instructions or directions, and finding it difficult to return to a task once interrupted.

Define the issues that need improvement as specific as possible, noting the frequency, severity, and consequences. Also, consider whether there is a common antecedent or trigger, what the typical situation is and who is involved. Formulate a goal for each issue. Break it up into smaller goals if possible.

Before you start with the intervention, sit down with your child and explain the problem, process, and importance of achieving the goals that you have set. Ask your child for input in setting goals and plans for improvement. Make him or her feel empowered in the process. Improving sustained attention of a child is a structured process that demands a routine and constant regard to distractions, aids, and changes that can be made to the environment to support attention. When these become a habit for you and your child, improvements should be readily noticeable.

A strategy that is most often used to improve sustained attention of children and teens is known by the acronym ATTEND:

  • Awareness: Be aware of the attention problem and identify the sources. Discuss these with your child.
  • Task: According to the mastery learning technique, break a task down into smaller, more manageable steps.
  • Time-frame: Set a start and end time to a task and each step that make up the task.
  • Establish a cue: Let your child know when their attention has strayed from the task.
  • Notice aids: Where possible, change the environment to aid learning and decrease distractors.
  • Document distractions: Make a note of any external or internal things that get in the way of get-ting the task done.

For example, in Jenny’s case: Develop a routine where she starts with homework at the same time every weekday. Have her turn off her cell phone and social media on the computer. Divide her homework into two blocks of 45 minutes each with a 15-minute break in between where she is allowed to get a snack and check her messages. During the break and at the end, check her progress. Ask her to write down any distractions that she experience.

Next, we look at the final executive functioning skill, task initiation.

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