September 3, 2015 Mary & Suzanne

Focus and Attention: What day is it?

Ah, one of those broken record days. These are the days when you wonder if the words coming out are really reaching your child’s ears? Or maybe it’s a jumping bean day, when it is near impossible for anyone to stick with something for longer than 2 minutes (and 2 minutes is good!). We experience those days. My personal favorite (Suzanne here!) is shaving with the shower squeegee day.  This is the day when my attention is elsewhere and I grab the shower squeegee to start shaving my legs! Yup, it’s true, and it happens more often than I would like to admit!

Focus and attention can stump us all. Our minds wander and our bodies wiggle, our nails are bitten and our chairs tip, often with the unaware agenda of staying alert and paying attention.  We all have our strategies, whether we are intentional about them or not. Our kids, however, haven’t quite all gotten the hang of how to keep their focus and attention on task as often as we would hope! Any of these sound familiar?

Do you find yourself repeating instructions to your child over and over?

Is completing a task that has more than one step near impossible without reminders?

Does your child struggle to stay calm and alert when doing a task?

Can your child filter out background noises and distractions?

Focus and attention are really important in a child’s daily life. Being able to attend to instructions from mom and dad sure can make life run more smoothly, don’t you think?

The development of focus and attention hinges on being able to filter out background sensory stimuli and pay attention to what’s important. The big three senses that a child needs to be able to discriminate are tactile, auditory and visual  sensations.

Tactile: Imagine how hard it is to pay attention if your skin is sending continuous sensations about your clothes being scratchy or your socks being bunchy!

Auditory: If every sound seems important enough to listen to, how will you be able to focus on your mom’s special request or the teacher’s directions?

Visual: If every color and shiny object catches your eye, wouldn’t it be a challenge to find your toys or clothes in a cluttered room!

Two of our senses are particularly effective in helping a child develop the ability to focus on the sensory information that’s important.  They are proprioception and movement (vestibular).

Proprioception is the sensation we receive when we are moving our muscles and joints against gravity or resistance. This experience can actually have a calming and organizing effect! Let’s say that one more time, in case you weren’t entirely paying attention. Proprioception can have a calming and organizing effect! This is one reason why you hear runners rave about the mental clarity and physical relaxation they feel during and after their daily workout (and they rarely skip a day).  Other examples might be: carrying a heavy object, climbing on a jungle gym or pulling yourself forward with a rope  while you lay on a scooter board.  People who like proprioception love rock climbing, weight lifting and yoga (here’s some suggested yoga poses by ADDitude magazine), and all experience the benefits of feeling happy and organized.

Vestibular (movement) sensation is the feedback we receive when we move our heads in varying directions and rates of speed. Movement can be slow or fast, linear, orbital (large circles) or rotary (think of a tightly wound tornado). As OT’s we know that this sensation helps children to develop focus and attention. Motion is food for the brain! Incorporating movement in different directions and body positions can be a helpful piece in building foundations for increasing these abilities.

Don’t forget! We like to start off every park session with swinging to feed that vestibular sense! Slides are great for allowing motion in different body positions. Sitting, laying on your back or tummy, feet going first and head going first are fun and valuable ways of exploring this staple piece of park equipment.

While your on the slide, try this enticing strength challenge! Securely attach a rope to the top of the side and have your child climb up like a mountain climber!

These little ones are zooming along (movement sensation) and using proprioceptive feedback, which tells their arms and hands to hang on! The combination of movement and proprioception (work for muscles) in these activities supports developing focus and attention. Without focus, eyes might not be on the road, hands might let go of the handles, and that upright posture might not last long! Some children might not be quite ready to keep that sitting position due to postural control challenges, so laying on their stomachs is a nice alternative.

These kids are having so much fun, they don’t even realize they are engaged in heavy work (proprioception).

Activities that provide resistance to the jaw and mouth are another easy way to add to proprioceptive sensations. Here are a few ideas:

– Blowing bubbles 

– Blowing up balloons

-Packing chewy or crunchy snacks for the park (These will vary based on the dietary desires of your family, but might include items like celery, carrots, fruit leathers, fruit gummies or beef jerky)

– Sour taste for children who need a little extra pick me up! (example: sour gummy bears)

– Chewy foods for children who might need to slow down a bit (examples: apples, carrots, fruit leather, gum)

Ok, brainstorm time! These may be more than the average Joe can handle in one pass, so just take in what sounds fun today, and come back to our list for other ideas later!

Start here:

Sensory-based, whole body activities that help support attention and focus:

– Bikes or standing scooters, skateboards, scooter boards

– Pulleys & buckets (lots of heavy work here as you fill the bucket and use those muscles to raise it higher and higher! All you need is a rope  and a bin to fill up!)

– Digging in the sand

– Climbing structures, ladders

– Walking up and rolling down a hill

– Climbing up a slide

– Pumping a swing

– Using a balloon pump

– Pulling another child in a wagon

– Hopscotch

– Wheelbarrow walk

– Crab walk

– Jumping or jump rope

-Yoga poses – Evolation Yoga gives a nice description of how yoga can help improve focus, attention, and concentration here

Try supporting listening skills with these equipment- free games!

– Simon says

– Red light, green light

– Following directions with one step, two step or three step instructions (think Simon says but with words, rather than actions!)

– Listening for a key word before an action (“When I say SPAGHETTI, you slide!”)

– Fill- in -the- blank songs

– Cooperative storytelling (“Once upon a time there was giant _____ who loved to ______”)

– Copying sounds or sound patterns – Feel free to use your body or even the slide for a make-shift drum set!

Kids who are very sensitive visually or to touch may need some extra help with filtering out overwhelming sensations. Here are a few suggestions that may ease their experiences a bit.

– Wearing a hat or visor

– Sunglasses

– Playing under a structure that provides visual boundaries

Snug clothing made of stretchy, soft material

Can’t make it to the park today? Here are a TON of thoughtful, sensory-based activities to support paying attention at home and school. These are brought to you by our new friends at The Inspired Treehouse!

When focus and attention doesn’t come naturally, it can quickly lead to frustration. Take a deep breath, step back, and think about how heavy work, movement, or tactile activities might be incorporated into the task. Sometimes, taking a few minutes to specifically engage in these activities before focus and attention tasks are presented can have a significant impact!

Take some time to pay attention to the brilliance of your surroundings too! We hope to see you at the park!

*Just a reminder: Our posts contain affiliate links. By purchasing through these links, we get a bit back to help keep our little blog running! Thanks!


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