Children with special needs, irrespective of the type of disability they have, have one thing in common: Reduced attention span. Attention is a skill that is required across activities such as fixing a puzzle, catching a ball, writing or constructing a castle on the beach sand. Attention is a prerequisite for learning and hence they develop secondary learning difficulties due to lack of attention.
Constructing a castle on beach sand requires attention
Distraction is the main enemy of Attention. Hence we will discuss distractions here. There can be two types of distraction
– Intrinsic Distraction; in which the child is not focused on the task at hand due to internal factors such as boredom, lack of motivation, health issues, general physiological parameters including hunger, sleep etc.
– Extrinsic Distraction; in which there is a rival stimulus that is competing for attention with the task at hand.
As you can easily guess, extrinsic distraction is much easier to overcome than an intrinsic distraction.
1. The first step is to provide a DISTRACTION FREE ENVIRONMENT! So what is a distraction-free environment? We recommend that you have a separate room for your child – smaller the better. A bigger room is an invitation to ‘run’. The child is seated on a chair (with a table in front) in a corner facing the wall away from the entrance. The child is now surrounded by walls in front as well as on one of the sides, the parent can sit on the other side. This will effectively block the child’s visual field. Any cupboard/shelf in the room must be closed. There should be no
calendars, posters or even a clock. The table is not cluttered and the child has only the materials for the task (to be done) on the table. The child is encouraged to replace the items before taking a new task. Needless to say, people should not be entering/leaving the room on a regular basis (You can display a ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ sign on the door). The sound of TV or songs in the next room is also potentially distracting, so avoid them. If you cannot afford to have a separate room in your house, you can pull the iron almirah away from the wall and create a ‘cabin’ for your child behind it. Ensure that the child is well inside the space and sitting facing you. You might have to relook at the lighting there.
2. Avoid multiple stimuli. If you are playing with building blocks, do not empty the entire content on the table. Give 2 or 3 blocks initially and ask the child to join them. You can gradually increase the number of blocks based on their level of performance. Children with Special Needs have difficulty with organizing themselves when you provide multiple objects, it creates mayhem!
3. Lock-In Chair is used at times. This is helpful for children who are impulsive and always on the run. In this chair, you can lock them in place. Let me make this clear, this should never be used as a punishment. You will not lock them on the chair because they are running. Instead, you will place them in the chair and ask them to do an overly simplified task e.g. collect blocks in a container. This may initially last for less than 10 seconds. Once they complete the task, you will let them out. This is continued for a period of time by which the child learns that ‘If I do the
task assigned to me, I can come out’. There is always a ‘demand’ on the child while he/she is on the chair. Gradually the complexity and duration of the task are increased as the child makes progress.
Note: In school, you cannot remove the external distraction for obvious reasons. Whenever the child has difficulty learning a concept, one-on-one instruction may be required. Often we find that the child has a problem in completing work due to distraction. The solution then is to train the child to be responsible for his own actions. The child should be given small tasks and encouraged to do ‘on his own’. Be profuse in appreciating the child in front of others for being ‘responsible’. Responsibility is a trait that has to be nurtured across settings/location. Hence it is important that the child is given responsibilities at home as well as in school. Give responsibilities that the child can do e.g. locking the door before going to bed, or drop used clothes in the bin. At school, the child can be asked to erase the blackboard or distribute notebooks. Responsibility overrides distraction, isn’t it? I often see parents wanting their children to act ‘matured’ but they continue to feed them (like a baby) even when they are 8 or 10 years old. Such double standards lead us nowhere.
Intrinsic distraction, as the name indicates, is distraction exclusive of the environment. In other words, the child is not ready to pay attention to.
Child not interested in the task
1. Physiologically, the child may not be ready to learn or attend. He or she may be hungry, sleepy etc. Some children also suffer from constipation which makes them restless.
2. Under the influence of medications. Children may be taking medicines for co-morbid disorders. Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder in children with special needs. More than 30% of children with cerebral palsy suffer from seizures. Anti-Epileptic Drugs tend to have a sedative effect and make the child dull.
3. The child does not understand what is being expected of him. This is most commonly due to language delays. (if a child is not able to speak, it is speech delay. If a child is not able to understand the meaning of words, it is language delay)
4. The child is not interested in the task.
– Karthik R. Rao
Developmental Physiotherapist, Chennai