Behavioural Learning Skills

Best Ways to Improve Your Child’s Attention Span – Part 3


Child-focused on an activity

Ways to improve focus of your child with Autism.

One of the most challenging things while working with children is to find how do we generate interest in a task and how to improve focus of your child. Most of the times we come across situations in which children with special needs show exceptional intelligence (more so in children with autism) in tasks that they like and just the opposite in tasks that they don’t like (even if it a very simple one). So, what is it that makes things interesting? Let us have a look at those:

1. Challenge

Every task that we do provides a challenge for us right from switching on a fan to loading a heavy machine on a truck or finishing a project within the stipulated time. If the challenge is too easy, it is boring. This is not likely to stimulate you to keep doing it again and again. On the other hand, if the task is so difficult that the chances of success are very bleak, then, it may not motivate you to try it (unless it is your passion). It can be frustrating. You guessed it right, the solution is then to have a challenge that is appropriate to our abilities. The ‘Optimum’ challenge stimulates us to try harder and stay focused. This is what different video games do, it breaks tasks into levels. When you have mastered Level I, you go to Level II and so on…  As we move from one level to another, the challenge increases, and so is our desire to accomplish that. We find it more satisfying when we are able to overcome a stiff challenge. In cricketing terms, a win against England is more satisfying than a win against Zimbabwe.


Optimum challenge stimulates to Improve focus of your child.


To understand better, any task with 100% success rate is boring. Let’s imagine that we are traveling along the arrow (see insert), starting from easy and moving towards difficult, the optimum is the level of challenge in which we encounter defeat for the first time. With success till then and confidence running high, the first sign of failure stimulates us to push ourselves and accomplish the task.

We should also remember that this ‘optimum’ challenge is not stationary. It does not remain a challenge for long. As we master a task and find the nuances, this becomes ‘easy’. Hence, the optimum challenge is a dynamic concept.

How does this reflect on children with special needs? Look at the child’s ability, and see whether the challenge provided by the task is ‘optimum’ for the child. Asking a child to do things that he knows very well is, in fact, a waste of time. There is nothing new to learn. Agreed, that threading the beads or fixing a puzzle improves attention, eye-hand coordination, etc. etc… but if the child already can do it, then it becomes counterproductive. The child will find ‘means’ to avoid such activities which we very easily term as ‘behavior’ problem.

A 10 piece puzzle may be optimum for a child whereas a 25 piece jigsaw puzzle can be too difficult. If the child is able to throw at a target placed at a distance of 2 feet, then 3 feet may be ‘optimum’ whereas 4 feet may be too difficult. Here the variable is the distance. Other variables include speed, size, weight and the complexity of the task. By modifying these variables you can find a challenge that is appropriate to your child.

2. Feedback

The task should provide feedback to the child. Very often we see the child looking at the adult while fixing a puzzle rather than looking down on the task. This clearly tells us that the child does not receive feedback from the task (internal) itself but depends on the feedback from adult (external). If the mom smiles, the child is correct, if she frowns, he is wrong. Without feedback from the task itself, the child starts depending on the parent. He does not do any activity without the presence of a parent. When the child does not receive or appreciate feedback from the task, the child cannot self-correct – an important precursor for independent work practice.

So what shall we do about it? Look at the various activities the child is doing and start focusing on feedback. When the child is throwing the ball to an adult, the adult tries to catch them irrespective of the quality of the throw. This does not give feedback to the child whether he has thrown it in the right direction or not. Hence, focus on target throws. If the bottle or the bowling pin falls down, he is successful.


Snow bowling is a good example for feedback from the task.


If the task does not provide adequate feedback, go for much simpler and crude forms of activities. E.g. Many children do not know how much pressure has to be applied while writing with a pencil. As a result the impression on the paper is barely visible. I recommend that you encourage children to use bricks, coal and chalk piece to write and draw on cemented floor (old fashioned floors without tiles or mosaic) in your backyard or common areas in the apartments. This will provide good visual as well as proprioceptive feedback to the child.  If my goal is to help a child to identify objects by touch i.e., stereognosis (usually done blindfolded), I would start with objects that are familiar to the child and are starkly different from one another in terms of texture, size and shape. To simplify it further, I may show him around 3-5 objects and take only from them.

Quality goes along with feedback. Focus remains on the quality of the task and not on the quantity. We do not want a child to do things just for the sake of completing it, which does not result in any sort of learning. A minimum standard is established and expected from the child without which ‘the task never gets completed’ (refer the section on task completion parameters). In a task in which the child has to throw 10 balls one by one into a drum or barrel, the second ball is given to the child only when he is able to throw the first ball inside. Otherwise, he keeps repeating the first ball till he is successful.  The child now understands that only when I drop the ball inside the barrel, I can get the next ball. To simplify this task, you might go for 3 or 5 balls and also reduce the distance depending on the child’s ability and mood.

3. Sensory Preferences

Each one of us have our sensory preferences. Some of us like to listen to dance numbers, while others like melodious music, some like sweets, whereas others like spicy food, some like adventure while others like playing strategy games like chess. Each of us have our own sensory preferences. Tasks involving these senses are more attractive as it ‘feels’ good when you do it. This is a vast topic to discuss, which we cannot do it here (we cannot get distracted from the topic).

You must have discovered by now that your child is interested in music, plays drums with vessels at home and prefers sound making toys, hums his favourite rhymes etc. Then it is very likely that your child likes auditory inputs. Similarly, a child with visual seeking traits have a strong preference to particular colours, he’s good in puzzles, likes patterns and solves mazes etc.

Giving activities based on the senses preferred by the child invigorates the child and is like a win-win situation. The child is interested and you have your goals met.

4. Past Experiences

Children with difficulties with motor planning (dyspraxia) encounter repeated failures with new activities. With years of negative experiences, with frequent failures and frustration, they become low on confidence. They decide that they cannot do a task well or compete with another peer. Many children get stuck with familiar toys and routines. I am sure you will agree with me that while learning to play chess (not from coaching classes), we are sure to lose at least our first 10-20 games before we taste our first success. This applies to learning to ride a bicycle as well as doing business. We are told that failure is the first step to success. However, kids with special needs have a low ‘Frustration Tolerance’. This means that they get frustrated easily. For such children, new tasks should always result in instant success. Nothing succeeds like success. The very first attempt made by the child in a new task should result in success. This motivates them to do it again and again.

If you are teaching a child how to fix a 10-piece jigsaw puzzle. You fix 9 pieces and ask the child to fix the last piece. Appreciate the child generously as he ‘completes’ the puzzle. Gradually increase their contribution. For children who are low on confidence, it is always good to start new tasks at ‘Too Easy’ level than ‘Optimum’ level as it helps to build their confidence.


This is not an exhaustive list. This is my perspective having worked with children with various developmental disorders closely for more than 14 years. I’m sure there is much more to discuss on this topic. I hope that you find these articles helpful and useful. I sign off with a contented feeling that I have made a genuine attempt in helping the parents feel empowered and take control of life. I would like to salute each and every ‘Special’ Parent for your tireless and dedicated contribution to your child. As professionals, we are inspired by the unconditional love you shower on
your children.

Disclaimer: First person style of writing is used to connect with readers. The child with special needs is referred to as ‘he/him’ but it refers to both the genders.

About the Author:
Karthik Ranganathan Rao is a Developmental Physiotherapist, residing in Chennai. He has a certification in Sensory Integration from the USA in 2006 and is the second in the country to have that distinction. He has two centers in Chennai named Shrishti Child Development Centre. He is also in the process of developing an e-learning portal for children with special needs called Augmented Learning Systems. He is also a certified Aquatic Therapist and is the secretary of Aquatic Therapy Network of India. He has conducted more than 60 workshops for therapists, parents and other rehab professionals in different parts of the country and also abroad (Muscat). He can be reached at



– Karthik R. Rao
Developmental Physiotherapist, Chennai


Note: Know more about different Therapies for Autism.

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