Children and young people develop attention and listening skills at different times and some children require explicit teaching as they cannot learn them automatically. Whether the child has identified or unidentified needs causing them to struggle, it can sometimes appear as if they are making a choice, or perhaps that they have a behaviour difficulty. However, it is not always simple to ascertain the reasons for such needs and as we know, 'typical' strategies are not always effective.

“They can focus when they want to”

Despite being able to focus on tasks of their choosing, many children still struggle to attend to school work and other tasks. These difficulties might be as a result of speech, language and communication needs, developmental and neurological difficulties or perhaps due to an acute medical or mental health need. Therefore, if you are unsure why a child might be struggling, it is important to rule out an underlying difficulty and seek an assessment from a medical professional.

Strategies and Top Tips

  • Reduce noise in the environment rather than remove all sounds completely. Constant sound from one source (e.g. quiet music) can really help some children and young people to focus.
  • Reduce visual input and visual distractions. Removing displays from the immediate environment can have a huge impact on concentration.
  • Think about where the child is seated. Do they work better at the front or back of class? Do they need to be near the door? Away from windows? With others or away from others? Wherever they are seated, make sure the cannot be knocked by other pupils who might be moving around the room. You can make a simple individual workstation from a large cardboard box with one side, the top and the bottom removed. Place it on a tabletop for the child to work ‘within’.
  • Introduce short, motivating, fun listening activities before sitting down to work, such as Simon Says, ‘I went to the shop and bought….’, or Ready-Steady-Go games - which build anticipation and encourage the child to wait for lengthening periods of time.
  • If the child is chewing, fidgeting, squirming on their chair, tapping, chatting etc, they might have sensory processing needs that can be supported effectively once identified.
  • Introduce structure and motivation whenever possible and particularly within difficult or less motivating tasks. Make sure any rewards used are meaningful for the child.
Our Attention and Listening resource 1.2 uses structure and motivation in order to lengthen the length of time children are able to engage in less motivating tasks [1]
  • Be aware of smells such as aftershave or perfume, smells from food, equipment, etc. Sometimes even subtle smells which we might not notice, or that don’t bother us can be very distracting for others.
  • Consider how you can adapt your language when interacting with children who struggle with concentration. Try using their name first to gain their attention, keep instructions clear, simple and short. Present instructions containing multiple elements, in the order in which they need to be followed. If they need to listen to spoken information, try 'chunking' it into smaller parts and emphasis the key elements.
  • When presenting questions verbally, allow time for the child to process what has been said and to respond. Sometimes pauses in speech can feel slightly uncomfortable for us, however, some children might need up to 10-15 seconds to process and respond. Some children focus better when looking away, so try to avoid expecting or asking for eye contact.
  • Make sure the child understands what is meant by any verbal or visual prompts rather than passively following direct instructions and requiring constant reminders. Many children require skills such as, ‘good sitting’, ‘good listening’ 'good waiting, to be explicitly taught before they can use them independently and consistently, and then support to generalise these skills into everyday situations.

Our Attention and Listening resource 1.0 supports explicit teaching of 'good sitting’, ‘good listening’ 'good waiting' [2]

  • Consider transitions carefully. Some children struggle to focus at these times and might benefit from additional support to help them organise, plan and switch attention onto the next task, lesson, environment, etc.
  • Provide positive reinforcement through praise and by making expectations realistic and achievable, increasing them slowly at the child’s pace.
  • Point out what they are doing right using explicit language. This is so important for self-esteem and we sometimes overlook the little things as being ‘expected’ yet they can be incredibly difficult for children and young people with attention, listening and concentration difficulties. For example, ‘You wrote a whole sentence without stopping’. ‘You just said X that is a really good word’. Etc.

Our Behaviour resource 1.0 uses a positive approach, Reward, and Motivation to develop these skills. [3]

  • Fresh starts. Working with children who struggle with attention, listening, and concentration can be extremely rewarding, but it can also be very frustrating at times too. It is important to always keep in mind that by giving things a go and seeing what does and doesn’t work, that these skills can be developed via explicit teaching and the right support. Also that fresh starts using a solution-focused approach are often the key to success!
  • Support children and young people to stay on task and to return to task, by adapting the type/level of support we give, the language we use and by explicitly teaching the use of visuals that encourage independence.

Our Attention and listening resource 1.3 supports children with directing, redirecting and maintaining attention on learning tasks [4]

ChatterPack resources include step-by-step ‘no experience required’ instructions, professionally designed visuals, and are jam-packed with tips and suggestions on how to maximise effectiveness for individual children and young people with SEND. 

For more information on ChatterPack resources, Get in touch via

Written by ChatterPack


We must not forget young people with attention and listening difficulties are individual and unique. A strategy which works for one may not necessarily work for others. In my experience these young people retain information best when using a visual approach to their learning, boosting their confidence, which also allows me to give them new experiences.
I first start with the environment making them feel safe, I then have a platform to work from.

Jeanette bell on Apr 30, 2020

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