Attending or Attention is the First Preacademic Skill

Helping Young Children With Disabilities to Sit and Listen

Preschool teacher reading to students
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Attending is the first skill young children with disabilities need to learn. It may be especially challenging for young children with developmental delays or autism spectrum disorders. To learn, they have to sit still. To learn, they have to be able to attend to the teacher, listening and responding when asked.

Attending is a learned behavior. Often parents teach it. They teach it when they expect their children to sit at the table during dinner.

They teach it if they take their children to church and ask them to sit for all or part of a worship service. They teach it by reading out loud to their children. Research has shown that the most effective way to teach reading is called "the lap method." Children sit in their parent's laps and listen to them read, following their eyes and following the text as the pages are turned.

Children with disabilities often have trouble attending. At age two or three they may not be able to sit for 10 or 15 minutes. They may be easily distracted, or, if they are on the autism spectrum, they may not understand what they should attend to. They lack "joint attention," where typically developing infants follow their parents' eyes to find out where they are looking.

Before you can expect a toddler with disabilities to sit through a twenty minute circle time, you need to start with the basic skills.

Sitting in One Place

All children are socially motivated by one of three things: attention, desired objects or escape.

Children are also motivated by preferred activities, sensory input, or food. These last three are "primary " reinforcers because they are intrinsically reinforcing. The others-attention, desired objects, or escape--are conditioned or secondary reinforcers since they are learned and connected with things that occur in typical academic settings.

To teach small children to learn to sit, use individual instructional time to sit with the child with a preferred activity or reinforcer. It may be as simple as sitting for five minutes and having the child imitate what you do: "Touch your nose." "Good Job!" "Do this." "Good job!" Tangible rewards might be used on an irregular schedule: every 3 to 5 correct responses, give the child a skittle or a piece of fruit. After a while, the teacher's praise will be enough to reinforce the behaviors you wanted. Building that reinforcement "schedule," pairing your praise and preferred item, you will be able to start reinforcing the child's participation in a group.

Sitting in Group

Little Jose may sit for individual sessions but may wander during group: of course, an aide should return them to their seat. When Jose is successful at sitting during individual sessions, he needs to be rewarded for sitting for continuously longer periods. A token board is an effective way to reinforce good sitting: for every four tokens moved, Jose will earn a preferred activity or perhaps a preferred item. It might be most effective to actually take Jose to another part of the classroom after he has earned his tokens (for his 10 or 15 minutes of the group.)

Teaching Groups to Attend

There are several key ways to build whole group attention by the way in which group activities are conducted:

  • Keep circle time short to start. Circle time should not be any longer than 15 minutes when you start but should grow to 30 after three or four months.
  • Mix it up. Circle time should not just be quiet activities such as story books, but should include motion songs, dancing and motion games, and give different children opportunities to lead the group.
  • Maximize participation: If you are putting the date on the calendar, have one child find the number, another child place the number and a third child count the number.
  • Praise, praise, praise: Use praise not only to reward good behavior but also to teach it. "I like how Jamie is sitting!" "I like that Brie has both of her feet on the floor." Naming the behavior is powerful: it shows everyone what the behavior looks like, at the same time.
  • Be consistent: It's impossible to call on all children equally, though it might on occasion be helpful to have your supervisor or one of your classroom aides chart who you call on: you might be surprised at what you find. We observed a teacher and found she 1) called on the boys twice as often as the girls, but used questions to keep the boys on task. 2) Permitted the girls to interrupt: she would answer their questions when they blurted them out. 

Be sure everyone gets a chance to participate. Name the behavior you notice, as well. "John, I want you to come do the weather because you are sitting so nicely."

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Webster, Jerry. "Attending or Attention is the First Preacademic Skill." ThoughtCo, Jun. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/attending-or-attention-is-the-first-preacademic-skill-3110440. Webster, Jerry. (2017, June 9). Attending or Attention is the First Preacademic Skill. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/attending-or-attention-is-the-first-preacademic-skill-3110440 Webster, Jerry. "Attending or Attention is the First Preacademic Skill." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/attending-or-attention-is-the-first-preacademic-skill-3110440 (accessed May 23, 2018).