Attention Development

By Clare Carroll BSc., MSc., MIASLT, MRCSLT, National University of Ireland Galway.

Attention control is fundamental to all learning. Language learning requires a mature level of attention (Reynell, 1978). Clear stages in normal development of attention control exist according to Reynell (1978). Children progress through the stages of attention development. A child with a learning disability will need help to facilitate this progression. It is important to see what level your child is at and then focus on the activities for that level to help your child. The aim is to develop a child’s attention to facilitate their potential to learn language.

We need to know:

    • How much your child can listen to at any one time?
    • How long your child can concentrate for?
    • Whether spoken words, pictures, objects, or actions are most easily attended to?
    • Which situations are the easiest?
    • What their interests are?
    • How other people influence attending for your child?

Level 1

    • extreme distractibility
    • fleeting from one object to another
    • someone walking by will immediately distract them
    • normally in the first year of life

Level 2

    • concentrate on a task of his/her own choosing
    • will not tolerate any intervention by an adult verbal or visual
    • he/she may appear wilful but the attention is single channelled ignoring all external stimuli in order to concentrate
    • normally occurs in second year of life

Level 3

    • Attention remains single channelled
    • Cannot attend to auditory and visual stimuli from different sources i.e. cannot play and listen at the same time
    • Normally occurs in third year of life

Level 4

    • Child must still alternate his/her full attention (visual and auditory) between the speaker and the task but now does it spontaneously
    • Usually occurs in fourth year of life

Level 5

    • Child’s attention is now two channelled i.e. understands verbal instructions relating to the task without stopping to listen to the speaker
    • Concentration span may still be short, however may be taught in a group
    • Stage of school readiness

Level 6

    • Auditory, visual and tactile channels are fully integrated
    • Attention is well established and sustained
    • Mature school entry level


    • Gain attention before speaking
    • Simplify your vocabulary
    • Simplify your sentence structure by shortening your sentences, for example, “go and get your coat” to “get coat”.
    • Use language within the child’s level of understanding
    • Use visual prompts such as pictures, signs and gestures
    • Use the child’s interests and experiences to help them understand
    • Give the child time
    • Encourage your child to ask if they have not understood and to ask for help
    • Ensure all who interact with your child are aware of the child’s difficulties
    • Pay attention to the signals you use
    • ‘Pay’ attention to ‘get’ attention
    • Have a strategy for ‘getting’ & ‘keeping’ attention
    • People can’t attend all the time – schedule and take breaks
    • Try and change the circumstances to promote attention rather than concentrating on the person’s inattention


    • Number of items presented to a child will depend on their memory skills
    • Arrangement and number of items will be affected by the child’s ability to scan
    • Place the key word at the end of the phrase and emphasise
    • Gradually reduce the number of visual cues and physical prompts
    • Give the child time to consolidate his/her new skill through practice and reinforcement
    • Support the child through rewards and reinforcements

Helping a child at level 1

    • Keep instructions simple and task related i.e. using key words
    • Modelling by showing the child what to do
    • Modelling by telling the child what to do
    • Use prompts to gain eye contact and attention by using gestures and touch your child’s arm or guide face to look at you/object/person

Helping the child at level 2

    • Material rewards
    • Encourage attention to sounds, nursery rhymes, musical instruments
    • Encouraging choice between 2 to 3 objects
    • Ask the child to get familiar objects i.e. “I need a cup”.

Helping the child at level 3

    • Keep tasks short and simple
    • Prompt the child
    • Rewards must be intrinsic to the task
    • Clear instruction must precede the task when you have the child’s full attention
    • Copying actions or beats on a drum
    • Musical statues
    • Leaving words out of nursery rhymes
    • Pausing during well known stories
    • Matching sounds to objects and pictures

Helping the child at level 4

    • Give the child time to focus his/her attention before giving instructions
    • Prompt if the child gets stuck
    • Alert child by calling his/her name
    • Make child aware of your physical presence before speaking
    • Praise and encouraging keeping to the task at hand
    • Standing behind him and comment

Helping the child at level 5

    • Encourage child to work alongside another child or small group
    • Include child within classroom activities with the help of an assistant to prompt the child
    • Simon Says, “I went to the shop and I bought…”, bean bag game, Musical chairs
    • Increase number of objects/pictures requested


Cooper, J., Moodley, M., & Reynell, J. (1978). Helping language development: A developmental programme for children with early language handicaps. London: Edward Arnold Publishers.

Sindrey, D. (1997). Listening games for Littles. Worldplay Publications.

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