Identifying Children with Attention and Listening Difficulties

Development of attention and listening

Pupils with learning difficulties all experience problems with attention and listening. These difficulties will impact upon all aspects of their learning and communication. The degree of difficulty varies with each individual and the situation e.g. individual versus group.

Humans are programmed from birth to respond to faces, people and human voices. Developmentally, within the first year, pupils begin to differentiate between sounds, background noise and voices; however those with learning difficulties, who remain at a preverbal stage, continue to work towards basic stages of visual attention (e.g. attending to faces) and auditory attention (e.g. responding to voice). It may never be realistic for certain pupils to be able to independently shift or
maintain attention.

Pupils experiencing problems with attention and listening may therefore exhibit any of the following:

  • Poor response to their name being called
  • Requires physical/verbal prompts to gain their attention
  • Requires physical/verbal guidance to start a task
  • Requires physical/verbal guidance to remain on task
  • Highly distractible by environmental stimuli e.g. sound/movement
  • Shows patterns of self distraction in tasks not of their own choosing
  • May not offer visual attention to tasks/objects/people
  • Does not respond to instructions in a small group setting that they are able to respond to in a one-to-one situation
  • Attention levels to a task may vary from fleeting to sustained

Attention levels with strategies and activities

**Pupils with autism show atypical development of attention and listening. They may miss stages or go through stages in a different order, or develop some but not all of the skills. Visual attention may be significantly better than auditory attention. Social listening (face to face or in a group) is usually more difficult than listening to obtain facts.

Strategies to encourage joint (shared) attention

Check focus
Redirect focus
Map language

  • Say the pupil’s name first.
    *see below - A word of caution!
  • Check that the pupil is looking at your focus of attention before you speak.
  • If the pupil is not looking where you are looking, try:
    • waiting a little longer for the pupil to refocus his attention
    • repeating name + touch pointing the focus (e.g. picture in book)
    • telling the pupil where to look e.g. Look at the book/Look at Mrs X
    • changing your focus to the pupil’s focus and start by sharing that
  • Map your words onto the joint focus of attention (whether yours or the pupil’s).
  • Use language within the pupil’s level of understanding
  • Speak slowly
  • Pause for longer than usual between key words or short phrases to give the pupil sufficient time to process what you are saying
  • Wait even longer if you want the pupil to listen and to respond

* A word of caution!
Sometimes pupils ‘switch off’ on hearing their name. This can happen when a pupil’s name has been over-used for demands, redirections or prohibitions e.g. (John shoes on! or John go inside! or John no biting!). To re-establish a pupil’s response to their name, only use it when drawing attention to motivators or fun activities. Restrict the use of the pupil’s name in this way until response to name is re-established. Then gradually reintroduce other reasons for calling the pupil but keep within the ratio of 3 motivators/fun activities to 1 demand, redirection or prohibition.

** This is used throughout the document and refers to puplis with autism

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Last updated: 21 October 2015

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