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The connection between attention and learning to speak

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Are you concerned about your child's attention span?

Reeman is 3 years old. He is a busy child, always on the go. He is not saying many words yet. His parents are worried about his delayed speech. Why is he not speaking yet?

Attention and listening skills are key to learning to speak. We all assume that children's attention spans will improve as they grow older. However, some parents whose children have attention difficulties know that this is not always the case. These children, even though they can hear perfectly well, struggle to use this to 'listen'.

Attention and listening difficulties can cause a range of problems, or it can be a part of various diagnoses. Children with significant attention and listening difficulties could be diagnosed as ADD or ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorders or Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders). Children who go on to get a diagnosis of autism will also have attention difficulties of some sort.

Children with attention difficulties are often slow to speak. Some children, when they speak, will have articulation (pronunciation) difficulties. A common error is where the child might just say the first half of the word and move on to the next word. Children with attention difficulties are also commonly perceived to have behavioural difficulties. This is partly from the child struggling to attend to an instruction and partly from him struggling to carry out all of it.

What can you do if your child has these problems?

First, check to see how much screen time your child gets. We now have an overwhelming amount of evidence to say that children who are exposed to a lot of mechanical/digital sounds on TV or on phones, struggle to develop language normally. If you are one of those families that constantly have their TV turned on through the day, turn that TV off.

Once you've cut out digital/mechanical noises from your child's environment, replace this with human speech. Talk to your child. Use short interesting sentences to give your child a running commentary of what you are doing, or what he is doing.

Build a structure to your child's day. Consistent routines with clear time markers are absolutely essential if your child has attention difficulties. Use advice on this blog to add structure to your child's day.

Organise your child's play for him. Children with attention and listening difficulties tend to flit from activity to activity. It is therefore essential that you offer your child a small number of toys to play with. When he seems to have finished with those, have a transition activity (which is typically, just tidying up). Then give him another set of toys.

Plan to spend some time with your child. While of course, you have to cook, clean or go to work, budget some of your time to spend with your child. You can spend this time playing, reading a book or doing some chore where he participates with enthusiasm (for example, dusting the house).

Slightly lower your expectations. Until your child learns to regulate his attention, it is likely that you will find his behaviour difficult. So plan in advance which behaviours are allowed and which are not. Lay down clear guidelines about these and stick to these.

Children with attention difficulties do better when they are allowed good amounts of outdoor play. When you want your child to sit down and work with you, first exercise him. Take him out and let him run and play.

Keep your activities short and sweet. Don't choose a 100 piece puzzle to do with your child when he cannot still do a 10 piece form board.

If your child's attention difficulties are significant or his speech delay is significant, talk to a professional about it. Attention difficulties can be managed through several behavourial modification techniques; and the earlier you start, the better for your child.

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