Troubleshooting Attention

This lesson will cover some of the most common troubleshooting scenarios one might encounter when trying to teach Attention. There are three general categories of problem scenarios that can happen:


  1. Checking the 3 Key Strategies of ABA are strong
  2. Addressing the issue of stimming (self-stimulatory behaviour) when a child needs to focus. 
  3. Environmental factors that affect attention.

3 Key Strategies of ABA

1. Break Skills Down

It is easy to get excited by wanting to teach a child a new skill quickly, that one moves too quickly or the skill is not broken down enough. Signs a child needs a skill more broken down is when they are stuck on the same step for very long. 


As an example, the skill of puzzles can be broken down by learning 2 pieces at a time, piece by piece, or even by starting with pieces on the edge first, before working on the center.


Breaking skills down requires a lot of patience, and sometimes takes a very long time, but pays off in the long run as it helps children feel successful, and keeps them from getting frustrated or giving up too quickly.


2. Practice

Is the child getting enough practice? Children who receive 35 hours of 1:1 ABA therapy from Mondays to Fridays may practice a skill between 6-7 times a day, with each time involving 3-4 trials in one sitting. This could equate to practising a skill up to 28 times a day, 140 times a week!


This may not be a realistic target for parents, but illustrates how important it is to incorporate practice wherever possible. Parents are encouraged to work together to identify as many learning opportunities as possible in a day, including natural opportunities for learning, such as giving a child a Matching task while preparing dinner.


3. Reinforcement

Reinforcement and motivation forms the most important foundation for learning. It must always be strong, and be something the child is willing to work for.


The harder the skill, the higher the reinforcement needs to be. One might also need to do constant motivation assessments, that is, comparing and trying out new reinforcers, just to make sure the child always has the best reinforcers.

Stimming Behaviours

There are many schools of thought when it comes to stimming. Some believe it should be encouraged, while others believe it should be reduced. For many children on the spectrum, stimming is a need and fulfills a sensory need.


The challenge is when self-stimulatory behaviours make it difficult for a child to learn or to focus. This is when it is important to identify the genuine sensory need and how to provide those opportunities in a more appropriate context outside of the learning time, or a way for a child to request for those sensory or stimming breaks. 


Find out more about how to find alternative replacement and expansion ideas for stimming behaviours in the Making Learning Fun series on Increasing Interests.


Whatever skill we practice more, we get stronger at. This includes stimming. Hence, the efforts of trying to improve attention can become twice as hard if only one hour a day is spent building attention, but a child spends another 8 hours of that day not engaging, or participating in self-stimulatory behaviour. 


1. Work out a schedule 

Work out a schedule for the child to follow every day, and try to include as many meaningful activities as possible. For example, try incorporating the many attention tasks they have learned into their day itself – so not only are they getting extra practice, they are not stimming instead.


2. Where stimming is high and motivation is low

There are also times where a child may not be motivated to learn at all or to do any functional task apart from participating in repeated or repetitive behaviours.  Set them up for success by targeting perhaps only 10 to 20 seconds of attention before allowing them to stim, and building up from there. At the same time, continue to do motivation assessments to find other sources of reinforcement.

Environmental Factors

There are several environmental factors that can affect attention. The more distractions there are, the harder it is for a child to pay attention.


Here is a list of some of the distractions that can happen:

  • Objects like colour pencils, erasers and books on the table.
  • Surrounding sounds, like the sound of the TV, people talking on the phone or walking back and forth. This can be particularly challenging for children with sound sensitivities.
  • Toys on the floor or out in the open.
  • Even colourful paintings and objects all over the walls, which can be distracting to some children.


Set a child up for success by initially minimising these distractions if not actively targeting them. That is, if a child is only working on doing a puzzle, focus only on puzzles. If they need to learn to tolerate distractions, make sure they have mastered the puzzle first, before incorporating distractions one by one. 


Start by increasing either visual distractions or audio distractions and then gradually introducing other children to the room. This will help build a child’s ability to attend amidst distractions, and what school will ultimately be like.

A Note on Screen Time

Try to be mindful of how much screen time a child is receiving on a daily basis. Excessive screen time is suggested to be linked to poorer language, attention span and listening skills (1).


The American Academy of Paediatrics (2) recommends children below 18 months receive no screen time, children between 18 – 24 months receive up to 30 minutes a day, and for children between 2 to 5 years old to receive up to a maximum of an hour a day.


If a child does get screen time, select good quality programmes that are age-appropriate for them. Better yet, try to participate with them and comment on what they are watching to build language. Try to avoid nonverbal cartoons as these may not promote language.


And very importantly, try to not allow them to watch the same videos or the same scenes repeatedly. Whatever we practice, we get better at. This includes watching scenes over and over, which can strengthen a behaviour or obsessive interest. 


Hence, these are the three main troubleshooting areas that might happen when teaching Attention:

  1. Ensure skills are broken down, get enough practice and reinforcement.
  2. Keep a child occupied throughout the day with meaningful activities to prevent opportunities of low attention. 
  3. Keep the environment clear of unnecessary distractions, and be mindful of how much screen time your child is receiving and what they are watching.

Your Turn

  1. If you are encountering any challenges with building your child’s focus and attention at home, check if any of the above areas could help address those challenges.

1. Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. (2016, August). Retrieved March 3, 2020, from
2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from