So Easily Distracted!
Feb 25, 2013 by


When our children are very young we start off interacting with them, singing and talking and cooing to build an emotional bond, enjoyment and language skills. This is of paramount importance for any infant, even more so for a child with Down syndrome. Most infants respond with smiles, laughing, babbling, and face seeking behavior and this reinforces our efforts of interacting and make us more likely to continue. These interactions are useful and should be happening but there is another aspect of the young child’s development about which parents should be aware.

Many young children with Down syndrome find it difficult to focus on an activity (or object) for a long period of time when there is social interaction to be had or some other distraction. I see it often- 20 month old playing with a toy and then she hears talking so she stops to focus on the people rather than the toy. Most young children are serial processors; they can only attend to one thing at a time. Children with Down syndrome are serial processors for a longer time. It takes a while to learn to filter out irrelevant stimuli in the environment and if social stimulation is something you like a lot then it is hard to drown it out.

The other part of this is that I often see parents allow their child to disengage from a toy or activity and even begin playing or chatting with them because that behavior is reinforced for the parent. Thus, the focus or goal was for the child to interact with the toy (e.g., complete a puzzle) and two minutes into the activity the child disengages and the parent allows it. To extend that attention span, and help the child learn to multitask a bit (and filter out extraneous stimuli) we need to help the child learn to stay on task. If a child is usually spending about 2 minutes on a puzzle, then I will try to extend the time by about 10 seconds by encouraging the child to go a bit further.

One thing I do a lot when I am trying to teach a child to focus on the appropriate stimulus is to shield her eyes from the distraction. If people start talking and the child looks in their direction, I might put my hand up as a shield to block their view of the people talking. In doing this, I will try to redirect her attention back to the task. One of the dangers is my becoming a distraction so I will make sure to not make eye contact or talk excessively. Sometimes simply blocking the distracting stimulus is enough. I might tap the activity (e.g., the puzzle) as a prompt if necessary.

All young children have to learn to filter and choose what to attend to but we can make it harder if we constantly reward distractions by letting the child look away and then make it pleasurable by engaging in pleasant social interactions. Doing puzzles and other such activities should be fun and rewarding and will be, when the child learns to complete one. My concern is that if we keep allowing the young child to be distracted that it will take her a much longer time to learn to do so. Once she is completing puzzles and can focus on the salient stimulus, she can multitask and chat with you at the same time (unless she is a he. lol!)

© Ann Wheeler, DSC 2010.