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Motivating Attention
Published April 9, 2018

By Heather L. Paul, M.Ed., BCBA, BSL

In today’s world with so many distractions, it seems almost impossible to get someone’s attention, especially our kids'. We are competing with cell phones, other handheld devices, social media - you name it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a parent say their child is underachieving in school or won’t listen at home. Having your child follow basic tasks of daily living can be a challenge and even more so for children with special needs. So how can we motivate our children with autism and promote attention?

What drives motivation?

Let’s consider the four ‘R’s’ of Motivation:


Building a relationship with your child is vital to their success. A positive relationship with your child helps to build trust, cooperation, and communication. The stronger the bond with your child, the more likely they will associate you with positive interactions and feelings, which will ultimately help to promote cooperative behavior.


Think about what you are asking your child to do. Is it important? Is it meaningful? How will it benefit their life and social relationships? There should be a general understanding of what the child is doing and how it will impact their life. For example, if your child has limited social skills, setting a goal for them to name the 50 states, may not be as meaningful as teaching them how to say hello to their sibling or peer.


Is what you are asking your child to do reasonable and obtainable? Set goals that your child can meet within a reasonable amount of time and goals that meet your child’s individual needs. Do not compare your child to their siblings or peers. They are their own unique person, working towards their own distinctive goals. Progress should be measured by skills the child is learning not by what others are doing. For example, when teaching your child to do laundry, a reasonable first step would be to teach them to place their dirty clothes in the laundry basket. You can then add steps as the child completes each task successfully.


Rewards are ways of recognizing and supporting your child’s achievements and should be specific and individualized to your child’s interests and likes. For example, children who seek attention may be motivated by praise or by completing a special activity with their parent. Remember, praise should be specific to what the child is doing i.e. “I like how you put your clothes in the basket,” rather than general and non-specific i.e. “good boy" or "good job.” You may also praise successful attempts as well: “Good try putting on your pants by yourself!” Other times, an activity or external reward such as a tangible item, game, etc. may help to motivate your child. The rewards do not have to be monetary in nature or extravagant. Many times, children respond well to earning 10 minutes of extra game time, a special snack, or story time.

An important consideration: If your child is already engaging in a desired behavior, you do not have to reward them. In fact, excessive rewards may actually backfire and reduce a child’s motivation to do something. For example, if you provide your child with candy for using the toilet, when they are already doing so on their own, this may take away some of their pride or confidence that they are able to go to the bathroom by themselves. You want your child to do something because it benefits them and they feel proud and good about doing it - not because they are earning a treat or reward. However, before children get to this point, they may need some of those "external" rewards to motivate them and give them that little push to respond.

How do we promote attention?

Let’s look at the four ‘M’s of attention:

Minimize distractions

When providing directions to your child, make sure the environment is quiet and free of distractions. (That includes you! No phones.) Turn off the TV and put the phone away. Make sure you have your child’s eye-contact, they are facing you, and you are providing directions within an arm’s length from your child. The fewer distractions, the more likely you will capture your child’s attention.

Maintain consistency

Children learn through repetition. Keep a predictable daily routine, plan ahead, give yourself plenty of time to complete your daily routine and tasks. Running late or having little time to do a task can create unnecessary stress and chaos. In addition, be consistent as a parent. If you want your child to do something, have them do it every day. That way they can learn and feel successful. If you are wishy-washy or inconsistent, your child will be less likely to cooperate and listen.


Watch your voice and how you communicate with your child. Be respectful when speaking to your child. Use a calm tone of voice or firm voice when presenting instructions or directions. If your child is yelling or speaking loudly, the best approach would be to lower your voice, even use a whisper to gain their attention. You may even have to kneel to make eye contact. If your child does not respond, stay patient - sometimes waiting them out is the best solution. For example, “I see that you’re upset, and I cannot talk when you’re yelling. I’ll wait until you are ready.” While you are waiting, remove any distractions, toys, etc. and wait until they are ready to listen before you engage.

Model expected and positive behavior

This is similar to you modeling a proper "mood." If you want your child to calm down, model being calm. Take a deep breath, use a soothing voice, close your eyes for a minute. If your child is not doing something you want them to do, show them how to do it. Example, “Do this: You take your clothes from the hamper and place them in the basket. Your turn.” Praise and support your child when they respond. The best way you can promote positive behavior is to show them how to present positive behavior. Show, teach, and praise. You are your child’s biggest influence and supporter!