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OT Corner: Homemade Solutions for Attentional Difficulties

By: Loren Shlaes, OTR/L
Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique

You can go a long way towards improving a child’s ability to cope by eliminating toxins from his environment, making sure he eats nutritious food, and gets plenty of sleep and exercise.

  1. Suggest to parents that they take the child to the playground for a quick workout before school starts and make sure that he gets daily vigorous exercise. If a child is not getting outside to play every single day, this could account for at least part of the problem if he is having a hard time sitting still.  Children need to move, to work on coordinating their minds and bodies, to use their hands, and to solve problems. Sitting passively in front of a television or video game is not an appropriate way for the child to spend more than an hour or two, at the very most. If a child is inside due to weather problems, suggest to parents that they have other options available besides the TV or computer. Good ideas include board games or cards, cooking together, wrestling, dancing to music, making a craft project, or building a fort or obstacle course out of sofa cushions. Have the parents turn off all electronic devices like Blackberries or cell phones during “together times” so that they can give their children their full attention.
  2. Make sure the child has a regular bedtime, and that he is getting ten or eleven hours of sleep at night. A bath with Epsom salts, which draws out toxins, can help with the transition for a child who has trouble falling asleep. So can eliminating computer time right before bed. Call a halt to all computer use at least two hours before bedtime.
    See that the child’s room is well ventilated, and that he is not wearing synthetic pajamas or sleeping on synthetic bedding. Keep the visual stimulation in the place where he sleeps to a minimum. No TV or video games in the bedroom. The less electronic equipment in there, the better. Keep radios and alarm clocks on the other side of the room, away from the the child’s head. Turn the lights out.
  3. Consult with parents about eliminating processed foods from the child’s diet and making sure that the child is eating a varied diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Breakfast and lunch should contain complex carbs and lean proteins so that the child’s blood sugar stays stable during the day.
  4. Reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in the child’s environment. Suggest that commercial cleaning products be replaced with baking soda and vinegar. There are many websites with information on how to clean just about anything with these two substances. Switch to unscented laundry detergent and get rid of dryer sheets. Switch to natural personal care products like soap and shampoo that do not contain artificial scents.
  5. Have the child evaluated by a neurobehavioral optometrist to check for eye coordination problems. If you can’t see what you’re doing, especially for close work, it’s very hard to sustain attention.
  6. Help the child learn to deal with stress by using breathing exercises and yoga. Bubbles, blow toys, and whistles require sustained exhalation, improving respiratory capacity in a playful, functional way. Many special needs children are not great breathers, so any work you do on the breath is helpful. Shallow breathing makes it hard for a child to pay attention by starving his brain of oxygen and putting him in a chronic fight or flight mode. Teach the child some simple yoga postures, like child pose and downward dog, or try the “hook ups” from Brain Gym.
  7. Make sure the child drinks plenty of water.
  8. Work on improving the way the nervous system functions by having the child participate in brain/body coordination activities like Brain Gym, yoga, martial arts, and sensory integration. Learn how to teach exercises for postural reflex integration. Poorly integrated reflexes, especially ATNR, have been implicated in many learning and attentional problems.
  9. At school, make sure that the child is not sitting with his back exposed. A corner, where he can be niched, is best. At circle time, he should be seated near the teacher with a support for his back, either in a chair or with his back against a wall. He should have an inflatable cushion, like a Disco Sit, available. A piece oftheraband tied around the legs of his chair will also give him something to kick against, which will allow him to sit still while providing deep input. He should have movement breaks, things to chew on, water, and discreet fidget toys available when he is having a hard time keeping his arousal levels up. If it’s difficult for him to eat his lunch in a noisy, chaotic cafeteria, would it be possible to have the school arrange for him to eat in a quiet classroom?
  10. Sit down with parents and help them structure homework, which can be overwhelming, even for neurotypically developing children. Have them provide the child with some vigorous exercise before starting, a drink of water, and a nutritious snack. Make sure the child’s chair allows his feet to touch the floor, the table height is well below his chest, and that the lighting in the room is good. Suggest an inflatable cushion and a slant board to use at home if those things are helpful for him at the clinic. Go over assignments and do the hardest ones first while the child still has the ability to focus. Break the time up into discrete segments, like ten minutes, and then offer the child a one minute movement break of his choice, such as spinning in an office chair, dancing to music, wrestling, jumping, etc. Give the child something to look forward to when he is finished.

Featured Author: Loren Shlaes, OTR/L

Many thanks to Loren Shlaes for providing us with this article for our newsletter and website.
Loren Shlaes is a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration and school related issues, particularly handwriting. She lives and practices in Manhattan.

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