When "paying attention" fails...try being present.

How many times have you asked a child to "pay attention"? If you are like most adults who interact with children, you have probably uttered these words numerous times. Attention is vital for life skills, academic tasks and creative endeavors, and it is essential for meaningful social interaction. Paying attention is an expectation in a school environment, and it is perceived as a sign of respect. Yet even though we teach our kids many things, like how to ride a bike, how to brush teeth, how to add and subtract, and how to tie shoes, very few adults ever explicitly teach a child how to pay attention or explain in detail what it means. 

The phrase, "pay attention" is a popular cultural expression. By adolescence and adulthood, we typically figure out what this means. But to children, the phrase can be ambiguous and even misleading. Once, I was working with a child who had a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and when we talked about paying attention, he said, "but I don't have any money!". It was an eye-opening moment for me, because many children are very literal in their interpretation of common figurative expressions. 

Both children with disabilities and typically developing children struggle with the ability to resist distractions and maintain the focus necessary to "pay attention", and this may be more difficult when they do not quite understand what exactly they need to do to pay attention. In addition, adults often expect a child's attention (e.g., when giving a child an instruction) during a time that the child is not able to give it. This can look like noncompliance, when it may indeed be that the child hasn't heard the instruction, or is engaged in another thought or task and is having difficulty shifting from that task to listen. 

However, when children have an experiential understanding of the skills and behaviors necessary for attention, they are better able to do so when task demands require attention. In addition, many children have difficulty requesting attention from other adults, and may interrupt or request attention in an inappropriate way (e.g., whining, screaming). In the OpenMind program, we call paying attention "being present" and we help children to learn this skill with a practice called Are you present for me?

This practice involves teaching children to request another person’s attention by asking if the other person can be present. Asking a person Are you present for me? sends out a signal that her attention is being requested. It also teaches the child that it may be necessary to wait for the other person to be present if she is engaged in another activity or with another person.

  1. When first introducing the practice: Explain to the child what being present means by doing a demonstration, e.g., pretend to be looking at a phone screen and ask the child to ask you a question while acting very distracted; then ask the child if you were being present. Children are very adept at noticing when an adult is not being present!
  2. Next, discuss what being present means (i.e., looking, listening, pausing, being quiet and opening one's heart)Demonstrate, discuss and/or practice each of the 5 components of being present.
  3. Emphasize that being present for another person makes the other person feel valued and respected. 
  4. After defining and practicing what it means to be present, repeat the role play above while being present for the child.
  5. Explain that people can’t always be present for everyone, all of the time, but that there is a way to ask if someone can be present by saying, “Are you present for me?”. Next, tell the child that if the teacher, adult or peer they are asking says, “yes”, she can ask for help or assistance or start talking. If the other person says “no”, she will tell the child when she can be present,e.g., I can be present right after I finish cleaning up this water that spilled.

The phrase present for me implies looking, listening, being quiet, and pausing for another person. Once children have an understanding as to what this means, an adult can use this expression to include these expectations with very few words. Often children who have problems with attention or working memory (i.e., holding onto information long enough to use it) also have difficulty when adults use too many words.  

After the child has shown understanding of what it means to be present, use it during the rhythm of life to request the child's attention. For example, before asking a child an important question or giving the child a direction, ask her if she is present for you. It is also important to teach a child how to know if another person is or is not present for her. For example, if an adult is talking to someone else, the child may need to wait until there is a pause in the conversation to request the adult's attention. 

Some children need additional practice to build the focus skills and awareness necessary to be present for others. The Target Tracker is a hands-on tool we use to help children practice this skill.


If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them below.

If you have enjoyed this post and think that it may benefit others, I would be grateful if you would share it via email or Facebook.

-Dr. Monica Jackman, Little Lotus Therapy 



1 comment

  • Love this theory! Esp for my ADHD twins, this phrase seems more meaningful! I will give this a try for sure!!
    Thank you!!!


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