Ready, Set, Learn!

Strategies for Working With Children With Attention Disorders


Tommy plays soccer. Adrienne is in her school district’s magnet program for gifted children. Carlo is a dynamite baseball player. Jill wants to be the first girl to slam dunk in her league. Eric plays football. All of these children and their peers know the discipline of practice and using strategies for success. One of these children may also be learning how to manage his or her attention disorder.

Children with attention deficit disorders (ADD) have a very difficult time staying focused, attending to relevant language, and attempting to participate in meaningful discussion. They come to religious education after a full academic workday or before or after their extracurricular pursuits. Time and time again, we insist that they sit for quiet discussion, listen to their peers without comment, read with ease, and pray without distraction. Though this is sometimes difficult to do, we should form expectations of their behavior that are consistent with those of their teachers and families. Bright and capable children with attention deficit disorders need their catechists to use good teaching strategies to help them learn, remember, and share.

There are a number of things you can do to help them be READY to manage their own behaviors and poise them for a successful learning experience.

You can set up an environment that will foster their success. The kind of environment in which children with ADD do best is one in which there is structure and in which expectations are clearly communicated. Given this, you can help by clearly articulating rules and directions in positive productive language.

You can also help children to be READY by breaking down assignments and activities into smaller, less complex units, affirming children as they complete each part. In addition, pairing a child with ADD with another child can help him or her remain on task.

The children need to have a READY position for learning, and you can help them demonstrate this. Determine with your group the importance of attentive posture—whether they are sitting in a chair at a table or desk, sitting on the floor cross-legged, or standing in procession. If you have children participating in sports, dance, or cheerleading, invite them to demonstrate their ready position skills as they prepare to play or perform. A READY position also entails having safe hands, so you will want to help the children demonstrate these—working within the boundaries of their personal space and using pencils, pens, or other handheld objects for their intended purposes.

Be sure to reward their READY position often—at least five times during an hour session. Primary age children still delight when rewarded with stickers. Intermediate age and junior high students accept the challenge of leadership when it is expected and noted verbally or with a “high five,” “thumbs up,” or affirming eye contact.

Help the children maintain the READY posture by changing your teaching position in the room. “Tracking the talker,” is a learning strategy that helps all the children focus on the important language of the session, internalize it, and express comprehension. If the children are seated at desks in a traditional classroom environment, make sure you move from side to side, and weave in and out of critical space so they will follow you and be READY for questions, recall, and sharing. If your group gathers around a table, make sure you stand and move around the learning space, keeping good eye contact with each child. You will lose their attention if you stand in the same place for too long. Tracking you will help them stay on task and remember the important message of God’s Word.

Children with attention disorders will respond to simple, well articulated, and consistently managed strategies such as the following:

  • place the child near your desk or seat with his or her back to the other children if possible
  • try to eliminate distractions (seat the child away from windows, air-conditioner units, AV equipment, and so on) and provide only those materials needed to complete the task at hand
  • alert the child to upcoming changes and transitions in activities
  • when asking a question of the child, begin by calling the child’s name and then pausing so that you have his or her full attention
  • state directions clearly and repeat them
  • try to be patient and focus on rewarding good behavior rather than punishing poor behavior

Finally, communication with parents of children with attention disorders is essential. Talk to your catechetical leader about the best way to facilitate such communication. By working together with parents and your catechetical leader, your religious education sessions can begin discipleship-training by helping the children to be READY to hear God’s Word and welcome it into their hearts and minds.