Attending Skills & Getting Them to the Table

Before we jump into reading comprehension or paragraph writing, let’s scale WAY back. Let’s do a quick refresher on where to begin. There are a few important steps to take before we start increasing the complexity of the literacy tasks we are working on with our students. First, we want to get their attention. We want to get them to table. And by table I mean table, desk, carpet, bean bag, playground – wherever learning is going to occur. We need to make sure they are ready to learn.

There are some essential foundational skills that our kids need to know how to do. They need to know to attend to an adult. They need to know how to imitate, wait, respond to prompts, and changing responses based on feedback. Often times when we see our students struggling with more complex tasks, there can be a deficiency here. So today let’s get back to the basics and look at these attending skills.

It's ALL About that Reinforcer

I’m like a broken record sometimes on here but I can’t help myself. The reinforcer is the root of everything. A reinforcer consists of any item, person, or activity that increases the future likelihood of a certain behavior occurring. This first step of identifying a reinforcer is critical. If you forget it, you may have a hard time teaching that new skill. Once you identify those reinforcers, — USE THEM. Every time the child gets a correct answer, engages in a correct response, or displays a new skill – it’s a fiesta in your classroom. The goal is to create the connection: I do this behavior -> something awesome happens. That something awesome is reinforcement!


Pairing yourself as a reinforcer refers to associating yourself with items or activities that the individual finds enjoyable. You should work on establishing yourself as someone that the individual enjoys coming to. In the start of the school year, I am constantly saying, “be a chocolate chip cookie.” Everyone loves a chocolate chip cookie. I’d eat chocolate chip cookies all day if I could. So embrace that. Be that cookie. Check out this post for more information on pairing. And remember pairing is a process. It’s no one-and-done. In the start of the school year, you will likely need to do some pairing again. Some students benefit from use of pairing on a regular basis.

Joint Attention

We really want our students to start having shared attention with us. Joint attention is the ability to share a common focus on something (people, objects, a concept, an event, etc.) with someone else. It involves the ability to gain, maintain, and shift attention. When working on any academic task, the student and teacher both share their attention to the same learning material. Joint attention is nothing something that is learned overnight. Begin to assess if your student is struggling with this skill. Practice activities where your student both responds to requests for joint attention and requests joint attention himself.


Sometimes - Be Speedy & Easy

This sometimes goes against our instincts but you may want to try being speedy and easy. Keep your instruction fast paced with previously mastered tasks. Working on unmastered activities that require a lot of prompting may actually decrease attending. The student isn’t required to attend to complete the task because he is being prompted through most of the steps. Amongst all of these fast paced easy tasks, you can also sneak in a slightly tricky task with some success. This concept is called behavioral momentum and is an evidence based practice. If you want to get fancy it means “A sequence of high-probability requests issued immediately prior to a task-related request established a momentum of compliance that increased compliance with task-related demands.”


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