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What the Experts Say

Debbie Glasser, Special to The Miami Herald

Sometimes it sounds like there's an echo in our house.

"Please put your backpack away.''

"Please put your backpack away.''

"It's homework time.''

"It's homework time.''

"Don't forget to make your bed.''

"Don't forget to make your bed.''

The truth is, there are times when the best way to get my young children's attention and help them learn a new routine is to repeat myself - day after day.

But there's good news. According to researchers at McMaster and McGill universities in Canada, repeating may not be a last resort for harried parents but a useful and appropriate strategy to help children focus and learn.

While regularly asking the same thing over and over is not an effective (or recommended) way to communicate with kids, occasionally repeating a request - and introducing the same lesson more than once - may be just what young children need in order to learn new responsibilities and skills.

In a study published this month in Developmental Science, researchers found that the attention skills of children ages 6 to 10 are not yet at their peak proficiency.

"Young children often miss things that older children and adults more easily notice,'' said David Shore, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. "Their ability to attend to important details is still progressing.

"As adults, we attend to objects and information because we've had a lifetime of experience doing this,'' he said. "But young children need more time - and practice - to learn.''

As busy parents, though, it's easy to call out a hurried request to a child without taking the time to explain it. In fact, we may be in such a rush that we fail to notice whether we even have their attention. As a result, we may be inadvertently pushing our children to follow our pace, rather than allowing them to learn and progress at their own speed.

"We may expect that our kids `get it' as quickly as we do,'' Shore said. "But when we force them to keep up with an adult pace, chances are they're going to miss things.

"The key,'' he said, "is to slow down, be patient, and find opportunities to repeat important details.''

According to Sondra Pestcoe, third-grade reading teacher at Imagine Charter School in Weston, there are a number of things we can do to help our young children focus their attention and cue in to details.

Here are some suggestions:

* Get their attention. "With young children, it's important to make eye contact and ensure you have their full attention before asking them something important or teaching a new skill,'' Pestcoe said.

* Say it again. Don't get into the habit of repeating everything you say. But if you ask your child something that requires multiple steps - or you're not sure if your child fully understands what's expected of her - then repeat the request if you think it will be helpful, Pestcoe said.

* Offer prompts. "Because each child has a unique learning style, it may be helpful to introduce a request or lesson in a variety of ways,'' Pestcoe said. For example, when you ask your child to put away her backpack after school, you might accompany this request with a visual cue - like a photo of her backpack posted over a hook where she can hang it.

* Break it down. "Not all kids are multi-taskers,'' Pestcoe said. "Young children may benefit when you break down tasks into smaller steps.'' Instead of saying, "Clean your room,'' you might say, "Please put your clothes in the hamper.'' Then wait and say, "Great. Now, please put your shoes in the closet.'' In time, your child will be able to clump tasks together on her own. In the meantime, suggested Pestcoe, start slowly and help your young child gradually build on these skills as she grows.

* Clarify. "Young children can be literal,'' Pestcoe said. "Don't assume that they understand exactly what you're asking. Be clear and specific.''

* Be positive. "When children follow through with a task - and when they master a new skill - give plenty of positive reinforcement,'' Pestcoe said.

* Give them time. Experts agree that each child develops at his or her own pace. "Sometimes the best approach is to slow down and take a pause,'' Shore said. "Wait a minute - or even a few seconds - and give your child time to process information. Sometimes, that's all they need.''

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of NewsForParents.org, an online newsletter for parents.

She can be reached at debbie@NewsForParents.org.

Published: August 27, 2006
Copyright (c) 2006 The Miami Herald

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