Four Tips on How to Reward Sustained Attention and Effort

One of the methods I use to encourage myself on tasks such as writing an article or a report is to reward myself with a cup of coffee or a snack, but I don’t get the reward (at least the vast majority of the time) until I have completed the task. Knowing that there is a reward at the end of a task helps me become a bit more focused and efficient in completing my work. This is even more important when I am engaged in a less desirable activity such as emptying the dishwasher, when delaying the reward really helps me to get things done. After MANY years, I have developed enough self-control to use rewards to sustain my attention and effort – but your kids may not!

If you are a parent who has also served as your child’s teacher over the last few months, finding ways to sustain his attention and effort is likely to be an important goal. Some of the simplest strategies and rewards – such as food – can also be the most effective to promote him finishing his work. Of course, I would not suggest restricting food from your child, as proper nutrition is necessary for attention. Finding ways to use food and other rewards to improve attention and task completion is easy. If you can get your kids to internalize this approach for themselves, it becomes even more powerful. 

  • Here are four tips to reward sustained attention and effort:

    Use “Grandma’s Law.” Psychologists call it the Premack Principle, the concept that people usually perform a less desirable activity if it leads to a more desirable activity in the end. For example, parents employ the Premack Principle when they tell their children they can have dessert after they have eaten their dinner. Help your child to employ this strategy on his own by arranging activities he enjoys following chores he finds to be boring. Talk about being motivated to finish a mundane task quickly in order to watch a favorite television show, read a book, or go outside. Encourage him to think of examples of ways he might efficiently use this type of incentive to complete homework or chores. 

    Provide healthy snacks to assist and reward attention.  Paying attention requires energy and good nutrition. Keep a supply of nutritious, high-energy snacks for your child. Fresh fruit, granola bars, and other healthy snacks can help with starting homework or as a reward for completing it. 

    Increase your child’s motivation for focus and attention through regular encouragement. Positive notes sent by the teacher and commented on by his parents could motivate him to keep up his school work. Offering a positive acknowledgment when he is on-task could promote an increase in his ability to focus. To support him with self-motivation, ask him about his work and how he feels about the way he completed it.

    Encourage your child to break tasks into small pieces that can be completed in one sitting. For example, work with him child on increasingly more complex jigsaw puzzles that are age-appropriate. A 10-year-old might start with a 100-piece puzzle and, after success with that, move up to a much larger puzzle with 500 or 1,000 pieces. Encourage him to sit for sustained periods to work on the puzzle. It might also be useful to break up the puzzle into components, so that each of you is working on a different part. Discuss how breaking up a large task such as a puzzle may be similar to working on steps towards completing a long-term project at school or finishing all homework by doing assignments for one class at a time. 


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